The conditions under which hundreds of thousands of displaced Acholi people are kept in “protected villages” in northern Uganda may violate UN guidelines on the treatment of displaced people, according to a report by members of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI).
The authors of the report said the continuing “detention” under “appalling conditions” of about 301,000 displaced civilians in camps in Gulu District, when barely 200 rebels had been sighted in the area over the last 18 months, might well constitute a violation of the UN’s guiding principles on displacement. In all, there are an estimated 480,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in northern Uganda.
These “Guiding Principles” - a non-binding but influential document presented to the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1998 by Francis M Deng, then Representative of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), set forth the rights of IDPs and the obligations of governments and insurgent forces in all phases of displacement. That document provides guidance on protection against arbitrary displacement, on situations of displacement, and on post-conflict return and reintegration.
According to humanitarian officials, the principles were the first cogent attempt to define what protection should mean for IDPs, when displacement is impermissible, and the guarantees that should be applied when displacement occurs.
The ARLPI report “Let My People Go”, based on interviews with 900 IDPs at 24 camps in Gulu District, condemned the inadequacy of the ‘protection camps’ for IDPs in relation to the provision of food, education, health facilities and sanitation.
Gulu has an infant mortality rate nearly twice that of the rest of Uganda , according to figures presented at “Standing Together for Peace”, an ARLPI-organised peace conference at the Alokolum Major National Seminary in Gulu in late July.
At that meeting (which brought together Christian, Muslim, military and lay leaders from Uganda, and - for the first time - Christian leaders from southern Sudan), Major James Kaija, intelligence officer of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) 4th Division, based in Northern Uganda responded to the report by arguing that the insecurity in the region had compelled the government to establish the protected camps. He said landmines laid in villages far from main roads had not yet been cleared.
However, distrust of UPDF activities in the region ran high at the conference, with ARLPI programme coordinator Lam Oryam Cosmas describing Kaija’s role at the meeting as that of a spy.
“Let My People Go” cited the complaints of some camp residents and MPs representing the region that security for the camps was inadequate. In most cases, they said, the residents’ huts were either to far from military detachments for protection to be immediately available, or too near, thereby placing the IDPs first in the line of fire in the event of a rebel attack.
Led by self-proclaimed mystic Joseph Kony, the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has been fighting a guerilla-style war against Ugandan government forces since the late 1980s, ostensibly in a desire to have Uganda ruled according to the Ten Commandments of the Bible. The militia frequently attacks IDP camps, looting goods and abducting people to carry them or serve as fighters.
More than 100 participants at the Gulu conference shared their experiences of 15 years of insurgency by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and the actions that communities and individuals were taking to promote peace. Participants condemned the atrocities committed by the LRA, while lamenting that the war’s biggest blow may be economic, development in Acholiland (Gulu, Kitgum and Pader, formerly eastern Kitgum) having come to a standstill.
The LRA had created a guerilla army consisting mostly of children abducted and forced to fight or otherwise assist the rebels, according to Sister Angelina Acheng Atyam, founder of the Concerned Parents’ Association, an advocacy group for the plight of abducted children based in Lira District.
Atyam spoke of her discussions with a number of escaped abductees, who reported the high proportion of kidnapped children - estimated at between 75 and 90 percent - in the ranks of the LRA. Of an estimated 9,000 children kidnapped by the LRA, more than half were still unaccounted for, and presumed dead or in captivity, she said.
The LRA, originally composed of the remnants of the Uganda People’s Democratic Army (UPDA) opposed to President Yoweri Museveni at the beginning of his leadership in the late 1980s, then enjoyed wide support in Acholiland, according to Lam Oryam Cosmas of the ARLPI.
However, the LRA of today, which killed and tortured civilians, and abducted children with no coherent motivation or political agenda, had no support from the Acholi community, he added.
Ugandan participants at the Gulu conference assumed an attitude of forgiveness and reconciliation towards the rebels, according to observers.
With a member of the LRA High Command in attendance, Justice PK Onega, chairman of Uganda’s Amnesty Commission, explained that all rebels who surrendered to the government could seek amnesty and resettlement in their homes.
“We have seen the military option followed for 15 years, and it hasn’t ended the war,” Onega said.
Insecurity continued to be a major factor inhibiting movement and work within Gulu, Kitgum and Pader districts, UNOCHA reported in early July. Although amnesty talks between the government and the LRA commenced in April, the number of civilian and combatant deaths in the districts had actually increased since then, as well as the frequency of engagements between the UPDF and LRA, it said.
In addition to criticism of the LRA, the ARLPI report cited complaints by camp residents of irresponsible behaviour on the part of UPDF soldiers. Women reported that venturing into the countryside entailed the risk of rape by either soldiers or rebels. Because residents were generally unemployed, soldiers possessed most of the available money and resources, which empowered them to obtain to sexual services from destitute women, the report said.
Elders in Palabek Kal camp, Kitgum District, reported that as many as 60 married women had left their husbands and eloped with soldiers last year.
A report distributed at the conference also called into question the Ugandan army’s commitment to the country’s Amnesty Act. Father Tarcisio Pazzaglia of Pajule Mission, Kitgum District, had twice arranged to meet LRA rebels over the past three months to discuss the amnesty offer but the army attacked and injured amnesty-seeking rebels, despite having been alerted to the nature of the meeting, delegates were told.
Major Kaija said those attacks should be viewed as isolated acts, and pledged to sensitise soldiers in the region to the contents and intent of the Amnesty Act.
After hearing southern Sudanese representatives recite a litany of atrocities committed by the LRA in southern Sudan, Angelina Acheng Atyam expressed fear that the people of southern Sudan were bitter, and would resort to killing LRA rebels who were only stealing food out of desperation. She called on the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), which controls much of the area, to grant an amnesty to the LRA.
Aid officials with Operation Lifeline Sudan [OLS, a multi-agency consortium working to deliver humanitarian assistance to vulnerable drought- and war-affected populations in Sudan] were working hard to convince the SPLM/A that many of the LRA fighters it engages in battle are children forced into fighting on pain of death, and that they should be treated accordingly when captured, according to relief workers.
During the Gulu conference, Sudanese religious leaders assured the Ugandans that they too were doing everything in their power to ensure that abducted children who escaped from the LRA in southern Sudan were handed over to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Bishop Paride Taban of the New Sudan Council of Churches (NSCC) stated his intention to establish a refuge for escaped children in Torit, Eastern Equatoria.
At the close of the conference, delegates vowed to continue their campaign for peace in the region and to establish a forum for Ugandan and Sudanese religious leaders to meet regularly to promote this goal.
Atyam said the conference gave her hope, but not immediate hope. “Who cares that they [the abducted children] eat now? That they might die today?” she asked.
Less than a week after the conference, President Museveni announced that government troops had crossed into southern Sudan and killed 23 LRA rebels. He did not indicate how many of the deceased were children or Acholi abductees.
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