Uganda: Bombs after war

Rusted remnants of war threaten Uganda peace

By Jeremy Clarke

GULU, Uganda, May 20 (Reuters) - In his new community of half-built mud huts and uncultivated soil in northern Uganda's Gulu district, David Otto walks by his house when he spots another bomb lying in the dirt.

"This is the fourth one this week," says the 32-year-old father of five, before casually digging out the mangled mortar and carrying it into the bush away from his home.

"We came here to start again, but we've found dozens of these. Sometimes we hit them with ploughs -- they could easily explode. How can you get over a war with these bombs everywhere?"

When Otto set out with his 2,000-strong community -- leaving behind more than a million Ugandans still living in camps, too scared of a resumption of war to move on -- he hoped he was sharing in the first steps to rebuild and heal his country.

But as the government urges the displaced to trust peace talks that began last July and aim to end 21 years of civil war, it is the literal remains of the conflict that have left many terrified for the lives of their families.

"Maybe the war has finished for good, I don't know, but this is still a battlefield down here," Otto says, pointing at the ground where his children play barefoot and curious.

Aid workers say hundreds more bombs lie in wait, scattered by a war pitting government forces against Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels notorious for massacring civilians, mutilating survivors and forcibly recruiting thousands of children.

Only about 20 percent of the uprooted villagers have left the squalid, sprawling camps to begin resettling their land.

For Otto, the near-daily deadly reminders pulled from the earth have left the atrocities of one of Africa's longest and most brutal wars fresh in his mind.

"So many of us lost loved ones. There might be peace now, but there is still danger."


Italian aid agency AVSI, which has a mine action department based in Gulu and gives mine awareness training to locals and humanitarian organisations, last year received more than 200 reports of bombs from locals.

That number will likely be much higher this year.

"During the last dry season (Dec 2006 -- March 2007) we received an average of four reports a day," says Sara Pedersini, who works for AVSI and a U.N.-funded resettlement programme.

"There are unexploded mortar shells, grenades, RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) shells, aircraft bombs ... but we can also find single mines and mine fields near the border with South Sudan," she says.

"You have to take into consideration that only 20 percent of the (displaced) population has moved to new sites, and only one percent to their villages of origin."

If the peace talks succeed, more than a million people will hope to head home soon, and experts say the risk of unexploded ordnance will rise.

AVSI have already recorded more than 500 deaths from more than 1,300 accidents caused by the hidden arsenal in the last two decades, with a third of those incidents taking place on village footpaths.

Nearly one in every three victims was aged either under 18 or over 60, it says.

In Gulu, U.N. banners herald a "Food For Assets" programme that rewards locals in post-conflict zones for building roads through the thick bush.

"We are aware of the risks of unexploded ordnance and people going off to build roads through this land," says Moses Oryema, a programme manager with the U.N. World Food Programme. "We do everything we can to make it safe and hope for the best."

Meanwhile, locals continue digging out the bombs.

"We call the army and they come blow these up for us," Otto says, waving the mortar bomb. "They did some for us yesterday."


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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