The Nightmare of Northern Uganda
The Nightmare of Northern Uganda
The Kampala Attacks and Their Regional Implications
The Kampala Attacks and Their Regional Implications
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

The Nightmare of Northern Uganda

It sounds like some incredibly dark Grimm Brothers fairy tale. Each night before the sun sets, thousands of children march in grim procession along dusty roads that take them from their rural villages to larger towns. The children are afraid to sleep in their beds, terrified that they will be abducted by a madman who will force them into a marauding guerrilla army that hunts down their friends, families, and loved ones.

The fleeing children sleep in churches, empty schools, makeshift shelters, and alleyways. And every morning at sunrise, the children walk home, free for another day.

This is no fairy tale; the reality of northern Uganda's 18-year-old conflict is brutal. Under the control of a self-proclaimed messiah named Joseph Kony, the rebel Lord's Resistance Army has terrorized the region's civilian population. Kony, his few disciples, and an army comprised largely of kidnapped, tortured and brainwashed child soldiers have waged a campaign to overthrow the government of President Yoweri Museveni and establish an ethnically pure state based on Kony's distorted interpretation of the Old Testament.

During our visit to northern Uganda this month, we talked with one 13-year-old girl who had recently escaped from her LRA abductors. In an attack in which her parents were killed, she was captured during the one night she hadn't made her nightly commute to safety because she had fallen ill. She was held for nearly a year, experiencing all manner of depredations. Her chilling tale was typical of the stories we heard from one child after another.

Yet despite the horrors of this conflict, developments over the past six months have given observers two reasons for optimism. First, the LRA has been weakened because of improved performance by the Ugandan military, pressure from an investigation by the International Criminal Court and reduced support from Kony's long-time benefactor, the Sudanese government. Many LRA bases in southern Sudan have been overrun and supply lines have been disrupted. Defections and captures of its command and rank-and-file continue apace.

Second, a mediation effort led by a former Ugandan state minister, Betty Bigombe, has opened contact with the LRA, giving its leadership an exit option. But the window for peace is closing. Recent reports of sadistic mutilations - hacking off lips, ears and breasts with axes and machetes - mark a return to the worst LRA atrocities of the past 18 years. These attacks reinforce the opinion of many that Kony will never come out of the bush.

Renewed Sudanese government support for the LRA makes matters worse. The LRA's retreat further into Sudan has created complications for the Ugandan military, while Kony and his forces can rest, resupply and plan further attacks on civilians. This is consistent with the LRA's history. When backed into a corner, it has consistently emerged stronger, more focused and more bloodthirsty than ever.

The peace process is in need of some shock therapy. The Ugandan government should make a clear proposal spelling out terms for the end of the war, and the U.S. government, as the key external actor, should step up its support for the peace process and help see if a deal is ultimately possible. Because such a deal may not be possible, a simultaneous effort to increase the effectiveness of Uganda's military actions against the LRA should also be a high priority. Additional military pressure will influence LRA leaders to consider a deal.

This way forward is not simple, and will require the active assistance of the Sudanese government in Khartoum and the Southern People's Liberation Movement in southern Sudan, as well as diplomats in Kampala and Khartoum. The job will be harder after the death of John Garang, the long-time leader of the SPLM, who had recently become Sudan's vice president. His death should be a catalyst for increased international support for ending the crisis in northern Uganda, one that has destabilizing impacts on peace efforts in southern Sudan as well.

U.S. help is indispensable. The United States was crucial in ending the conflict in southern Sudan, and has considerable influence with President Museveni of Uganda. In addition to supporting peace efforts, U.S. influence also should be brought to bear on the imperative of civilian protection. Consultation should begin about the deployment of an international force to protect people in the displaced camps from further attack.

Around the world, children face all manner of depredations, but the stories we heard in northern Uganda may be among the most horrific ever told. Without more international support for the peace process and civilian protection, the region's children will be condemned to continue living out their dark fairy tale of abduction, torture, rape and murder. A happy ending is possible, but it will require much more commitment from the Bush administration to these forgotten children.


Former Program Co-Director, Africa
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Don Cheadle

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