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War, Landmines, and Some Hope of Peace

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Issue: 47 Section: Accounts Geography: Africa Uganda

June 21, 2007

War, Landmines, and Some Hope of Peace

Getting a leg up on life in Northern Uganda

by Shaughn McArthur

Landmine survivors gather under a mango tree in Northern Uganda. Photo: Shaughn McArthur

Gathered in the shade of a pair of immense mango trees, in a rare opening between a throng of cow dung huts packed so tightly together that their grass thatched roofs almost touch at the eaves, 25 amputees sit in a semi-circle amid a clutter of wooden crutches.

A skinny dog twitches in her sleep, belly pressed against the hard, red earth, where the smell of burning trash and wood smoke mix, carried by a warm sub-Saharan breeze.

These are the sights and smells of sleepy Paicho Subcounty, a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) 23 kilometres northeast of Gulu Town, hub of Northern Uganda.

With a population of about 16,000, Paicho is small relative to the growing number of camps like it and is situated in a region once endearingly referred to as Acholiland. The native Acholi tribe, after which it takes its name, have long since lost energy for such terms of affection. The pride that once characterized the Acholi Kingdom disappeared long ago. The Acholi sense of dignity is as frail as the Acholi elders, who alone in this community can remember times of peace.

Plagued by HIV/AIDS, malaria, malnutrition, rape and infant mortality, camps for internally displaced persons encompass the entire rural population of Northern Uganda, representing some 1.6 million civilians or almost 95 per cent of the region’s total population.

As one NGO chairman put it, “The conditions in these camps are appalling.” Yet it is due to the relative safety they provide that they have sprung up over the past 15 years.

For 21 years, Acholiland has been caught up in of one of Africa’s longest-running and most brutal civil wars.

A war that originally sought the overthrow of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s government by the elusive Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), it has long since devolved into a brutal power play between opposing gangs of armed murderers, kidnappers, rapists and looters, in what Gulu District chairman and opposition member Norbert Mao calls, “a proxy war between the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, and the Ugandan capital, Kampala.”

While the LRA receives its funding from the powerbrokers of Sudan, the Ugandan government’s United People’s Defence Force (UPDF) is backed by what last year became an elected dictatorship in Kampala.

In October, President Museveni, though internationally praised for his AIDS initiatives and peace brokering, amended the constitution in order to retain his presidential powers.

As the Buganda of Southern Uganda begin the ascent out of poverty, the Acholi continue to suffer.

In 2001, Christine Omono was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army. As a healthy 31-year-old woman, her fate was likely a porter and sex slave.

On her first night, she and three fellow female abductees were sent marching ahead of the rebel ranks to act as human shields. When one of the women stepped on a mine, killing herself and one other, Omono’s left foot was severed at the ankle.

Omono’s brother, who had also been abducted that night, was permitted by the rebels to take his sister to the hospital.

In a war in which women and children are commonly abducted and almost as commonly killed, Omono was considered fortunate to have traded her foot for her freedom and that of her sibling. But when she returned to her husband’s family, she discovered her troubles had only just begun.

“People used to abuse me as I walked around the camp,” she says. “My husband’s family was the worst.”

Caving to his family’s pressure and frustrated with a wife that couldn’t work, Omono’s husband left her.

In a community plagued by food insecurity and where most depend on rations from the World Food Programme, those unable to earn their keep are frequently abandoned, even by their own families.

Okot Birigino, 46, emerges from between two huts and hobbles to the centre of the gathering. In 1996, Birigino lost his right foot when a friend set off a landmine as they were walking together down the side of a road.

Taking a seat on a small wooden bench, he lays his crutches on the ground and produces a book of names and numbers. Behind him, the white SUV he has just exited cools in the shade of a mango tree, bearing the maple leaf insignia of NGO Canadian Physicians for Aid and Relief (CPAR).

At once, a small crowd forms around him, waving filthy wads of cash. He records the amounts both in his own records and in little pink booklets they each carry.

Birigino is CPAR’s Paicho Subcounty Loan Committee chairperson. He is responsible for monitoring the NGO’s beneficiaries in the camp as part of a microfinance initiative specifically targeting landmine survivors like him.

Evidence of at least two of the survivors’ enterprises are scattered around: Three hardwood tables at various stages of completion; and a foot-operated sewing machine. Having learned tailoring and carpentry through CPAR’s vocational training programme for landmine survivors, Birigino now has his own tailoring business and passes on the skills as a peer-educator.

Christine Omono is also one of the initiative’s beneficiaries. Since December she has used the money CPAR lent her to pay able-bodied workers to lay bricks, which she then cooks and sells for profit. She uses another portion of her loan to pay labourers to help cultivate her small garden, the produce of which she sells at the market.

Today she has come to report on her progress and to pay an installment on her loan.

Still vulnerable as an abandoned wife in this survivalist culture, Omono hopes the small profit she has managed to save while paying off her loan will lure her husband into returning.

Ironically, the increasing number of camps like Paicho that have appearing in the last year, and of landmine victims themselves, are in fact signs of hope for Acholiland. With the Juba Peace Talks in southern Sudan now moving tentatively towards an anticipated peace agreement between the insurgent Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan Government, eight months of “relative peace” since the signing of a landmark Cessation of Hostilities Agreement are beginning to restore popular confidences.

For the first time in over two decades, families broken and dehumanized by war and the desperate conditions of the military-guarded camps are beginning to resettle. As the more daring begin to abandon the camps in increasing numbers for so-called “decongestion sites,” a series of new, less-congested camps are springing up across the countryside, ready to absorb them.

Mostly these bring the largely peasant populace closer to their ancestral lands and away from the claustrophobic conditions of the mother camps. However, they also bring people back to areas that have been abandoned for years and which may be littered with landmines and other unexploded ordinances (UXOs).

“It’s the most critical moment now. People are returning home and mine-risk education is more pertinent than ever,” says Richard Olong, CPAR-Gulu’s economic support officer.

Resources are already stretched thin as NGOs try to cover the range of humanitarian work now needed in Acholiland’s reconstruction and Olong fears that CPAR’s landmine action mandate, due to expire next month, is ending prematurely.

“CPAR is coming in to fill in the gap that the government cannot fill. With landmines...the government doesn’t have enough people to complete the task at hand,” says Olong. “That’s why it’s important to have CPAR and other NGOs.”

Until local and national governments can provide safety and basic human rights to their citizens, he explained, the onus is left on the growing number of NGOs operating in the district.

But while many agencies scramble to dig boreholes to provide potable water and others build churches to soothe the soul, landmine action seems to be falling ever further below the radar screen.

“The capacity of the Ugandan government to cover mine action is not there,” says Olong.

Roadside signs illustrate what to look out for and advise caution, but with low literacy in the region, their effectiveness is subject to much skepticism.

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