A Voice for Peace in Northern Uganda: An Interview With John Baptist Odama
How and why did the massive displacement of almost two million people into camps begin?
The government’s forced displacement of most of the population of northern Uganda from the villages in my area, the Gulu Province, began in 1996. It was intended as a way to isolate the rebels—especially the Lord’s Resistance Army, controlled by Joseph Kony—in order to attack and flush them out more easily. But what was originally intended as a temporary displacement of six months has become a permanent situation for a large percentage of the population. Ninety-four percent of my archdiocese, in fact, lives in these camps for internally displaced people. The overall sense of insecurity is heightened by this forced confinement, which in turn has led to a severe sense of imprisonment.
What are the camps like?
The living conditions are shocking on every level. Diseases are rampant—malaria, cholera, AIDS. While Uganda is noted for having initially controlled the spread of AIDS, in the northern part of the country the rate of infection is very high—at least 18 percent there, in contrast to 5 percent in the south. A government report estimates that 1,000 people die weekly in the internally displaced person camps, not only from disease and hunger, but also from violence, including suicide, which is now common among young people. Sanitation is another problem, with latrines that do not function well, especially after heavy rains.
I often visit the I.D.P. camps, and frequently stay overnight in huts the people have made for me, so that from time to time I could live among them. In that way, I observe the conditions at first hand. I sleep with the facts, so to speak. I see many graves. I remember noticing the set of graves of a single family. The father, a young man, was apparently killed by the rebels. He was buried first. Later his wife, a woman of only 24, was killed too. In between their graves is the grave of their child. Three graves, an entire family extinct. It is too much—and enough after 20 years of warfare.
Is food adequate?
Basic foods, like maize and beans, are provided by the World Food Program and other nongovernmental organizations when they are able to safely gain access to the camps. But the situation is never completely predictable. The people are farmers, though, and feel dispossessed because they cannot use the land around the camps to plant crops for themselves. They are allowed to move only a short distance from the camp boundaries. This is one of the reasons severe depression is common, often resulting in the suicides I mentioned. In some camps there can be as many as three on one day. The people get up in the morning and have nothing to do all day long. This lack of normal activities has also led to high rates of alcoholism (corn rations are often secretly put aside in order to create a homemade alcoholic brew).
Have the children been harmed by these conditions?
The children are the most disadvantaged of all. Unicef has been helping some of the children and their families to cope. We work with Unicef and appreciate their advocacy. Northern Uganda has been the site of one of the most child-affecting crises in the world. The children realize that their parents are no longer able to fulfill their normal responsibilities toward them in terms of health care and food and education. The camps do have schools, but they are very overcrowded, with one or two hundred children in the same class. The parents are themselves cut off from many of the cultural and moral traditions that had been a strengthening part of their previous lives as families, so they as well as the children feel adrift.
Do the children experience fear of rebel attacks that might result in their being forced to join Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army as soldiers?
The children live in great fear, and this has led to what is known as the night commuter phenomenon. Either by themselves, or sent by their parents, many leave the camps at nightfall to seek safety in the town areas. One evening I went out to the main road and saw children walking with feet swollen because of the long distances they had come. Once in town, they sleep anywhere—on cement floors or veranda steps—with nothing to cover them but little plastic bags they might have found along the way. Then in the morning they walk back to the camps, often hungry, unless their parents had given them a little food to take with them. With our interreligious leaders group, we have gone to the towns and slept under plastic bags too, so that these children can know they are not alone, not forgotten, despite the hardships of their lives.
How many children have been abducted since the war began?
The estimate by the United Nations runs to almost 30,000. About a third are girls, who become sex slaves to the L.R.A. officers and bear their children. Some, both boys and girls, manage to escape. Reception centers have been established to help them with counseling and psychotherapy. If their relatives can be located, they are reunited. But often the parents have been killed in the violence or have moved elsewhere. I frequently visit the centers, either alone or as part of interfaith groups.
We sometimes feel that this war has gone on for such a long time that it now has grandchildren—not just metaphorically, but in a literal sense too. For example, an abducted girl who has a child might be held captive for so long that she sees her own daughter reach childbearing age among her rebel captors, and so begin to have babies of her own.
Have you yourself been involved in any of the peace efforts?
I have gone to the bush to speak with members of the L.R.A. half a dozen times, either alone or with others. We wanted to encourage the rebels to come out and talk, not to keep on fighting. Although not officially, we were somewhat like peace emissaries between the government and the L.R.A. Three years ago, I met once with Kony’s second in command, Vincent Otti. I told him, “When two elephants fight, it is the grass beneath them that suffers.” The people are the grass that is suffering in this conflict. So please stop fighting, we told him. Vincent Otti said that they were ready to talk, but the government has not made an active effort in this direction and continues to use the military option as the only way to end the conflict.
The International Criminal Court issued warrants in October of 2005 for the arrest of Kony and four other L.R.A. leaders, but so far no one has been arrested, and it doesn’t seem that anyone will be in the near future. In December of 2005 and again this month [January 2006], I offered myself to be arrested in Kony’s place and jailed in The Hague in the Netherlands, as a gesture aimed at bringing about reconciliation. I made this offer after a peace service. Cardinal Emmanuel Wamal, who was present when I made it, said in response: “If you are arrested, all the bishops here will be ready to accompany you to jail.”
What is the source of the rebels’ supplies and weapons?
It is known that up until 2002, the Sudanese government gave active support to the L.R.A., claiming that they did so because Uganda was supporting the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army in Southern Sudan. Now the rebels are going to Sudan, where they may be receiving support from the Sudanese government. They have also been going to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where late this month a group of L.R.A. rebels ambushed U.N. peacekeepers near the Sudanese border. Eight Guatemalan soldiers, members of the special forces serving as peacekeepers there, were killed.
How expensive is the war for the Ugandan government?
The government is spending so much on the military and for weapons that little is left for the overall needs of the people, like health and education. The budget for such needs has been cut by 23 percent, primarily to support the war. Theoretically, the government is supposed to be protecting the people in the camps, and yet army personnel have been found to be responsible for many of the human rights abuses that take place in them, including violence against women. The day after Christmas 2005, several people were shot dead by soldiers in a large camp in the Gulu district. It began when a soldier shot dead an 18-year-old youth who was trying to intervene on behalf of a young woman whom the soldier was harassing. The next morning, scores of camp residents went to the army headquarters to demand action against the culprit. But the soldiers there responded by firing into the crowd. Four civilians were killed and 16 injured.
Where do peace efforts stand today?
The various options tried so far have not borne fruit. The military option is the one the government is still pursuing. Dialogue with the rebels, like the one I engaged in when I met with them, has not worked either, even with the offer of amnesty. A former minister in the government, Betty Bigombe, met with the L.R.A. leaders in 2004 in an effort that at first looked promising. There was even a temporary cease-fire, but it collapsed early in 2005. Ms. Bigombe, unfortunately, has received little support. She cannot successfully advocate for peace by herself, so she has proposed the establishing of a peace secretariat—a team approach to move matters forward in the search for reconciliation.
What do you expect from the elections on Feb. 23?
The opposition candidate, Dr. Kizza Besigye, on his return from exile in South Africa last year, was charged with treason and terrorism. He was only recently released from jail. Ironically, the fact that the government arrested and jailed him has made him that much more popular with the people. While he was in prison, his party, the Forum for Democratic Change, nominated him as a presidential candidate. He is the main challenger to the president, Yoweri Museveni, who changed the constitution in order to be able to run for a third term. [Although Mr. Museveni won the election, human rights observers have reported serious irregularities in the conduct of the election.]
Has a truth and justice commission been established?
Not yet, but the Episcopal Conference has advocated for it. Such a commission would make it possible for people to tell their stories, with the goal of reconciliation among the various political, religious and tribal groups in the wake of two decades of war.
What contacts have you had with the United Nations during your visit to New York?
I spoke with Under Secretary Jan Engeland, the United Nations’ emergency coordinator for humanitarian assistance. He has been to Northern Uganda, and he told me that what is happening there is the world’s worst and most forgotten humanitarian crisis. I was also invited to address the Security Council on Jan. 24 as a participant in what is called an Arria Formula meeting. This is a tool, so to speak, used by the Security Council to gather expert input on priority matters from nongovernmental organizations. In that session, there were representatives from Oxfam, Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group and Doctors Without Borders. I spoke as a representative of the Uganda Episcopal Conference. I also shared the concerns of the Acholi Religious and Cultural Leaders Initiative and our interreligious partners in the country.
There and in other meetings with Security Council members and various U.N. missions, my remarks were meant to call upon the international community to assume a more active role, directed toward resolution of the 20-year-old conflict through meaningful dialogue, rather than through continued military means. Military means have failed to protect the people and humanitarian organizations not only from the Lord’s Resistance Army, but also from the government’s own troops, who have, in some cases, been a major source of the insecurity and violence in the camps.
Although the situation continues to be very dark in terms of the violence, the Uganda Episcopal Conference, along with other groups, will continue to work wholeheartedly toward a lasting peace.
A government report estimates that every week 1,000 people die in the camps for internally displaced persons.