Sudan and the Ugandan Conflict – An Overview
Sudan. The same government that foments war in Darfur has played a heavy hand in the conflict in northern Uganda.
The LRA agreed to help the Sudanese government fight its civil war against the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in exchange for a steady supply of weapons and food. By the mid-1990s, the Ugandan national army had improved its capacity to track down rebel forces. The LRA was constantly on the run in the Ugandan countryside, so it decided to move its base into southern Sudan.
Sudan’s involvement in the Ugandan conflict made the war more relevant to western nations in some respects. The most significant shift occurred after September 11, 2001, when the United States stepped up its campaign against terrorism. President George W. Bush declared the LRA “a terrorist organization.” Pressed to demonstrate that it did not support terrorism, the Sudanese government claimed that it had cut off supplies to the LRA. If that did in fact happen, the weapons and food started flowing again in 2002 after the LRA helped Sudan take over the strategically important town of Torit from the SPLA.
Also in 2002, Ugandan President Museveni unleashed a major offensive against LRA bases located in southern Sudan. Code-named Operation Iron Fist, the national army geared up to completely wipe out the LRA. Instead, the campaign stirred up a hornet’s nest.
The Ugandan army’s attack on LRA bases in Sudan became so intense that the rebels divided into small operational units and infiltrated back into northern Uganda. Over the next eighteen months, the LRA abducted ten thousand children and wreaked havoc on the civilian population. It was not until the end of 2004 that the national army regained some semblance of military control in Uganda, and LRA bands trickled back into southern Sudan.
Then, in August 2006, the Ugandan government and the LRA signed a truce to the war. Under the terms of the truce, the rebels would leave their bases throughout Sudan and the Congo and establish bases at two sites in southern Sudan. The government of southern Sudan has pledged to the LRA its protection, and the Ugandan government promises that it will not attack the rebels.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) further complicated the political situation in Uganda, however, when it issued warrants for the arrest of the LRA leadership. The court would make Kony and his top four commanders liable for war crimes. Some political bodies argue that ICC indictments need to be kept in place in order for justice to be done. Others argue that they deny LRA leaders any incentive for giving up their fight and only pro-long the war.
Joseph Kony says that he will not surrender as long as he and his top commanders risk prosecution by the ICC. The rebel chief also has refused to release captive child soldiers and sex slaves.
THE NIGHT COMMUTERS
The LRA typically raids rural villages at night. Given the risk, many families living in northern Uganda send their children off to seek safety in city centers before night falls.
As many as thirty thousand “night commuters” journey on foot—some walk for five to ten miles—to reach a shelter that lies near a national army garrison. Not all of the children are fortunate enough to find a formal shelter. Many sleep in bus terminals, in parks, under shop verandas, or in abandoned buildings. The kids walk back to their home village at dawn.
Noah’s Ark is one of twenty shelters in Gulu for night commuters. On a single night in the summer of 2006, about one thousand children sought shelter there. Several dozen new mothers showed up as well. If their villages were attacked, they could not hope to outrun the rebels with an infant in their arms.
Before the sun had set, hundreds of kids had already arrived and were playing games and singing songs in a central courtyard. The scene bore the markings of a school recess.
As the skies darkened, more kids came from every direction, walking down roads leading to the shelter. Some carried little brothers and sisters on their back. A guard stood at the front gate, welcoming each child. A chain-link fence surrounded the entire compound, with barbed wire running along its top to discourage would-be intruders.
Most of the younger kids behaved as if they were on a fun sleepover with friends. About one out of ten, however, walked around shell-shocked, obviously craving to be at home with their mother.
Several of the teenage girls expressed relief that they had made it to the refuge unscathed. Gangs of young men commonly lie in wait along the side of the road for girls to pass on their night commute. The girls all have stories of friends who were raped and left battered and bruised.
Noah’s Ark can afford to pay only a handful of staff, which explains its “lord of the flies” environment: a village populated wholly of children. Some of the more disciplined kids sat in a lighted hall and did their schoolwork. The majority sat clumped together in the central courtyard, chatting with their friends.
As the night wore on, kids strolled in small groups to their sleeping quarters. They needed no shepherding. The younger kids moved into classrooms, one for boys and the other for girls. The teens, also separated by gender, slept on concrete slabs covered by an enormous canopy.
Blankets hung clumsily over rope lines that had been strung across the width of each room. As the children entered their respective quarters, they grabbed a blanket and found a space to stretch out on the hard floor. Before long all the rooms were covered with small bodies lined up like sardines in a tin can. The stench of urine and body odor was overwhelming.
The flow of night commuters rises and falls in response to rebel attacks. The summer of 2006 was a slow period for night commuters. During the first half of the year, the LRA had made few attacks; rumor had it that its troops had retreated to southern Sudan and the Congo. The director of Noah’s Ark claimed that in 2004, when rebel raids reached a peak, around seven thousand children flooded into her refuge each evening. During that same period, Saint Joseph’s Mission, a shelter located in the town of Kitgum, reported an average daily population of five thousand night commuters.
“THESE CHILDREN NEED FUTURES”
Ending the enslavement of child soldiers around the globe will require abolitionists to adopt a broad range of strategic initiatives and skill sets.
Agencies like Noah’s Ark are needed to create safe environments that reduce the likelihood that vulnerable children will be abducted into slavery. Heroic individuals are needed to provide material aid and emotional support to slaves who find their way to freedom. And though it may not sound as romantic, we sorely need individuals and organizations that will focus on advocacy and public policy.
In April 2006, World Vision played an instrumental role in persuading members of the U.S. House of Representatives to hold a public hearing on child soldiers in Uganda.
On that occasion, Grace Grall Akallo, an ex-slave, gave her personal testimony. Grace was one of the renowned abductees from Saint Mary’s College in Aboke town. She told the House subcommittee, “Unfortunately, my story . . . has become so common that abduction is now a fear that daily defines the lives of children who live in the war-affected areas.”
Responding to her testimony, Rep. Diane Watson asked Grace, “Do you feel they’ll ever be normal again? You’ve learned to use a gun to kill. And I’m wondering how we could really impact on that?”
Grace told the congressional representatives exactly what the children of northern Uganda long for: “These children need love. These children need peace. These children need concrete futures. A matter of counseling a child for only six months doesn’t help…. [We need you to] mobilize the international community… to protect children and to end the conflict.”
This story is from ‘Not for Sale’ by David Batstone, Harper SanFrancisco
Copyright © 2006 HarperCollins Publishers, All rights reserved