Home > Archives > 07 - 2003 > The new slaughter of the innocents
from issue no. 07 - 2003

The scouge of child-soldiers

The new slaughter of the innocents

Interview with Monsignor John Baptist Odama, Archbishop of Gulu. His diocese is at the center of the cataclysm overwhelming Uganda.

by Davide Malacaria

Boys from Gulu on line to receive a meal from the “Gulu Support the children Organization”, the organization which attempts to keep boys from being 
press ganged by the LRA

Boys from Gulu on line to receive a meal from the “Gulu Support the children Organization”, the organization which attempts to keep boys from being press ganged by the LRA

“Our cry is first of all for the children”, Monsignor John Baptist Odama is careful to underline. He cares a great deal about his little ones, Monsignor Odama, Archbishop of Gulu, whose diocese is at the center of the cataclysm that is overwhelming the north of Uganda. Little ones from whom this fierce war, which for 17 years has bloodied the north of the country, may rob of their innocence and the future, even of their lives. Little ones who seek refuge in the streets of the city so as not to be kidnapped and killed. The Archbishop cares so much that that, since 22 June, he has given up his bed and begun to sleep among them, on the dirty streets of the city. Beside the Archbishop, other men of the Church and leaders of other religions. An unarmed guard against an unpredictable and bloody minded enemy. “As Archbishop of the Church in Gulu I cannot remain peacefully in my Episcopal residence,while every evening thousands of children crowd the city, sleeping in the open in miserable conditions, for fear of being kidnapped by rebels”. Monsignor Odama has a gentle voice on the phone. An affability which clashes with the horrors he must witness every day. But which must have helped him win sympathy everywhere. Thus he was able to found ARLPI, a project which brings together leaders of different religions, which tries in every way to mediate between the warring factions. And which, gathering all the traditional religions of the Acholi ethnic group in the quest for peace, helped to ensure that the conflict in north Uganda did not turn into a war of religion. Odama is its president. Not least because of this many roads meet in Gulu. Sometimes kept hidden, like the one hinted at during the course of this interview, when rebels telephone him to apologise for the threats against the Catholic Church. John Baptist Odama, born in 1947 in Arua, was ordained a priest in 1974. Nominated Bishop of Nebbi in 1996, he was called to lead the diocese of Gulu in January 1999.
Can you describe for us the sufferings of your people and the actual situation in Gulu?
JOHN BAPTIST ODAMA: The situation is disastrous. My people are very afraid. Many homeless find shelter in the refugee camps, but even more of them have no arrangements and don’t know where to go to find protection. They crowd the cities and other centers. Part of the population have nothing to eat, especially in those areas not yet reached by the World Food Program. Many roads can not be used because they are not safe; about a week ago a bus was blown up by a mine: five people were killed and ten others were seriously injured … The situation has worsened recently. Among other things many schools are closing, especially those far away from the urban centers. So many children can not go to school. The parents are afraid to send their children to boarding schools because they could be kidnapped or killed. But the most anguished question that people ask is when will all this finish.
Are there openings for negotiations?
ODAMA: It is not easy to talk with the rebels. They have made themselves unreachable. Actually the two parties involved, the government and the rebels, are both on the offensive, they are isolated, alienated and think only of eliminating each other.
Do you consider the intervention of international forces necessary?
ODAMA: In Uganda we have arrived at the point at which the only organizations from whom we can ask help are the international ones. On 20 June we gave a press conference, after a meeting of the religious and regional authorities of southern Sudan and northern Uganda. We came to the conclusion that we must make an appeal to the Security Council so that they will examine our situation. We need of immediate action.
In Sudan the government has begun negotiations with the rebels from the south. Would an eventual agreement between the two parties also favor a solution to the war in north Uganda?
ODAMA: We have confidence in this and also maintain that north Uganda should be represented in the peace process actually underway in Kenya, if not in an active role, at least as an observer. The situation in Sudan is strictly bound up with that of my country. In both cases the population is afflicted by killings and kidnappings but the government will not make its mind up to protect them.
In recent tears the Ugandan armed forces have in the last years taken part in different conflicts in Africa. How is it possible that they are not able to protect the population from the rebel forces, which by comparison, are scanty?
ODAMA: That is a mystery for us. We can’t understand it. Uganda has fought wars against other countries, for example in the Congo. The national army is involved in Rwanda, in the process of maintaining peace, in Sudan and in Somalia. We all ask why they’re unable to protect the northern part of our country …. It’s a mystery. It’s even more so if you think that this war has lasted for seventeen years … An entire generation has disappeared. Some can’t ever go to school again. Others have lost their dignity as children: they should have grown to become respectable men but their tender age was atrociously stained by killings and kidnappings. Many children were turned into soldiers by the rebels. But the government troops have also conscripted soldiers from among the very young.
The church is trying in every way to restore peace in the country ….
ODAMA: At this moment we are engaged in trying to re-establish contact with the rebels and maintain relations with the government. Our purpose is to focus the attention of both on a possible process of peace. We are trying in every way to build peace. We want to convince the population to make its right prevail. We want to speak with the international community so as to avoid being left alone. We’re asking help from all the organizations than can become part of a humanitarian intervention, such as the European Union, the African Union, but also religious organizations of international standing. The Catholic Church has been very close to us. The Pope himself has written us a personal letter in which he expresses his solidarity. The Vatican too is seriously involved. Nevertheless other political groups could put more pressure on the armed forces and on the government of Uganda. For example if the European Union put pressure on the Kampala government to resolve the serious problem of the north, tying this request to the maintaining of normal diplomatic relations, it would be a step ahead. It would also be of great help if key members of the United Nations were to bring pressure on both the governments of Uganda and Sudan, in whose territory the LRA rebels still find refuge. We also have the suspicion that Sudan secretly supports the rebels. Further the media should make our tragedy more widely known. We need help from overseas also. We are also seeking a way to stop the spread of guns in our territory. So there is still a great deal to do. Many international bodies don’t even know about what is happening, others are only partly informed, but not enough for them to initiate action. Finally, it is necessary to sensitize international public opinion. These are some of the strategies through which we are facing the situation.
Are you afraid that what will happen is what has already happened in other cases (Rwanda, East Timor), that despite the tragedy being visible to everyone, attention is paid too late?
ODAMA: That is indeed the danger we are running. And it would be a disaster. We’re afraid that real and total genocide will take place. This situation has gone on for too long, the people are by now desperate. It would indeed be a shame if the world became aware of it too late. In this case we would all be to blame for negligence and silence. We too are part of humanity, we need concrete help to stop this madness. The European Union sent forces to keep the peace in the region of Ituri (Congo), it too torn apart by a civil war. We ask why something similar can’t be done for our country.
Boys in a school

Boys in a school

Seminarians kidnapped, missions assaulted and then the threat via radio by Kony… The Church seems to have become a target for the LRA.
ODAMA: This news caused us great upset, to me in a particular way, who have a great responsibility within the Ugandan Church. The priests, the nuns and the Catholic population in general should not have become targets in this war, because it is a political war. The rebels are fighting the government, and they will have their reasons for doing so, but there is no reason why the Church should be at the center of these threats. Because the church, the missionaries and the nuns have always suffered beside the people, they have lived with the people. And as with us, so with the leaders of other religions. In the second place, we are as Ugandans as everyone else. The missionaries have given their lives for us here in Uganda and, because of this, they have become part of us as a people. Finally, we are all human beings. I don’t see why we should be hit twice: as persons and as Catholics. The political war must not be turned into a war of religion. However, the rebels established contact with me on 18 June last to apologise for the threats and to assure me of the fact that they would not strike the missions, the priests or the nuns. I reminded them of their recent attacks on the missions, one in particular in which the rebels kidnapped fifteen children. But in my area other missions also suffered attacks: Namokora, Anaka, Palabek etc. …. What I want to say is that the safety of the clergy and the Catholics is part of the security of the whole population. And I would like this to be clear also to the international community.
Last October the martyrdom of the two young Ugandan catechists, Daudi and Jildo, was recognized. What did that mean to you?
ODAMA: We must thank the Pope for having beatified these two martyrs at this particular moment. As well as being good news for Uganda and for the entire world, this news was, for us in particular, like a resurrection. The tomb of years of suffering was uncovered. The people now see their own very dignity restored, they have a new hope in life. These two figures are much loved by the people who pray through them. The two martyrs are an inspiration for the youth of our country. They are also of great comfort and encouragement for the catechists, many of whom are inspired by them.
What do you ask of the international community?
ODAMA: We need solidarity and concrete actions to make this tragedy cease. We need humanitarian aid. Help us, also through prayer, and make our situation known.

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português