Uganda

Uganda: After the LRA, now come Karimojong warriors

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By JULIUS BARIGABA, Special Correspondent

Rose Lakot, a former Lord's Resistance Army abductee is now a district councillor in northern Uganda.

Ms Lakot, 54, was abducted in June 2002 during an LRA raid at Mucwini village where the rebels killed 56 people. She spent three months in the jungles of northern Uganda and Southern Sudan, under LRA rebel commander Raska Lukwiya.

"I witnessed people being killed once they got weak and could not walk any farther. A club, or a blow of some other heavy blunt metallic weapon to their skull, is what they used. No bullets to waste," she said.

But for all her trauma, she is willing to forgive the rebels in the interest of peace for the northern region.

She now lives in an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp with the home of returning to her home once peace is restored in the region.

But as the Uganda government negotiates peace with the LRA, another monster lurks in the hilly region. The vacuum left by the ceasefire agreement signed between the warring parties last year has been filled by Karimojong warriors.

The warriors stage raids on the IDP camps stealing cattle and destroying anything they come across.

Despite Ms Lakot's willingness to forgive the rebels as, indeed is the spirit of many others in the IDP camps, the dream of returning home can hardly come true unless the Karimojong menace is tackled.

Humanitarian agencies operating in northern Uganda say there are over 1.6 million internally displaced people, all victims of the 20-year-old conflict.

As the government and LRA negotiate a peace deal in the Southern Sudan capital Juba, people living in the camps say the peace deal can only work if the Karimojong issue is stemmed.

"If the president minds about the people of the northern region, then he must forgive Kony," said an elder told John Holmes, chief of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, who visited northern Uganda recently. "And then we have a problem of the Karimojong. If you people are here to help us then you must help us so that these problems end."

Mr Holmes spent a night and two days in the cold, muddy and wet camps of Namokora and Labworomor in Kitgum district.

Two days before Mr Homes' visit, the warriors raided Namokora camp and stole property. Two weeks earlier, they had killed four people in the same camp - two soldiers of the Uganda People's Defence Forces, a local clergyman and a woman.

In an interview with The EastAfrican, Mr Holmes conceded that the warriors are a big problem to the total return of peace, but said the government of Uganda was solely left to tackle this.

"I know some people were killed a few days ago. I agree, the warriors are a problem, but this is not a problem of the United Nations. It is a problem of the Uganda government," said Mr Holmes.

To the locals, that sounds like another dagger driven through their backs. Why will the UN help them remove one group of killers, can't protect them from another equally dangerous group, they ask?

According to Mr Holmes, the UN keenly monitors the peace process in Juba and is committing money to the talks, but several IDPs interviewed by The EastAfrican said even if the peace talks succeeded, their returning home depended on a total disarmament of the Karimojong.

Kellen Okoyo, 65, whose village is three miles from Namokora camp, said she does not get enough food rations to support her family of 22.

Otherwise she would prefer to go back to her village and work on her farm to raise more food. Unfortunately, her farmland is a field of play for the Karimojong - literally.

"I can't go home. It is too close to the border with Karamoja. I would have gone to my village last year when the war stopped, but we have a problem of these Karimojong. They come at night, loot everything and, if you have nothing to loot, they kill you," she said.

This is basically why camps like Namokora, which is near the Oromo hills and holds up to 17,000 IDPs is yet to be decongested; the authorities know the danger posed by the warriors.

Okot d'Oryang, 78, said, "Let these people not just think about LRA leader Joseph Kony. They should end this problem now. We don't want to leave the camp and die at the hands of the Karimojong. We want to go home and start our lives again."

According to Father Guido Menotti, a Catholic priest who has spent 26 years in the area, any IDP camp beyond Namokora toward the Karamoja area is a sure death trap, because it would be more vulnerable to warrior raids than any other.

The government has in the past launched disarmament programmes, but not many guns have been surrendered.

Former LRA captives met Mr Holmes in a closed meeting, and he later told the press that they had a lot of "emotional stories to tell." They felt bitter about their situation - having been made to fight their own kin.

Mr Holmes said, "They are being rehabilitated. But they still feel bitter. Most important though they want to see a successful peace process and to see the LRA forgiven and reintegrated into the community."

Children that were abducted by the LRA ended up as child soldiers, while the girls were subjected to sex slavery. As a result, the government rounded up civilians and placed them in camps. A generation of Ugandans has now been raised in the camps.

With no serious economic activity taking place in the region for decades, the north has sank to low levels of poverty. According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, the national average poverty figures are 31 per cent but at 62 per cent, northern Uganda sets regional records.

For a few months now, most of northern Uganda has had a break from the LRA.

Peace talks brokered by Southern Sudan vice president Dr Riek Machar have been going on in Juba since mid last year, albeit with a few setbacks.

To date, there is only one agreement - the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement singed in August 2006.