Feature - Eastern Teso region stands up to the LRA

[Uganda] Ugandan army spokesman Shaban Bantariza says the LRA is difficult to track down.
Ugandan army spokesman. Shaban Bantariza. (IRIN)

When rebels came to attack Roseland Ibuga’s village, 10 km north of Soroti town, she was ready. Rosalind already knew they would attack - they had told her so themselves.

“I first met the rebels the night they came to attack Soroti town,” she recalls. “They came to our village and told us to hide. They were kind to us then because they thought the Iteso would join them. But they said they would come back soon and if we hadn’t risen up against the NRM [ruling National Resistance Movement], we would be killed. But the Iteso will never join them.”

Thanks to the fortunate warning she was able to hide. Every night for seven nights she slept out in the bush – hidden amongst tall shrubs and mosquito infested grassland, a several hundred metres from her home. When they finally came, she was nowhere in sight.

“Since that night, I slept in the bush every night, fearing to return home until morning,” she told IRIN.

Her only regret is that her choice of sleeping quarters left her within earshot of the heinous attack that the dreaded foot soldiers of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) launched on her village. Rosalind heard everything. She was forced to listen as the LRA killed eight of her fellow villagers one by one.

She tried in vain to plug her ears as chilling screams and the staccato of gunfire cracked the night air. “My uncle was killed in the attack," she said. "And some of my friends. But this war has nothing to do with us.”

THE HUMAN COST

The cost of Uganda’s 17-year-long civil war on the lives of innocent people is hard to estimate. So dramatic has been the impact of the LRA’s recent spate of attacks on civilian targets that assessing the full extent of the damage is a tricky business. But the latest World Food Programme figures for September suggest that some 1,217,332 Ugandans have been displaced by LRA activity in the north and (more recently) the east of Uganda.

This compares with previous estimates only a few months ago of around 800,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). Many of the newly displaced are from eastern Uganda’s Teso region, which was first targeted on 15 June this year and has since suffered an LRA siege of vast bits of its countryside.

The attacks have brought economic activity in some parts of the region to a standstill and the majority of those displaced by the LRA have been reduced to begging on the streets or near-total dependence on very limited food aid.

Glancing at the truly desperate state of the region’s numerous camps for IDPs, it is easy to forget that the LRA insurgency a new phenomenon for the Iteso. Their introduction to this armed gang could scarcely have come at a worse time.

Three months ago, Teso was not only secure but developing nicely. After suffering its own rebellion under the fractious Uganda People’s Army (UPA) in the 1990s, which nearly brought to Teso to its knees, things had been steadily improving.

In the last two months, stakeholders in Teso’s development have been forced to watch as much of the work they have carried out towards helping the region recover starts to unravel.

“We run a school in Kaberamaido district with about 200 children,” says Mark Palin, head of Agape Education Trust, a local organisation working to improve the quality of secondary education in Teso. “Now the school is closed and all of our teachers are hiding.”

“After the insurgency of the '90s that ruined so many lives, our motto was ‘never again’,” recalls Katawki district councillor and chairman of Kaperebyong sub-county Julius Ochen, “Now it seems we are suffering something far worse than the UPA.”

WORSE THAN EVER

Teso’s residents and its 240,000 new IDPs agree that the LRA experience is worse than anything the Iteso have suffered before. The cruel nature of the LRA attacks – with its seemingly mindless killing of civilians, its looting and burning of homes and the abduction of children – is something the Iteso were simply not ready for.

“They’ve never had it like this,” says Father Okello, head of the Teso Initiative for Peace. “Even under UPA, they were not forced into such desperate circumstances as these IDP camps. The UPA simply didn’t terrorise people like this.”

The poor humanitarian situation has been compounded by a severe shortage of food or medicine in areas where Teso’s IDPs are camped. “The big problems here are food and malaria,” says Eugine Okello, a 75-year-old resident of Soroti church camp. “Children are dying everyday of malaria and from colds because there isn’t enough clothing.”

“Yet in spite of this, we prefer to stay here than go home and risk being murdered," he adds. "I have been abducted four times by the rebels but they let me go because I am too old to be of use.

"But they still killed some of my family and burned my home. Even our village school was burned down by the rebels”.

MILITIAS FIGHT BACK

It is from this desperate scenario that a local Iteso militia has risen up against the LRA. Local residents say it is having a lot of success in taming the insurgency. In a few weeks since they became active, the so-called “Arrow Boys” – a rag-tag bunch of angry young vigilantes with AK47s – have apparently restored a measure of order to Teso.

Using guns procured from the Ugandan military, the Arrow Boys have relentlessly hunted down Uganda’s LRA rebels. Enraged and determined, many of them have lost their own children to LRA attacks in the last three months.

Military sources say the Arrow Boys have captured a number of LRA fighters and forced many others back into their hideouts in the extreme north of the country or neighbouring Sudan. Such has been their success that even local peace groups and church organisations are rallying around the militia calling for more arms to help them fight the LRA.

“Our trick is to track what they [the LRA] do,” says Arrow Group commander Sam Otai. “When they split up into smaller groups to try and lose us, we do the same. We track their every move right into the bush until we catch them.”

The fight back is not without its risks. This week, 10 Arrow Boys were reported killed along with eight civilians when the LRA launched a surprise attack on Asamuk sub-county in Katakwi district. Yet almost everyone who lives in Teso says they are glad the Arrow Boys are there to protect them.

“We respect what they are doing in the name of defending the Iteso,” Father Okello told IRIN. “Things are definitely stabilising since they started their operation. They really want to end this thing.”

Should the rebels eventually be pushed out of the east by the group, the question remains whether Teso’s angry youths will be persuaded to lay down their arms. Many of the Arrow boys were themselves once part of the UPA which tried to bring down the current government from 1987–1993.

But army spokesman Major Shaban Bantariza says the Arrow Group is now fully under government control.

“Every bullet they have is accountable to us," he points out. "We have helped them mobilise and we will ensure that they demobilise when we have helped them rid eastern Uganda of the terrorists.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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