The seventeen-year war in northern Uganda has been characterized by great brutality by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), as documented in Human Rights Watch's 1997 report, The Scars of Death: Children Abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army in Northern Uganda, and later publications. The atrocities increased in 2002, but international attention has been distracted by less savage emergencies. A Ugandan peace effort, spearheaded by the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI), has not broken through the parties' desire for a military solution.
The latest effort to bring the war to a close by military means has failed as well. In March 2002, Uganda's army, the Ugandan People's Defence Force (UPDF), launched Operation Iron Fist, a military campaign intended to wipe out the LRA by attacking its southern Sudanese sanctuaries. Instead the conflict inside northern Uganda intensified. The LRA-which draws its recruits, mostly abducted children, from the Acholi population of northern Uganda-evaded the UPDF in Sudan and moved back into Uganda in June 2002 where it has stepped up its abduction, killing, looting, and destruction aimed at civilians and their property.
The UPDF responded with massive forced displacement and increased arrests. The victimized northern population became more alienated from both sides, and less hopeful about the future, than ever before.
This report, a follow-up to the 1997 study, details the deteriorating situation in northern Uganda today. Dozens of eyewitnesses and civilian victims provided Human Rights Watch detailed accounts of the renewed devastation being wreaked by the conflict, particularly on children. Since June 2002, the LRA has abducted approximately 8,400 children, resumed its despicable practice of mutilating people it believes to be affiliated with the government, and targeted religious leaders, aid providers, and other civilians. It has expanded the war's reach beyond northern Uganda into the Soroti area of eastern Uganda.
One thirteen-year-old boy was abducted together with his four brothers in 2002 and he escaped. Others were less fortunate, if this can be termed "fortunate": he reported that
Although the Ugandan government has an obligation to intervene to end such abuses, government forces themselves have been responsible for human rights violations, including cases of torture and rape, summary execution, and arbitrary detention of suspects. Government investigators have pursued some cases of abuse by UPDF soldiers, but prosecutions have languished and wrongdoers continue to enjoy virtual impunity. Both the UPDF and the Local Defence Force (LDU) have recruited underage boys as soldiers.
The history of the alienation of northern Uganda from the government of Yoweri Museveni, and government forces' abuses in the north, may partly explain why some northern Ugandans tolerate or assist the LRA in their midst, despite its atrocities. This tolerance, and fear of LRA retaliation, is evident from the widespread dispersion of LRA forces and the inability of the UPDF to achieve a military solution.
The Ugandan government's forced displacement policy also has contributed to the suffering of northern Ugandans and their resentment of the heavy-handed and ineffective way the UPDF wages war, at their expense. On October 2, 2002, the government ordered thousands of civilians in the affected areas of Gulu, Kitgum, and Pader districts (Acholiland) to relocate into "protected" camps. This had been tried before, in 1996. In early 2002, there were still more than 500,000 civilians internally displaced in northern Uganda. By the end of 2002 and as a result of the LRA's stepped up attacks and the Ugandan government's October 2 displacement order, this figure had increased substantially, to more than 800,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), or approximately 70 percent of the population of Acholiland, a staggering proportion of IDPs.
Despite these measures, the government has been unable to provide sufficient security and assistance to the population to offset the economic disruption caused by massive displacement. Insecurity in the form of LRA ambushes and attacks on World Food Programme (WFP) and other relief vehicles hampers the delivery of humanitarian aid, and the WFP is under funded.
Since 1994, the LRA's only known supporter has been the Sudanese government, reportedly in retaliation for the Ugandan government's support of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). Both sides deny that they are providing material support to the other's rebels.
After the LRA was declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State in late 2001, however, the Sudanese government quietly claimed it had cut off supplies to the LRA; it sought to improve Sudanese-U.S. relations. This purported assistance cut-off was short-lived. After the LRA helped the Sudanese government recapture the Sudanese garrison town of Torit from the SPLM/A in October 2002, arms and ammunition-including anti-tank landmines-flowed again from the Sudanese side to the LRA. This happened despite LRA killing and looting of Sudanese civilians in southern Sudan and in refugee camps in Uganda.
Despite the tragic situation the war has created, there is no silver bullet solution for the seventeen-year conflict. But the situation may change soon, as the Sudanese government and the SPLM/A are engaged in serious peace negotiations supported by the U.S., the U.K., and Norway (the "Troika"). If the Sudanese conflict ends, it should no longer be necessary for the Sudanese and Ugandan governments to engage in retaliatory arming of each other's rebels. The Troika must assure that any Sudan peace agreement provides guarantees for cessation of all cross-border rebel assistance.
Although the LRA claims that it has prepared for this eventuality by stockpiling weapons and ammunition, it stands to loose its sanctuaries across the border in Sudan and its main arms and ammunition supplier. The LRA may again become willing to negotiate, as it was in mid-2002 after the Sudanese government reduced or eliminated its assistance.
At this point it will be up to the donors and others in the international community to press the parties to find an end to the conflict. The difficulty then may be to persuade the Ugandan government to abandon its efforts for a military solution, and to improve its relations with its northern citizens by improving its human rights performance.
In the meantime, the U.N. secretary-general should appoint a special envoy to negotiate the release of the abducted children from the LRA. The Sudan peace talks may not succeed, and the 8,400 children abducted from June 2002-May 2003-who have not already been murdered or escaped-require urgent release from captivity, together with the thousands already in LRA hands. The Sudanese government must end all forms of support for the LRA, both directly and indirectly, not on account of any promises by the Ugandan government, but because of the LRA's long record of gross abuses of human rights. The LRA should release all abducted people in its custody and cease abductions and attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure.
The Ugandan government must put an end to abuses by its armed and security forces. It must promptly and publicly investigate complaints of their abuses and punish those found guilty. Donors should fully fund relief efforts. They should insist that the UPDF provide proper protection for civilians and relief convoys in northern Uganda, and not condition protection on payment for fuel and food, which is all too frequently done. Donors should encourage the Ugandan government to devise creative and attractive solutions to demobilization, and impress upon it the need to end the suffering in northern Uganda, keeping in mind that seventeen years of military solutions have not brought peace.
One major justification for Operation Iron Fist was the rescue of abducted children held by the LRA at its bases in southern Sudan. But during June to December 2002, the number of LRA child abductions (5,000) was two times greater than the number of abducted children rescued by the UPDF (2,227).
The number of civilians-many very young-killed, injured, and abducted by the LRA, and the extensive property destruction, are not the whole story. The LRA's brutality to its victims is shocking. From the beginning of the LRA's activities in northern Uganda, children and adults it abducted frequently have been beaten into submission to serve as LRA soldiers. Many are given weapons training and some are forced to fight against the UPDF and, inside southern Sudan, against the SPLM/A. All have to porter heavy, looted loads over long distances.
Young girls must work long hours fetching water and firewood, gathering food, and performing domestic duties for LRA commanders. After they reach puberty, girls are forced into sexual slavery as "wives" of LRA commanders. They are subjected to rape, forced pregnancy, and the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.
LRA abductees -adult and child-are threatened with death if they try to escape, and these threats have been carried out in the thousands since 1994. Children are forced to beat, club, or trample to death other children and adults who attempt to escape.
The threat of LRA abduction makes children fear for their safety. Each night, thousands of children pour into Gulu, Kitgum, and Pader towns (Acholiland) from surrounding areas, hoping to avoid abduction. They seek refuge on verandahs, in the bus park, on church grounds and in local factories before returning home again each morning. They receive little assistance, and are vulnerable to theft, sexual assault, and other abuses from other children and adults.
The UPDF and other government-related armed groups have contributed to fear and insecurity in northern Uganda. UPDF soldiers have arrested scores of civilians, with little evidence, on suspicion of rebel collaboration; some of the detainees are supporters of the unarmed political opposition. Suspects of treason or terrorism (death penalty crimes) are kept in detention without bail and without cause shown for up to 360 days. In practice this period is longer. There are also cases of UPDF torture, ill-treatment, and rape: in January 2003, UPDF soldiers severely beat a surrendering sixteen-year-old LRA child soldier so much that he was sure his backbone had been broken. He reported, "I was tied in the three-point way and kicked. I really regretted my decision to surrender. [LRA leader Joseph] Kony told us that the UPDF will kill you and I felt it was true." In another case, two UPDF soldiers captured a girl aged thirteen and a nineteen-year-old woman returning from working in the fields; each soldier raped both the girl and the woman and both contracted the HIV virus from the rapes. Although the soldiers' names were reported to the UPDF, it appears the only government response was to transfer them to another garrison.
Paramilitary groups created and armed by the government or its officials, such as the Kalangala Action Plan (KAP), headed by the senior presidential advisor Kakooza Mutale, engage in harassment and unauthorized arrest, and sometimes kill civilians. All levels of government deny that they control the KAP and other paramilitary groups, making accountability almost impossible.
The brunt of the war is borne by the civilian population, in terms of homes destroyed, goods stolen, children abducted and brutalized, family members killed and raped, all of which has reduced the more than one million Acholi inhabitants of northern Uganda to a state of destitution and despair. Many wonder about their future. Sixteen-year-old John W., a former LRA child soldier abductee made an orphan by the LRA, said, "What disappoints me most is the future. Some seem to have things to do here, and a place to go, but for me, the future is blank. . . ."
Absent a major impetus from outside Uganda, the war in northern Uganda will continue at this heightened pace, cruelly destroying families, schools, lives, and hope-especially affecting the young. The case for international action on behalf of this stricken area could not be stronger.