Uganda: Battle to stay alive in northeast

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

NASINYONOIT, 23 January (IRIN) - The struggle to feed a family in an extremely harsh environment has taken its toll on Maria Loumo, leaving her angry at the men in northeastern Uganda's Karamoja region who are not able to support their families.

"I get up early in the morning and start looking for wild fruit and leaves since that is the only thing I can do to feed my family. Life here is very harsh. We cannot cultivate food because the soil is bad and the insecurity is high," she says through an interpreter. After collecting the fruit, Loumo has to look for firewood to cook the meal - a difficult task given the semi-arid terrain.

"We look for firewood because the food requires several hours of boiling to get rid of its bitterness," she explained. "My life has become a continuous fight for survival where insecurity caused by repeated cattle raids has left the residents in the middle of a battleground."

Up by dawn, Loumo has to make do with wild fruits, leaves or twigs for food because of the devastating drought. Recently, she was among the hundreds of women who braved a scorching early afternoon sun for a food donation from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).

As the trucks rolled into Nasinyonoit village in Nakapipirit District, 620km northeast of the Ugandan capital of Kampala, Loumo was elated. At least there would be some maize and beans for the next meal.

Aid workers and local officials say half a million people are affected by the drought - the third in six years. The situation is compounded by inter-tribal violence and cattle rustling. Located 500km northeast of Kampala, the area is one of the most remote in Uganda and, according to WFP, received only scanty rains between June and August 2006.

"This resulted in a considerably reduced crop of the staple, sorghum, with prices rising beyond what many people can afford," said WFP deputy country director, Alix Loriston, adding that the agency was planning to distribute 22,950 metric tonnes of food in Karamoja in the next six months, at a cost of US$11.5 million. It is also working with the government to plant 600,000 trees in the arid region.

"The rains generally fail every five years, but since 2000, we've seen a drought every second year. The effects are devastating, especially for those who are most vulnerable - pregnant and nursing mothers and young children," Loriston explained.

Bearing the brunt

For Karamojong women such as Loumo, the situation would be slightly more manageable if the men helped with domestic chores. "Our men do not do anything to provide for the family. They spend the day sitting in sheds and telling stories. Feeding a family is the work of a woman. You look for food, you look for water and firewood. They come only during cultivation and to give us security if an enemy attacks," she said.

The men deny the women's claims, insisting that because the area is extremely insecure, they have to spend most of their time protecting the women. Karamoja is surrounded by hostile communities that routinely make the lowlands a battleground as they engage in the age-old tradition of cattle-raiding. Many people die in these raids.

"We are besieged from all sides. Just yesterday there was a cattle raid and the Matheniko came heavily armed and took 14 cows from this kraal. They deployed a gunman at every hut and were ready to kill if we put up a fight, but all the guns from this area were taken away by the army and we were left defenceless," Peter Lokut, a resident of Nasinyonoit village, told IRIN.

Lokut's village borders areas where the Matheniko live to the east. It also neighbours the Pokot to the south, the Bokoras to the west and the Jie and Dodoth in the north. According to residents, all these communities invade each other for cattle and retreat through Nasinyonoit, where battles ensue most of the time as the affected communities re-organise to follow the enemy.

According to locals, cattle-raiding is a tradition that used to be done with spears. But at the fall of Uganda's dictator Idi Amin in 1979, fleeing soldiers abandoned automatic weapons which were picked up by local pastoralists.

Since then, raids that used to be sanctioned by elders are now conducted at random and often without regard to traditional codes of conduct such as respect for women, children and the elderly.


To try to contain the violence, the Ugandan government has over the past five years grappled with disarming the civilians. Various attempts have been made to remove illicit weapons - estimated by peace advocacy groups at between 50,000 and 150,000. But residents say the exercise has become high-handed and youth who were arrested have never returned to their communities. "We do not know whether they were killed or not," Lokut said.

The forced disarmament exercise targeted youths like him, said Lokut. "We were the most hit because they thought that we were the ones having the guns. We were picked up and beaten before being taken to a military detachment. Two of our friends have never returned since their arrest and we don't know whether they are alive or dead," he said.

His friend, Choko Ekarimareng - meaning the brown bull in Karamojong - had torture marks on his body. Showing a fresh scar on his forehead, he claimed he was hit with a gun butt. He also had marks on his back - which he claimed resulted from a whipping by government soldiers.

Aid agencies have expressed concern over the disarmament operation. In December, a report by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) said more than 150 people, including women and children, were killed and hundreds of others displaced over a two-month period in clashes between government soldiers and armed cattle herders.

Earlier, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, had said investigations had uncovered evidence of abuse, including summary executions, arbitrary arrests, torture and rape, and asked the Ugandan authorities to halt operations.

The army denies claims of abuse. A Ugandan army spokesman, Maj Felix Kulaigye, said: "This is a serious misrepresentation. Only 37 people have died since October." At least 3,500 guns had been collected, he added.

A commission of inquiry has been set up by the Ugandan army to look into the claims, while measures have also been taken to contain whatever excesses may have occurred. But locals insist ongoing army operations have increased insecurity in their villages.

"I had eight children, but three of them have been killed," Agnes Nayolo, 54, told IRIN at Nasinyonoit. "One of them was killed by the Pokots, who found him looking after our cows. They took him with them. The other two were killed on the same day while hunting for the family."