The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), an Acholi-based opposition group led by Joseph Kony has been fighting first against president Museveni’s government, and currently against other Acholi peoples. The Acholi are an ethnic group who live in Northern Uganda. Though Kony, leader of the LRA reportedly believes he has been chosen by God to overthrow president Museveni and establish a government based on the Ten Commandments, and a purified Acholi race, the LRA has yet to explain its goals or put forth any sort of political agenda.
The current war which has been going on for over 20 years has displaced over 1.6 million people in Northern Uganda. Most of whom live in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. The UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, describes Northern Uganda as “the world’s terrorism epicenter. Nowhere in the world do we have large areas where between 80 and 90 percent of the population are terrorized into camps by violence.” It is also estimated that by 2004, more than 25,000 children had been abducted, and that currently 80 percent of the fighters in the LRA are children. (Pawns of Politics: Children, conflict and peace in Northern Uganda, World Vision, 2004)
The two decades of conflict in Northern Uganda have greatly affected the Acholis both socially and economically. The 1995 Attiak massacre has especially devastated the region and turned the once very prosperous townships into their worst conditions. Moreover, LRA child soldiers were forced to attack villages, shoot and cut off people’s lips, ears, hands, feet, or breasts, at times force-feeding the severed body parts to victims’ families. Some cut open the bellies of pregnant women and tear their babies out. Men and women were also gang-raped.
Farming, which is the main source of livelihood, has been limited by the insecurity, as people can not access land for farming. This has increased the level of poverty and has made Acholis vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, child abuse, etc. During the 20 years of conflict in the region, the youth were the most affected because they were the primary targets of the conflicting parties. The youth were abducted especially by the rebels and recruited into their fighting ranks at school going ages and thus missed out the opportunity to attend formal education or gain other skills to empower them economically.
During my visit to northern Uganda, some of the children I met were born in camps and are teenagers now. The only life they know is living in camps. Most of them have never been to a town or village to experience what it is like to live a normal life outside the camp. A major concern in northern Uganda is demobilization and reintegration for children and youth who were once abducted by LRA. I still worry if real peace will be achieved through the peace talks; for physical and emotional healing for all of the children who are trying to lead “normal lives” after their escape from the rebels and for those who are still in captivity.
The resilience of the Acholi people is remarkable. They are extremely hopeful for peace so that they can return to farming their ancestral homelands. The stories I heard during my visit to Gulu gave me much respect for people who have endured and survived the war.