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from issue no. 10 - 2006

UGANDA. The negotiations between the government and the LRA guerrillas

If peace breaks out

After twenty years of war, with millions of dead and endless sufferings, today, in the north of the country, a fresh wind is blowing. But, as in all peace processes, this also has its thorny problems and may founder

by Davide Malacaria

Perhaps this time is the good one. Perhaps this time peace may indeed bloom in north Uganda. Twenty years of war, millions of dead, 25-30 thousand children abducted to be turned into bloodthirsty killers by the rebels commanded by weird Joseph Kony, but perhaps, this time, for the first time, after years of useless attempts, is the good time. The leaders of the LRA guerrillas (The Lord’s Resistance Army), a group that for years has held the north of the country to fire and sword, and the Ugandan government have begun real negotiations that might end an eternal conflict. In North Uganda, inhabited by the Acholi people, a fresh wind is blowing: after years of terror, the people are beginning to hope again. But, as in all peace processes, this also has its thorny problems, its tangles. And like all peace processes it could founder.
Joseph Kony, leader of the LRA, meeting a delegation from the Ugandan government and some representatives of the Non-government Organizations, 31 July 2006

Joseph Kony, leader of the LRA, meeting a delegation from the Ugandan government and some representatives of the Non-government Organizations, 31 July 2006

Father Giuseppe Filippi, superior of the Combonians in Uganda, explains: «I believe that this new opportunity began to ripen when Monsignor John Baptiste Odama, the prelate of Gulu who has been seeking paths to peace in every way for years, went to the UN to beg the international community to take an interest in this corner of world, gaining the attention of some European states, Germany in particular and other countries of northern Europe. Furthermore the Ugandan president, Joweri Museveni, reluctant in the past to meet with the rebels, has seen his relations with his more important international backers, England and the United States, in trouble as a result of a certain harshness shown in the course of the last elections, when the leader of the opposition ended up in jail, and now he is practically forced to discuss with the rebels to legitimate himself again as a democratic leader. But it wouldn’t have got so far without the peace in Sudan. The peace between the Karthoum government and the rebels have deprived the LRA militia of their fall-back bases in south Sudan and of their supplies. Additionally, the autonomous government of south Sudan cannot tolerate the presence of armed gangs on its own territory». Father Mario Cisternino, he, too, a Combonian, has continued, even if he came back from Uganda eight years or so ago, to follow the events in his mission country, returning there from time to time and staying in constant contact with his people and his brethren. He tells of a country at its last gasp, of people who have lost everything years ago, of million of people living in refugees camps, to the extent that the north of Uganda looks no more or less than an enormous «concentration camp». He tells of the African wars to the south, of how he saw the Ugandan army heading for neighboring Rwanda, and then for the Congo, where unspeakable massacres took place. «Many of those soldiers had been baptized by me». He recalls with bitter irony. But here the killers are not Muslims and it doesn’t matter to anybody. The priest is embittered. It’s difficult to say he’s wrong. «The truth is that I don’t believe Museveni really wants peace. Nobody in North Uganda believes in it. That is why the international community must bring pressure to bear, otherwise this nth attempt will also come to nothing». And, like other international observers, he runs through the many doubts that have arisen around this strange war, where a handful of rebels, some thousands in all, has held one of most powerful African armies in check, an army so powerful as to carry war into the neighboring states. Of an army prepared to look elsewhere while the rebels kidnapped and killed, reducing to utter misery a people potentially rival to that on which Museveni relies. But so it is. That was the past, now, in the present, peace must be brought to the country. Cisternino says that those pushing for a solution to the conflict at the moment are, in particular, the omnipresent Community of Sant’Egidio, better know as the “UN of Trastevere”, and the Dutch Pax Christi. Vittorio Scelso has for years been following the Ugandan crisis on behalf of the Sant’Egidio. He says that the Community began to take an interest in Uganda in the aftermath of the abduction of the girls of Aboke, when the LRA kidnapped 139 students from the Combonian Saint Mary College (109 were released immediately, 24 ran away later, the others were killed or disappeared). The case caused an international uproar. Sant’Egidio took a hand. It tried various paths. In vain. But something good has remained from that failure. If it’s true, as it is, that one of its envoys is sitting at the negotiating table. «Numerous failed attempts at mediation in Uganda can be counted. We began following this new thread last year, thanks to contacts with the rebels of the diaspora based in London. A thread that entwined with that being followed by the Dutch Pax Christi and that has led to the current situation. I believe that the military difficulties in which the LRA finds itself, in particular after the peace in south Sudan, have played a large role in what’s happening. The change in atmosphere is due considerably to the vice-president of South Sudan, Riek Machar, the real arbiter of the discussions going on in Juba, capital of South Sudan. Among other things, Machar, by supplying food to the rebels, mitigated their aggression, given that many of their raids were aimed at seeking supplies». He says that the discussions have brought about a first result, a truce. The first real truce for years, respected by both adversaries. It is no small thing. Furthermore the rebels have agreed to group in two large camps in South Sudan. So far around 1,600 have flowed in. «It may seem a small number, but in reality we’re talking about almost the sum total of rebels», explains Scelso. «For now only the rebel high command has not come in. If that happened, the question would be closed. But there the problem is very complicated...». Yes, because the international criminal court has an arrest warrant out for Kony. And if he gave himself up he would be in danger of being taken to the Hague. Thus if on the one hand he’s trying to negotiate peace, on the other he’s trying to escape the handcuffs. And this is a serious problem the peace, for if Kony doesn’t obtained guarantees he won’t surrender. «The countries that backed the international court are called on to execute the arrest warrant, and among them are Uganda and Sudan. Not least for that reason Kony is not taking part in person in the peace discussions. A solution has to be found that saves the face of the international court, but that gives Kony a way out». In the specific case, one could rightly say summum ejus summa iniuria. It’s what the people of Uganda think. «Our people are tired of this war», Father Cisternino goes on. «They’re willing for anything to gain peace, even to forgive Kony’s misdoings. It’s a widespread feeling among the Acholi population. A solution has to be found. The country most rigid in backing the application of the Hague arrest warrant is England. But too much rigidity is in danger of ruining everything... A means has to be found, but above all something done to accommodate the wishes of the Acholi people who have suffered all too much.» There are those who have advanced the idea of making Kony perform a tribal ceremony of expiation, a solution that, Scelso explains, suits everyone a little, from the government to so-called civilian society. But everything is still in the air. The rebels would also like their military grouping to be recognized in some way, and the force be incorporated into a kind of militia parallel to the official one; something that the government doesn’t want to grant. In addition they would like subsidies for the child soldiers. «I think a compromise will be found», explains Scelso. «Part of the rebels will be integrated into the army, while the child soldiers will get schooling benefits. It’s more difficult to find agreement on the political demands: in fact the rebels are asking for a kind of autonomy for the north, a demand returned to sender by the government». There’s something shady in that last demand, with the executioners dubbing themselves as champions of their own victims. But this too belongs along with the many mysteries that hover around this enigmatic African conflict, where the children sent to kill would recite the Hail Mary as a kind of spell. «In any case, even if the difficulties are many, I think we’re on the right path», Scelso goes on. «My impression is that this time we can get to a peace agreement». The missionary fathers also share this hope, but, like him, with the realism of those who for years have found themselves involved in precarious African events, where everything can change from one day to the next. That realism that hopes in the backing of the international community, without which this attempt also will be doomed to come to nothing.
Meanwhile in Uganda people continue to die, in general indifference. Really very little is known about this tragedy, less even than with nearby Darfur, in Sudan, where government and anti-government forces clash at the expense of poor civilians. «The explanation is fairly simple», Father Cisternino explains. «Massacres in Darfur are blamed on the Islamic government in Khartoum that the United States and England consider on the wrong side in the clash of civilizations that has been tormenting the world for some years. Whereas Uganda is considered an ally in the fight against terrorism. So the tragedy of North Uganda and the failures of the Kampala government are not to be proclaimed».
It is Father Filippi who talks of the situation in which the populations of the north find themselves: «Almost the whole of the population is living in the refugee camps, which one can’t leave before nine o’clock, nor come back late in the evening, nor go any distance from. Those who do, do so at their own risk, in so far as safety is not assured. So no farm work is possible and people are forced to survive on what the NGOs hand out. And, unfortunately, it’s never enough. Additionally the conditions in the camps are, if possible, worse than those in analogous camps in other African countries. The large ones especially are overcrowded and unliveable. Violence and corruption are fed by the situation. People are exasperated and quarrel over nothing. Nobody has any official estimates, but credible sources speak of a thousand deaths a week, what with malaria, suicides and other things... ». Certainly, the conflict is over, for now. As are the night migrations that involved masses of young people moving every night – thousands of kilometers on foot – to seek shelter at the missions and the few inhabited centers under government control. But everything is still hanging by the thread of the gruelling negotiations. And an arrest warrant from a court that should safeguard the victims and that instead risks aggravating their already dramatic situation. «People hope that this is the good time», Father Filippi says. «That this war may finally be over, that the refugee camps be dismantled, that people can return home, to a new life... ». We with them.

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