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The Road to Kitgum

27th October 2007

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National Student writer James Van Gils visited northern Uganda and spoke to those affected by the devastation of 18 years of civil war..

The road to Kitgum is a combination of dirt, potholed tarmac and terrifyingly fragile bridges over swollen rivers. We are heading from the peace of Southern Uganda to the north of the country - still technically an active war zone.

As we trundle northwards the increasing proximity to the Sahara can be felt as the lush, tropical green rolling hills of palm trees and red earth gradually give way to savannah's of grasses and yellow sandy soils.

Standing on a hill in Kitgum I can see a vast expanse of flat grassland that abruptly becomes the Agoro Mountains. Behind this mountain range lies the Sudanese border and the Lords Resistance Army.

The LRA have been waging a guerrilla war against the Ugandan government for the last 18 years. They claim to base their 'struggle' on the twin ideologies of traditional spiritualism and Christianity, but some assert that it is the loss of political power from the north that has spurred them into action.

LRA commander Joseph Kony proclaims to be a spiritual medium and allegedly wants to establish a state based upon the Ten Commandments and Acholi tradition (those of an ethnic group in northern Uganda). However, as their funds have dried up the organisation has become progressively more desperate and has largely turned their attention to the nearby villages.

They are accused of widespread human rights violations, including mutilation, torture, rape and the abduction of civilians.

One would guess that Kony has a shaky grasp of the biblical scriptures as the LRA has relied heavily on the use of child soldiers and child sex slaves. Abducted children often have to watch their parents being killed as a way of hammering home the message 'your old life is gone, your new one is with us'.

The young girls who are kidnapped are forced to become concubines for LRA commanders or are sold to Sudanese warlords in exchange for weapons for their brutal campaign.

One former child soldier Onencan Wilfred told me how his father was killed when the LRA abducted him; he was only nine at the time. He was taken to Sudan for training, and thereafter was involved in looting, killing and abduction of other children. He says that he was not involved in the rapes that took place during this time - as he had not even hit puberty.

After a two year ordeal with the LRA they began to trust him and whilst on patrol he was ordered to pick cassava (a root vegetable) from a field whilst the rest of his platoon did a forward sweep. They were ambushed by government troops and Wilfred immediately saw his opportunity for freedom, and he fled.

After returning home he spent a month with 'World Vision' in a rehabilitation centre (many are in such centres for a year). He is 19 now and is clearly scarred by the experiences of his lost childhood. To make matters worse his mother died in 2003 and so as the oldest family member he has had to look after his 3 younger siblings.

In order to cope he has been forced to put them all in an IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp. Amongst the squalor of the refugee camp they are given food by the World Food Program which consists of not much more than powdered chick peas. This clearly is not enough and he supplements his siblings' diet by working as a casual labourer and builder.

For this work he earns 4,000 Ugandan Shillings a day (approx. £1.20 [a can of coke costs USh1,000]). He says that if he goes to Sudan for a week he can earn an extra USh1,000 a day (£0.30). However he takes a great risk for the extra income. He enters illegally and is faced with an armed population that is hostile to Ugandans who are willing to work for less. To top it all off when he travels back to Uganda people are well aware that he has a week's wages on his person - he is a tempting target for thieves. Wilfred has to endure these immense risks so that he and his family can eat.

During the war it is estimated that 1.5 million people have fled their homes. Many of whom, like Wilfred and his brothers and sisters, are still living in IDP camps fearful of LRA attacks and subsisting on handouts from the WFP. It was in one of these densely packed camps that I met Kanutu Amaya.

Kanutu is a WWII veteran who fought with the British as a medical officer in the East African campaign. When the war ended he left the army as he never wanted to be in a war again. Sixty years later he is languishing in a squalid IDP camp as a consequence of war.

When I asked him what he does everyday, he responded, "I just wait". At 104 years old I do not need to ask him what he waits for.

While the Ugandan government and the LRA are in peace talks, people are hopeful but cautious that the 18-year war can come to an end. Some suggest using traditional justice as a way of cleansing Kony of evil spirits (many child soldiers go through this process as a way of rehabilitation and forgiveness). The Ugandan government prefers this option and so to does Kony (as he then will not have to face a criminal court).

The alternative is the International Criminal Court (ICC) who have issued an arrest warrant for Kony and the rest of the LRA command. The LRA says that they will never surrender whilst the warrants are out.

When I broached the subject of justice to Kanutu he became adamant that the ICC should arrest Kony and try him for his crimes. But in doing so they could potentially prolong a war that has lasted almost two decades, causing more pain and suffering for the people of northern Uganda.

The question is: What price should Uganda pay for peace?

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