By Alexis Okeowo in Moroto, northeast Uganda (AR No. 111, 8-May-07)
While the Ugandan government is engaged in peace talks with the Lord's Resistance Army rebels who have wreaked havoc in the north of the country, another human rights controversy is brewing in the northeast.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour released a report last month urging the Ugandan government to curb human rights abuses against civilians allegedly committed by soldiers during raids carried out to disarm people in the Karamoja region.
The report spoke of the "indiscriminate and excessive use of force" by the Ugandan military, which it said resulted in at least 69 civilians being killed between November 2006 and March this year.
The army has denied allegations by the British charity Save the Children that soldiers were responsible for the deaths of 66 children in an incident in Karamoja in February. Save the Children said it had gathered accounts from 256 people describing how on February 12, the children were shot, run over by armoured vehicles or trampled to death by stampeding cattle.
Local Karamojong leaders have accused the army - the Uganda People's Defence Forces, UPDF - of numerous human rights abuses committed during its disarmament campaign, but the government has denied or downplayed the allegations.
"It is our job to protect the civilians, not kill them," said Lieutenant Henry Obbo, military spokesperson for northeast Uganda. He said that a "blocking force" has been permanently deployed in the northeast both to protect troops from frequent ambushes and to safeguard local civilians.
The Karamojong and their neighbours, the Turkana and Pokot of Kenya, who like them are pastoralists, have engaged in conflict for centuries. In modern times, however, tensions have escalated between cattle raiders and the governments of the two countries, and the ensuing confrontation poses a threat to civilians in the area.
The semi-arid 27,200 square kilometre region remains the least developed in Uganda, with a severe lack of infrastructure and basic services. Drought forces people to constantly move around searching for food.
Cattle are the Karamojong's most prized possession, prompting them to mount raids and engage in lethal firefights to steal their neighbours' animals. Along with the Turkana and Pokot, the Karamojong also engage in cattle raids on their northern neighbours, the Toposa of Sudan.
The nomadic people of the Karamoja area, once armed with bows and arrows, now possess large numbers of firearms.
In recent years, violence has been fuelled by the influx of inexpensive automatic weapons such as Kalashnikov rifles smuggled from Somalia and other Horn of Africa countries.
Estimates of the number of weapons held by these pastoralists range from between 50,000 and 150,000 in Uganda, and from 50,000 to 200,000 in Kenya.
The Ugandan government has encouraged voluntary disarmament in past years, but now the policy is of forcible confiscation by the military.
The Karamojong say they need the guns to protect their way of life, they have to defend themselves against rival cattle rustlers and against hostile government soldiers.
"You can find a man with five guns," said Alex Lokutan, a young Karamojong musician, adding that if someone hands over a weapon to comply with the government's confiscation policy, he is likely to have plenty more.
Lokutan comes from Kotido, a district considered the most dangerous part of the notoriously lawless Karamoja region.
He said his cousins and childhood friends are still armed because firearms are vital to safeguarding their cattle. "They know that if they give back the guns, their neighbours will come and raid them while they're unprotected."
The Ugandan government says its confiscation programme is being carried out in compliance with the Nairobi Protocol, a treaty designed to reduce unlicensed gun proliferation in the Great Lakes region and the Horn of Africa. That agreement came out of a United Nations conference on firearms control held in 2001.
In June last year, Uganda and Kenya agreed to cooperate on confiscating all illicit arms from their borderlands. A Ugandan government drive recovered 4,500 firearms in "cordon-and-search" operations last year, along with thousands of looted cattle and goats.
Aid groups say the level of violence seen during the confiscation campaign exceeds even that of the Karamojong's cattle raiding.
In mid-2006, the United Nations Development Programme halted its own disarmament programmes in Karamoja for several months in protest against the parallel forcible campaign carried out by the UPDF.
Despite the UN's protest, Minister of State for Karamoja Aston Kajara insisted the government programme was succeeding, citing the number of guns recovered and cattle returned to their owners.
The Kenyan government, too, believes threats are needed to get the Pokot and Turkana to surrender their arms. In March 2006, Kenyan Internal Security Minister John Michuki issued a shoot-to-kill directive to police for the entire country. Murder, rape and torture by government forces have been reported in West Pokot. Thousands fled to Uganda, leaving behind ghost towns.
Despite the declared collaboration between the Ugandan and Kenyan governments against the raiders, there is still frequent movement across the porous border.
At face value, at least, their common solution to the problem appears to have translated into thousands of refugees left with burned villages and destroyed livelihoods.
Aid workers have not yet given up on the idea of disarming the Karamojong peacefully. The International Rescue Committee, IRC, has set up community dialogue meetings run by "peace committees", which denounce violence and the use of guns among their community. In an attempt to change attitudes, the committees are led by former cattle raiders, as well as the wives of some who are still active.
"People who have left cattle-raiding are progressing - they are building houses and sending their children to school," said Mark Longele, a community dialogue officer with the IRC.
The Karamojong have traditionally placed a high value on acquiring cattle - through violence if necessary- so that prospective husbands can pay the "bride price" required by tradition, as well as to alleviate their poverty. But increasingly, Longele said, they are "seeing the value of peace".
Many Karamojong have left the region in search of a better life, as recurring drought has made even the most basic farming difficult.
In the Ugandan capital Kampala alone, more than 80 per cent of all street beggars come from Karamoja, according to local authorities and humanitarian agencies such as the UN children's agency UNICEF, which has been conducting studies on the internal displacement.
The beggars are commonly young women and children rather than men, and it is estimated that between 200 and 400 women and girls aged between eight and 22 leave Karamoja every month to beg in Kampala's city centre.
Alexis Okeowo is a reporter for the IWPR Africa Report based in Kampala.