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from issue no. 07 - 2003

Uganda. In the north a forgotten war that may widen into genocide.

A craze of magic and machetes

Three quarters of the population are already scattered. The LRA rebels come, kill, rob, burn everything. The missions also. The Ugandan army, among the most powerful in Africa, is not able to stop them, despite the fact that the LRA, born of the mad vision of a witch, is made up of minors conscripted by force

by Davide Malacaria

a Ugandan police patrol in the village of Pabo, near Gulu; above, the training of a child-soldier

a Ugandan police patrol in the village of Pabo, near Gulu; above, the training of a child-soldier

“They have attacked the mission in Anaka”. The voice of the missionary who speaks at the other end of the telephone is agitated; not much is yet known of what happened and the worst is feared. Replying on the phone is Father Giulio Albanese, director of the agency MISNA ( Missionary Service News Agency), back just two days from Uganda, and he knows well that events of this kind are becoming ever more frequent in that country, ever more threatening. It was subsequently discovered that in the attack, which occurred on 17 June, two people were killed and sixteen were injured. It is only one of the many episodes of violence, which must be added to the sad account of a tale of bloodshed which has gone on now for 17 years and does not seem to want to end. Father Albanese has followed the strange war from close to. Last summer he was also arrested by the Ugandan authorities during one of the many attempts to initiate negotiations with the rebels. And now he fears the worst. The priest says: “The bloodletting in the north of Uganda, in particular the districts of Kitgum, Pader and Gulu, inhabited by the Acholi ethnic group, and those of Lira and Apac, populated by the Lango ethnic group, has reached a level of dramatic urgency never before reached. Three quarters of the population of those districts, out of a total of about a 1,400,00 people, are scattered, homeless. The rebels arrive, kill, rob whatever they can and then burn everything, leaving the people homeless, without food …. A human drama of catastrophic proportions. At this moment a hostility towards the missionary presence, which causes preoccupation, has been added. Some days ago, the rebel radio transmitted the order to kill all the missionaries and to beat the nuns until they bled. The rebels also use radios stolen from the missions, because of that the order was intercepted. We do not know well how grounded the information is, but one thing is sure: the missions have never been subjected to such attacks as they have been in the past months”. The protagonists of these bloody events are the rebels of the LRA, Lord’s Resistance Army, a high sounding name for a strange and controversial movement. An army born of the madness of a “witch”, Alice Lakwena, who at the end of the ’eighties created an army of the Holy Spirit, formed for the most part of children, who put the north to fire and sword and make the government in Kampala tremble. In 1988 the witch was defeated and took refuge in Kenya, but her cousin Joseph Kony took her place, a mad visionary who says he acts under the influence of the spirits. He has arms and food but lacks troops. In a short time he created another army of boy-soldiers, kidnapped and therefore conscripted in the movement. To bind them to his mad project, three days after their kidnapping, the boys are subjected to a magic ritual. They are anointed. If after that they escape, they will be persecuted by the evil spirit and if found by their companions, carved to bits with few scruples. Magic, witchcraft and madness. A cocktail that has made of this armed group , in all about five thousand members, the nightmare of the northern districts of Uganda. Ninety per cent of this dangerous army is formed of boy-soldiers, aged between 9 and 18 years old; 40% of them are under sixteen years. They move quickly in the tall grass ( because of this they are called “olum”, which means grass), so much so that they can cover up to forty kilometers a day by foot, and they act under the influence of drugs. Father Albanese continues: “I know Africa well, I have seen many atrocities, but what the rebels of the LRA are capable of is truly unbearable …. People cut to pieces and thrown into large pots to be eaten, civilians butchered, children mutilated without reason …. Something must be done to put an end to this tragedy. The international community cannot remain passive”.

The international aid
that cannot be delayed
Many voices have been raised in Uganda accusing the Sudan government of financing the LRA. There would also be evidence in this regard. Sudan replies by accusing Kampala of arming the SPLA, the Sudan Popular Liberation Army, fighting the government of Khartoum since 1983 in a conflict which has caused over two million deaths. Last year there was an agreement between the two States, which allowed the Ugandan army to enter Sudanese territory to strike at LRA bases in the south. But the operation failed and everything went back as before, worse than before. “The fact remains”, Father Albanese continues, “that it is inexplicable how an army such as the Ugandan army, one of the most powerful in Africa, which in these years was able to take troops into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, can be powerless against an army of five thousand children and can’t manage to guarantee minimum security for the local population. It guards the inhabited centers of the north, but with laughable forces which, when the rebels attack, are the first to flee. When the current President, Yoweri Museveni, took power in January 1986, he took it from a government which had its power base in the north, in the Acholi etnic group. That fact may also explain the attitude of the government towards this conflict”. In the capital, in fact, the war seems far away. Father Pietro Tiboni, a Combonian, explains that there is no echo in Kampala of the massacre taking place in the north: “the papers favorable to the government speak of it little or not at all. They show interest only if some news emerges about the possible involvement of Sudan. The government remained silent even when the order to kill all the missionaries became known. So in Kampala it seems as if nothing is happening; the little news that reaches there comes from missionaries or from people who have relatives in the north.”
But it is not just Kampala which underestimates the drama of north Uganda. “This conflict has never been discussed at the UN”, Father Albanese affirms: “It’s an internal affair, the government of Kampala objects, and nobody asks further. In reality Museveni is tied by a double bond to the west, to the USA, and in particular to England, of which Uganda was a Protectorate. Museveni is an able politician. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, he enjoyed the support, also financial, of the non-aligned countries. When the Swedish Prime minister Olaf Palme was killed in1986, national mourning was declared in Kampala. With the fall of the Wall, Museveni sought new alliances, and he found them in the USA. Western support reached its height in 1994, when the anti-government forces of the Ruandese Patriotic Front took power in Ruanda with the support of the Ugandan forces. Since then he’s worked his way in as one of the leading figures in the great geopolitical upsets that intertwine in this vast area of central East Africa, the overthrow of Mobutu in the Congo (1997), the cataclysm of the Great Lakes (1994, 800,000 dead ascertained). He dreams of realizing a great Tutsi (one of the major ethnic groups in Africa) empire which in his design would extend from south Sudan to Burundi, including also a part of the Congo, in particular the regions of Ituri (where, since the beginning of June, a peace force sent by the EU operates) and of Kivu, the richest in minerals, still going through endless bloody conflict. Finally one has to consider that Museveni has been for years pointed out as a model student by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, having put into practice all the economic recipes brewed up by those international bodies. It’s hard to believe that pressure might be put by them on their favorite pupil ….”. But this situation can change, nothing is unchangeable in politics. American President George Bush decided to include Uganda in the countries to visit on his African tour programmed for early July. It is possible that the journey is linked to the “pressing” Museveni to accredit himself with the new US administration. What is certain is that President Bush has staked all his prestige on the search of a solution to the conflict in the Middle East. It can’t be excluded that he wishes to do the same thing in Uganda.
Women and children taking refuge in the hospital of Lacor-Gulu to spend the night safe from guerrilla attacks

Women and children taking refuge in the hospital of Lacor-Gulu to spend the night safe from guerrilla attacks

If the international situation has until now hampered serious thinking on the civil war that is bloodying northern Uganda, there are nonetheless some international organizations present in the area, and they try to give help to the worn-out population. But the help is not sufficient. Father Carlos Rodriguez Soto, in charge of the “Justice and Peace” office in the diocese of Gulu, denounces the fact that: “The international organizations present in this area are very few, there is a UN office, some NGOs, but in comparison to other crisis areas there is truly little. The truth is that this area of Africa does not have great resources, and because of that nobody’s interested. But there are many children of God who suffer, and that concerns the Church”. We contacted him while he was preparing to go, with the bishop of Gulu, John Baptist Odama, and other Anglican religious leaders, among the children who, during the night, go to seek a little security on the streets of the city. They began on 22 June to sleep among them. Father Rodriguez tells about the first night, of a shooting nearby, and of the fear that gripped the children: “I was also afraid”, he confessed on the phone, speaking of his heartbreak for the children who, he says, have passed every night since January on the streets in those inhuman conditions.
So far the war has caused the death of 40,000 people. But these are only the cases about which there is certain knowledge. The more realistic estimates raise the figure to 100,000. The children kidnapped by the LRA, from 1994 to today are, at a minimum, 20,000. Father Joseph Gerner, a Combonian of German descent, has been parish priest of Kitgum since 1996 and knows the suffering of his people well. On the phone he explains, “We are simply in a disastrous situation, it was never like this. At this moment we are surrounded by the rebels. They are everywhere and could attack from one moment to the next. The people come to us and ask us for something to eat and a place of refuge, especially the children who are afraid of being kidnapped. We were able to provide for seven hundred people, but we’re beginning to get very crowded. The hospital is overcrowded, the staff are exhausted, they can’t continue. Every night about five thousand people come seeking protection behind the walls and are taken in. In this tragedy the people try to pray, as we do ourselves. Here in Kitum, the martyrs Daudi and Jildo, the two catechists killed in 1918, were baptized; here their relics lie. The people are very attached to them, they pray to them. But the church is suffering in this place, our people are suffering and the church with them”. Then the priest’s voice became vibrant: “Every year here thousands of children are kidnapped, and yet the European and the US media say nothing. Thousands of children torn away from their parents, forced to kill or to be killed; a form of slavery which Africa never knew and all of this is not worthy of even a line in a newspaper ….”.
The situation in Kitgum is similar to that of many other places in the north. All of the countryside is in the hands of the rebels. It is impossible to pass along a road without risking being ambushed. International aid must also be sent by plane, at huge cost. “This is a drama to be added to the others,” Father Albanese continues: “In fact in order to effectively help the population, secure communication are needed. In my recent trip to Uganda, everyone I met agreed on the fact that the first thing to do is to guarantee the safety of the people in the area, only then will it be possible to distribute food supplies and the other commodities efficiently. So the sending of an international force capable of guaranteeing this safety can no longer be put off. The ways and means are many. But all agree that the situation can’t wait, or it will be a humanitarian disaster”.

Refreshment in the shade
of the church
In the wait and hope that this will happen, the few organizations present, such as WFP and AVSI, are attempt to hold the breach as best they can. But the arrival of supplies at destination, and their distribution, would be impossible without the presence of people present, the missionaries first of all, but also lay people and nuns who, despite everything, remain in an area which the madness of the witchdoctor Kony threatens to turn into a slaughter house. Western missionaries in the region number about sixty, another twenty are African missionaries, for the most part priests of the congregation of the Apostles of Jesus, along with a few local clergy. Small sparks of comfort and hope in a sea of evil and suffering. A peaceful presence that does not limit itself merely to trying to help the population in every way. The church has tried in every manner to find ways of peace. The Bishop of Gulu , Monsignor John Baptist Odama, is said to be knocking at every door to try to bring it about. Some door have been opened to him. It was he who set up ARPLI (Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative) along with Anglicans and Muslims which, for a certain time, mediated between the government and the rebels. But now the doors of dialogue seem to be closed. Secret contacts remain which at times make it possible to snatch child soldiers from the hands of the LRA. The priest tells of five children whom he succeeded in getting released in recent days after five years of enforced conscription among the ranks of the ‘olum’. Boys who have indescribable experiences weighing on their shoulders, whose readjustment to normal life presents imaginable problems.
If the church is able attempt this work of mediation it is also because of the prestige it has always enjoyed among the people. Because of that it seemed impossible that it could become a target for the rebels. The news of the attack on the seminary of Lahore, on 10 May, caused a sensation in the West also, and the kidnapping of numerous seminarians, five of whom were killed and thirty are still in the hands of the rebels. A clamorous episode to be added to the threat via radio of the self-styled Kony and to the numerous attacks suffered by the missions in the past months. More than twelve missions attacked, churches assaulted. The rebels take the women and children, as always, kill, as always. But there seems to be something new, different from before. A sinister sign. As if the wind blowing on this war aimed to become more cruel, to turn the conflict into a new African genocide. “The missions attacked in recent times have just been too many”, Albanese confirms: “Namokora, Pajule, Madi Opei, Anaka have been attacked repeatedly. In the diocese of Soroti some parishes have had to close down and two missions, the ones in Amuria and of Katine, have been evacuated. In Alito they fired inside the church, at the tabernacle, they threw the hosts on the ground and trampled them. Also in Madi Opei they fired inside the church, wrecking all the windows”. Many missionaries have suffered these attacks. Two of them have also been killed in past years: Father Egidio Biscaro, killed by the rebels in 1990, and Father Raffaele Di Bari, assassinated, again by the LRA, in October 2000. I like telling the story of Ponziano Velluto, a 73 year old Combonian, 43 years in Uganda, his first posting the mission of Opit, south of Gulu, where he returned in permanent fashion in 1992. Father Velluto talks about his Garelli motor bike which enables him to cover every day the 40 kilometers necessary to reach the many chapels spread throughout the enormous territory in his charge, 36,000 souls to look after. He goes to celebrate mass, to hear confessions, to bring comfort to his poor flock. For the moment he is alone in the mission at Opit. But his catechists help him, about fifty of them, who get where he can’t. Father Velluto says of them: “They are our hands, our eyes, our mouth …. It would be a disaster without them, we’d be lost”. Words that evoke with gratitude the simple gesture of Paul VI when, during his journey to Uganda in 1969 (the first visit of a Pope to Africa), he gave 20,000 dollars for the work of the catechists …. But for years in with the pastoral works, Father Velluto and his catechists have had to live the tragedy of this ferocious conflict. Twice he fell into the hands of the rebels. He remembers the second time very well: “I was kidnapped with another priest and two civilians whom we had housed at the mission. It was the 14 September of last year, the day of the exaltation of the Holy Cross …. This coincidence made it simple for me to offer to Jesus this suffering, to think that it had a value, that it too could serve to bring peace back to this region. While they were taking us away, I began to recite the rosary and the rebels around us said among themselves: “The Father is praying”. We were not mistreated that time. Unfortunately our entreaties that all the other prisoners should also be released along with us were in vain. They agreed only to the release of some girls ….”. In the past months his mission has been attacked twice. The first time while he was in Gulu, the second while he was suffering a bout of malaria. With extreme precision he presents the balance sheet of the attacks: “In the first attack they burned 84 huts, in the second 56. The second time I went out in the early morning to see what had happened. I remember the huts were still smoking and all the people of the village immobile, petrified and looking at the smoke which had taken everything from them: clothes, food, household goods …. I didn’t know what to say. But I was with them. That was enough for them. Every day hundreds of people come to seek refuge with us. To the women we open the doors of the church, we arrange the others as best we can. Many children prefer to sleep in the tall grass, with the risk of catching malaria ….”.
There are many stories involved with the missions. Those of the child-soldiers fled from the hands of the rebels, also in search of a little safety in the shadow of the religious. Father Albanese shows us a photo. Two children with lively eyes wearing colored T-shirts. The photo shows them as they are eating the simple things the mission fathers can give to the homeless. They are about ten years old. Twelve at most. The following photo instead shows another child, with sad eyes. He is in a hospital bed. The lips have been slashed away by a machete, printing, perhaps for ever, a tragic smile on that poor face. It was the two children in the first photo, Father Albanese explains. Now the victim and his torturers, or rather the three victims, have found refuge in the same mission, in an intertwining of destinies which the embrace of the church has made possible. Father Gerner tells us about other tragedies, of little ones with ears and hands amputated, lips cut, of images and sufferings that it is difficult to forget. Of a daily horror that an obscure witchdoctor dispenses openhandedly on the altar of African geopolitics.
We tell Father Gerner that our humble article wishes to create an interest in what is happening in Uganda. We add that we hope that this will be of some help. “Tell them to pray for us”, replies the voice at the other end of the line, and here the tone becomes deeper, almost emotional: “Because in this situation we men can do nothing. Without the intervention of the Lord we have no hope”.

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