Fear and apathy feed war in northern Uganda

By Daniel Wallis

GULU, Uganda, June 8 (Reuters) - Eight people are shot, hacked and beaten to death and their bloodied corpses dragged to the middle of a dirt road for aid workers to find.

Six other fatally wounded victims are left lying nearby, screaming in agony. They die hours later.

After nearly two decades of bloodshed, Ugandans are asking why atrocities such as this May 27 attack by Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels still plague the traumatised people of the north -- and why they seem to have been forgotten by the world.

The answers are many, experts say, prominent among them the LRA's expertise in the psychology of fear. Terror is a tactic it employs to advantage in a war against the government and the northern Acholi people that appears to have no clear objectives. Many of the Acholi are too afraid to inform on the rebels, and the LRA also play on the profound local belief in witchcraft to underpin a widespread conviction that rebel leader Joseph Kony has supernatural powers.

Years of interference from Sudan, Ugandan army corruption, lack of international attention and a traumatised fatalism among war-weary local people also help the conflict drag on.

This year the rebels have stepped up their attacks against remote displaced communities amid the swamps and tall grass dotted along the Ugandan border with southern Sudan.

The plight of 1.6 million people forced to shelter in squalid camps has received scant world attention compared with headline-grabbing crises like Darfur, the Indian Ocean tsunami and the war in Iraq.

Uganda's army said this latest attack near a camp in Kitgum district proved the LRA was on the verge of defeat.

"This was another desperate action by the rebels to prove that they still exist," said army spokesman Lieutenant Tabaro Kiconco. "We condemn it and we will punish those bandits."

The military often says it is close to beating the group, whose self-styled prophet/leader Kony is in hiding in southern Sudan. But residents and aid workers say it remains much too dangerous for people to begin going home.

In Gulu, the number of people -- mostly children -- who trek every night from outlying villages to the relative safety of the north's biggest town to take refuge in bus shelters, churches and on the streets has nearly doubled to 18,000 in recent weeks.

LRA fighters moving swiftly on foot through the dark have kidnapped and killed people around Gulu during that time, and sometimes the rebels have entered the suburbs, residents say.


For months, President Yoweri Museveni has said the "Kony problem" is either "finished" or "being finished".

He blames the length of the war on neighbouring Sudan for supplying the LRA during the 1990s. But he also blames the donor nations who fund half his budget and who imposed defence spending caps after Uganda became embroiled in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) conflict in the 1990s.

Museveni says the United Nations was silent as Khartoum sent arms, uniforms and food to LRA bases near the border, using Kony's fighters as a buffer against their own southern rebels and encouraging the LRA to wreak havoc across northern Uganda.

But residents say his military must take part of the blame for failing to defeat an enemy now thought to number just a few hundred fighters -- alongside hundreds of abducted children forced into its ranks to serve as soldiers and sex slaves.

Amid local media reports the army spent millions of dollars a year paying thousands of non-existent "ghost soldiers", many supposedly "deployed" in the north, residents in Gulu say senior officers have profited from the conflict.

"You see the wives of these soldiers driving new Landcruiser Prados," one woman told Reuters. "You see their husbands in the bars drinking every night. On their salaries?"

Uganda's army says it is carrying out wide reforms, and officials say a "ghost soldiers" probe, which led to the court martial of high-ranking suspects, demonstrates a new culture of transparency in the armed forces.

"It shows this army has the capacity for self-cleansing," said Museveni's spokesman Onapito Ekomoloit. "A lot of officers have been put on trial. This is a story of yesterday."


Fear has also perpetuated the fighting in one of Africa's longest-running and least understood wars. The LRA are notoriously brutal. Fighters slice off victims' lips or ears to make walking examples of "collaborators".

Parents who have had a child kidnapped may not want to tell the army where they suspect their child is held for fear they could be killed in a shootout.

Many Ugandan soldiers believe the stories that Kony uses powerful witchcraft and can turn himself into an old woman or a wild animal when cornered.

Tales of his many escapes into the thick forests of the north have hit morale, as have shortages of basic kit in some units that observers blame on corruption.

Many of the army's troops do not speak Acholi, the language of the LRA and the population it preys upon.

Political problems remain. Museveni, a southerner, has never won widespread acceptance in the north, where he faced rebellion even before the LRA, by followers of his predecessors Milton Obote and Idi Amin.

The LRA has been weakened by the surrender and capture of several officers in recent months, and by the death of others.

But it is believed to have substantial hidden arms caches, and many in the region believe the conflict could grind on for another decade without more international attention.

The LRA has never spelled out detailed demands beyond wanting to liberate northern Uganda's Acholi tribe, although it is the Acholi who form the bulk of its victims.

A glimmer of hope emerged last December when government officials and LRA commanders held their first face-to-face talks in a decade at a secret location deep in the bush. But they broke down and are now in effect stalled.

Museveni denies wanting to prolong the conflict, and appears to resent pressure from Western donors to talk to people he has branded "fools" and "bandits", and whose rebel group is on a U.S. list of "terrorist" organisations.

Some say efforts to build trust have also been undermined by pressure from the International Criminal Court to indict Kony.

Many northerners say that keeps Kony from surrendering: As long as he believes he will be punished for his crimes he will not give himself up. Many think that he should be forgiven through a government offer of amnesty.

Another part of the problem, analysts say, is that the war was long seen as an internal dilemma that could be solved by a country held up as an example for development in Africa.

In a recent poll of experts by humanitarian news website Reuters AlertNet, Uganda's war ranked as the world's second-worst "forgotten" emergency, second only to conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo that has killed millions.

Residents feel abandoned by an international community they say is more focused on crises in Sudan and the oil-rich south.

Tom, a businessman reading a newspaper outside his nephew's hardware shop in Gulu, said he wanted the outside world to know of Northern Uganda's plight and feared for the children who will grow up knowing nothing else.

"If you don't tell the world about our suffering, this will go on and we will have a whole generation who are so violent and traumatised."

For more information about northern Uganda's conflict and other humanitarian news, visit Reuters Alertnet email: +44 207 542 9484


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