I arrived in Gulu, northern Uganda late yesterday, and am getting settled quickly.
In my previous post, I promised to give an overview of the war and its ultimate cessation that led to the need for the work of PeaceHarvest. Like I mentioned last post, the war led loss of well over 90 percent of the cattle of the Acholi people of northern Uganda. I have attached a photo of a woman who worked with a hoe because she had no oxen. It takes a week for multiple people to clear a field that would take half a day for a team of oxen. How did it get this way? What follows is an overview. Skim or read in detail in light of what you find helpful.
The current President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Army/Movement (NRA/M) began their insurgency in 1981 on the grounds that then president Milton Obote rigged the 1980 elections that brought him to power. The fiercest fighting was in an area called the "Luwero Triangle," north of the capitol, Kampala. When Museveni took power in 1986 after overthrowing a northern ethnic Acholi, Tito Okello, he directed his troops to follow Okello's retreating forces. These are the conditions – stunning defeat and loss of livelihood – that faced the Acholi in 1986. Many Acholi then joined Alice "Lakwena" Auma's Holy Spirit Movement (HSM) because it offered the only politically viable option of resistance. In 1987, she and her troops reached to within sixty miles of the capitol.
The NRA/M defeated the HSM in November 1987, and Alice Lakwena went into exile. The Acholi political resistance was without a leader. Joseph Kony then became the figure through whom many Acholi manifested their grievances. Like with the Holy Spirit Movement, many Acholi at least initially joined what was to become the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) more out of the sense that it was the only viable avenue of active resistance to the Museveni regime than as a result of any commitment to the worldview Kony espoused, and elders encouraged youth to join. Still, the fact that these two spirit mediums – Lakwena and Kony – were the only figures around whom the Acholi could rally was already evidence that the Acholi world was under extreme stress.
By the early 1990's, Kony's LRA managed to control much of the rural area of Acholiland. 1992-1993 brought a relative lull in the hostilities, and it looked like the LRA and NRM were approaching a negotiated settlement in 1994. However, there seemed to be little trust between the two parties. The talks broke off and a new stage of the conflict began.
Although Kony carried out abductions of Acholi as early as 1989, the extent of killing and abduction of Acholi on the part of the LRA grew significantly after the failed peace talks. Kony believed – and he was largely correct – that the local populace no longer actively supported his efforts. They did not see the original political objectives as any longer achievable through force. Kony charged the elders with abandoning him, and in 1996, when two elders came to negotiate with the LRA, he had them killed. On April 22, 1995, the LRA massacred over 300 people in Atiak; in January1997, they killed over 400 in Palabek and Lokung.
The aim of the LRA became that of "purifying" the Acholi such that the latter would be made worthy of rulership, and it is this that motivated the LRA's killing and mutilation of Acholi civilians at this point in time. Political scientist Adam Branch has argued, rightly, that the aim of the LRA attacks on civilians of its own ethnic group was, "an attempt to eradicate the external enemy from the inside of Acholi society." Indeed, at this stage, virtually none of the LRA attacks are on government forces.
Acholi village people began fleeing their homes in advance of attack and congregating in trading centers which would become Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. In 1996, the Ugandan government made it official policy that the people in the North must live in these camps, and even organized new ones. The conditions in the camps were and are horrid. A 2005 World Health Organization study in partnership with the Ugandan government, after careful analysis of the situation on the ground in comparison with "non-crisis" levels in the camps in the Acholi districts of Kitgum, Pader, and Gulu, found that there were almost 1000 excess deaths per week due to malaria, AIDS, malnutrition, diarrhea, violence, and other causes. About ninety percent of the people in these districts – over a million and a half people -- lived in camps at the time of the report. I have attached photos I took of housing in these camps.
In August 2006, after a month and a half of talks, the LRA and the government both signed on to a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement – the first bilateral accord ever between the two parties – and over the next twenty months, representatives of each met to work out an agenda for peace and reconstruction in northern Uganda. By early 2008, the parties had signed all five major agenda items: 1) the cessation of hostilities, 2) comprehensive solutions to the war, 3) reconciliation and accountability, 4) formal ceasefire, and 5) disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration. The impact on the ground in northern Uganda was remarkable. Abductions and killings by the LRA in Uganda became virtually non-existent. By March 2009, about thirty percent of camp residents returned to their original villages, while another forty percent went to intermediate "satellite" camps where the conditions are not quite as cramped and squalid.
One of the factors in bringing about the cessation of hostilities is that, in 2005, the International Criminal Court handed down indictments of the LRA's top five leaders. Kony has feared prosecution at The Hague ever since, and the indictments served, at least at first, as an inducement for him to negotiate. However, the warrants were also a key factor in Kony ultimately pulling out of the talks. The continuing threat of prosecution kept Kony in the bush.
In the meantime, civil society organizations and a range of religious communities have called for a rejuvenation of the traditional Acholi reconciliation ritual of mato oput as the most promising means of ending the conflict and returning to normalcy. The ritual has the accused and the offended (or a representative of the offended) jointly drink a liquified bitter herb (mato oput "to drink bitterness") out of a single bowl to signify their "swallowing" of the bitterness in their hearts. One of the strongest advocates of mato oput was and continues to be the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, a consortium of Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and Muslim religious leaders. Part of the argument for mato oput is that the punitive approach of international law as exhibited by the ICC is not representative of the more restorative approach to justice in the Acholi tradition.
In April and again in November 2008, Kony failed to show at arranged meetings where he was to sign the final peace agreement. The government of Uganda responded with airstrikes against the LRA's primary base in the Democartic Republic of Congo in December of that year. The LRA, in turn, went on a rampage, slaughtering an estimated 900 civilians in DRC and South Sudan over the next month. Three characteristics stand out as at odds with previous LRA modes of engagement. They attacked on Christmas day, they attacked churches while people were inside worshipping, and they carried out a campaign of rape. The LRA has changed. The LRA is still abducting, but now in DRC and South Sudan, and the rationale is no longer to "purify" the Acholi. It is simple warlordism.
The aim of PeaceHarvest is to build up the community of the people in northern Uganda through agricultural development and peacebuilding training so that further conflict in the area is less likely. We work on the basis of the fact that improved economic livelihood and community relations decreases the likelihood of conflict. In my next entry, I will talk in detail about PeaceHarvest's last project in northern Uganda.