LONDON (AlertNet) - More than 20,000 children forced to serve as soldiers and sexual slaves. Gruesome massacres and mutilations. Up to 2 million people driven from their homes into camps where they live in fear and squalor.
Few horror stories rival the humanitarian crisis in northern Uganda, where a cult-like rebel group has been terrorising local people for a generation. It's a tale of astonishing suffering and massive displacement -- and all taking place in a country hailed as one of Africa's development success stories.
Yet northern Uganda's nightmare has been largely ignored by the international community, even as the humanitarian crisis in neighbouring Sudan generates hand-wringing worldwide and a steady flow of headlines.
In an AlertNet poll of experts conducted in March 2005, northern Uganda emerged as the world's second-worst "forgotten" humanitarian hotspot after Democratic Republic of Congo.
So what's going on in this neglected emergency?
Brutality and more brutality. For almost 20 years, a religious group called the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has been waging war against the Ugandan government and carrying out horrific attacks on villages, towns and camps for the internally displaced.
The group's modus operandi is to abduct thousands of children, forcing them to fight, carry supplies and serve as sex slaves to LRA commanders. Rights groups say the children live in constant fear for their lives. Many are forced to perform terrible acts of cruelty, including the slaughter of other children, or be killed themselves.
More than 20,000 children have been kidnapped to date. Child soldiers are estimated to make up 80 percent of the LRA's fighting machine.
It's not only the children who live in fear. In addition to battling government forces, the rebels are targeting the wider Acholi population, the largest group in northern Uganda. Sexual violence, mutilation and massacres are common. Up to 100,000 people have been killed since the conflict began.
In its war against the rebels, the Ugandan army has ordered almost 90 percent of the population of Acholiland -- made up of the Gulu, Kitgum and Pader districts -- into camps. The camps lack food and clean water and are vulnerable to LRA attacks.
In this way, between 1.8 million and 2 million people have been uprooted from their homes, according to aid agencies. That's about the same number as are displaced in Sudan's Darfur region.
What on earth is the LRA trying to achieve?
Aside from trying to overthrow the government, most analysts say the rebels have no clear political objectives.
The group is led by a former altar boy and self-proclaimed prophet named Joseph Kony, who managed to turn resentment towards the national government into an apocalyptic spiritual crusade that has sustained one of Africa's longest-running conflicts.
So it's all down to a bunch of religious fanatics?
That's the easy explanation, and one that helped the international community ignore the crisis for almost 20 years. But there's more fuelling this disaster than far-out religious beliefs, and it's important to understand the dynamics.
Take Sudan's involvement. Since 1994, Uganda's northern neighbour has been backing the LRA with weapons and training and letting it set up camps on Sudanese soil.
It's probably safe to assume the Sudan government has scant interest in Kony's spiritualism, which, according to a report by relief group World Vision International, superficially blends elements of Christianity, Islam and traditional Acholi beliefs to psychologically enslave abducted children and instil fear in local people.
Sudan's real interest lies in getting back at Uganda for allegedly supporting southern rebels during its own 20-year civil conflict.
But why is the LRA targeting the Acholi people?
It's confusing, especially when you consider that LRA leaders are themselves Acholi. Flash back to 1986 when President Yoweri Museveni, a southerner, seized power at the head of a guerrilla army. The northern conflict actually started as a response to the coup and loss of Acholi power on a national level.
But it didn't take long for the LRA to lose local support. Analysts say rebels then switched focus from fighting Museveni to targeting the Acholi population as a whole, both to discredit the government and force local people into submission.
How is the government responding?
With an iron fist. In 2002, Museveni launched a military campaign aimed at wiping out the LRA for good. Rebels responded by scaling up child abductions and attacks on civilians. Some 10,000 children were seized in about a year. The number of displaced people more than tripled from around 500,000.
It was around this time the phenomenon of "night commuting" came into being. Relief groups estimate that every evening some 50,000 children, fearing abduction, walk from rural areas to towns such as Gulu to find relative safety in bus shelters, churches or on the streets.
Sounds like the government crackdown isn't helping...
There's no doubt the humanitarian crisis has worsened since the launch of "Operation Iron Fist". More than 800,000 Ugandans in government-run camps now rely solely on aid from groups such as the World Food Programme and Médecins Sans Frontières.
Meanwhile, the enduring conflict, which has spread to the east, threatens to undermine gains made in Uganda after the bloodshed and economic chaos of the Idi Amin and Milton Obote years.
At stake are Uganda's dramatic reductions in poverty and HIV/AIDS rates, and possible instability in a part of Africa with no shortage of destabilising forces. HIV/AIDS rates in war-affected areas are almost double the national average, while malnutrition rates are soaring. World Vision estimates malnutrition rates among displaced children at 7-21 percent.
The country's move towards democracy could also hang in the balance. Museveni banned political parties in 1986, but government officials, under pressure from international donors, have vowed to lift restrictions ahead of elections in 2006.
Now some analysts say Museveni is using the conflict to subdue political opposition in the name of "the war on terrorism".
Here's how the International Crisis Group (ICG) puts it: "As long as the situation in the north is dominated by security matters, the monopolisation of power and wealth by southerners is not put into question."
For its part, the government says it is close to defeating the LRA, but the massacres and abductions by the rebels have continued.
Both sides have stepped up attacks following the breakdown in early 2005 landmark peace talks aimed at ending one of Africa's longest-running conflicts.
Aid groups say the government is not doing enough to protect civilians. They accuse Ugandan forces of using gunships indiscriminately and failing to rescue rather than kill children abducted into LRA ranks.
Human Rights Watch says the Ugandan army and allied paramilitary groups have recruited children as fighters and arrested and tortured civilians on suspicion of collaboration with the LRA.
Would capturing or killing Kony end the crisis?
It's hard to say. The ICG says Kony's centrality to the LRA's tactics and purpose, along with reported leadership tensions, means the insurgency could perhaps be split if he is isolated or removed. But World Vision's recent report warns that a new leader could easily take his place, accessing secret weapons caches.
So what's to be done?
Rights groups are adamant that all parties must agree that no solution can be purely military.
The ICG recommends combining a military and negotiating strategy, while recognising the limitations of both. It says northerners' grievances should be addressed to make the Acholi feel more integrated into Ugandan society.
In the meantime, relief and rights groups say the Ugandan government and international community must give priority to protecting children and civilians. They also urge greater pressure on Sudan to stop giving the rebels a safe haven.
The International Criminal Court can also play a role by investigating crimes committed by any party in the conflict, although some experts say this could discourage LRA leaders from giving up arms.
The world court is currently probing massacres blamed on the LRA, such as a February 2004 attack in which 200 people were shot, hacked and burned to death.
Where can I read more?
The International Crisis Group's Northern Uganda: Understanding and Solving the Conflict provides a comprehensive overview of the conflict and makes concrete recommendations to all parties.
Human Rights Watch provides essential background and rights reports in its Uganda section.
For a focus on children, see the International Rescue Committee's Children Targeted in Uganda's Horrific, Overlooked War.
See also the World Food Programme's Huge numbers facing food shortages amid violence in northern Uganda.
World Vision's new report, Pawns of Politics details the historical roots of the conflict and examines the human and economic costs of the crisis.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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