Group Acts Against Genocide in Northern Uganda
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
In the developed world, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has carefully cultivated an image as a hero since he was installed in power in 1986 following the collapse of the murderous regimes of dictators Milton Obote and Idi Amin. A much-publicized anti-AIDS campaign helped burnish Museveni’s international image despite its wild claims of having reduced HIV prevalence in his country from 20 to 6 percent. On the ground, however — especially among the Acholi people in northern Uganda, near its border with Sudan — Museveni’s government is leading a campaign that Ugandan-born activist Charlie Lakony calls genocide.
Lakony, an émigré who serves as vice-president of a group called Friends for Peace in Africa, and Kathy Smith of the local chapter of Amnesty International discussed the situation in northern Uganda at an unusual meeting of Activist San Diego May 8. The meeting was unusual because it took place, not at Activist San Diego’s normal headquarters in City Heights, but at the Alliance for African Assistance, 5952 El Cajon Boulevard in the College area. Since Lakony works there, and holds a regular meeting every Monday night to plan actions against the Ugandan genocide, he began his presentation by joking, “I feel like a visitor in my own house.”
Once he got underway, however, he was deadly serious as he said bluntly, “What is going on in northern Uganda amounts to genocide.” Lakony acknowledged that “a certain number of deaths don’t necessarily amount to genocide,” but he said that under the official United Nations definition in a document called the Rome Convention, this one did. The situation is complicated because the Acholis are caught in the middle of a civil conflict between the Ugandan government and a movement called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), whose ideology Lakony didn’t discuss in depth but who were described in the call to the meeting as “a rebel group with no discernible goals except to overthrow the current government and install one based on its interpretation of the Ten Commandments.”
According to Lakony, the Ugandan government started its campaign against the Acholi people in 1996 and used the threat of the LRA as an excuse. They followed the classic strategy, pioneered by the British against the Boers in South Africa in the 1890’s and copied by the Nazis during World War II and the U.S. in Viet Nam, of forcing the local population out of their home villages, rounding them up and putting them in concentration camps. The people who were pushed off their land and the only life they had ever known were euphemistically described as “IDP’s” — “internally displaced persons.”
“People were moved away from their land, away from their houses and away from their livelihoods, [allegedly] so they would not provide cover, food and sanctuary to the [LRA] rebels,” Lakony explained. “There are now 200 camps where 2 million people are crammed. “ He compared conditions in the camps to those in the New Orleans Superdome during the evacuation following Hurricane Katrina. “Their houses are about three, four or five yards in diameter, three feet from each other, grass huts, very dry,” Lakony said. “If one house starts burning, the entire camp burns up and 50,000 people are left homeless.”
What’s more, he said, rather than harming the LRA, the relocation actually helped them, according to Lakony. “The LRA is a very vicious guerrilla movement that was abducting people, using children as soldiers and sex slaves, and cutting off people’s limbs and tearing out their eyes,” he explained. “Before the camps were open they would have to go to people’s homes and schools to abduct their children. When the government moved people to the camps, all the LRA had to do was come into the camps and collect their victims.”
Lakony discussed Museveni’s international reputation, pointing out that just about anybody who took over from Idi Amin and Milton Obote would have looked good by comparison. “Museveni introduced a system of government and an economic system that has benefited a great majority of the rest of the country, except the north, which is not only left out but is calculatedly deprived of every necessity,” Lakony said. While he declined to speculate on whether Museveni’s motivation for his assaults on the north was racist hatred of the Acholi people or a desire to clear the area for future economic development and settlement by southerners, he accused the Ugandan government of using the LRA as “cover” for a genocidal attack.
“The government said they took the people away and put them into the camps to protect them against the LRA because the LRA was killing people, but statistics show that only 7 percent of the people who are dying in Uganda are because of the LRA,” Lakony explained. “Fully 93 percent are dying because of the conditions in the camps and what the government soldiers are doing themselves. We got some statistics just today that say that 3,123 people are dying each week in these camps. These are deaths that could have been prevented if the government was taking action. People are dying of malaria, fever, cholera, malnutrition. Mothers are committing suicide because they can’t stand seeing their children die in their arms. Mothers line up for three days to get a jerry-can of water, and then when they get that water they have to divide it, because you have to bribe somebody in order to survive in there.”
According to Lakony, Uganda is one of the three most corrupt countries in the world (he didn’t name the other two), despite the positive image Museveni has carefully cultivated abroad as part of a “new breed” of African leader. Lakony said that most of the money the government has allocated to needs in the north has been siphoned off by the Ugandan army, while Museveni’s worldwide propaganda campaign has convinced most people who care about northern Uganda at all that their problems are entirely due to the LRA, not the government. “The government has kept the world so focused on the LRA it doesn’t notice that the government itself is letting people die,” Lakony said.
One of the elements in this propaganda campaign, Lakony argued, was a heart-wrenching film called Invisible Children. “It tells a poignant story of rebels decimating an entire community and children trying to seek sanctuary in the cities,” Lakony said. Indeed, much of the literature on northern Uganda tells stories of the so-called “night commuters,” children who move from their homes to shelters, schools, churches or balconies in large cities. The government of Uganda said the “night commuters” were doing this to avoid the LRA’s kidnapping gangs, but Lakony said they were also trying to keep out of the hands of Uganda’s own army, which is also kidnapping children and forcing them into military service or sexual slavery.
According to Lakony, the situation for the Acholi people is so dire that “the death rate is way higher than the birth rate. A group of people is being killed off. You may not agree with our assessment, but whether it is genocide or just a little ‘skirmish,’ over 3,000 people are dying each week. It is worse than Darfur. It is worse than Iraq. … It is not acceptable that children are dying and the government is killing them.” What’s more, he said, when his group has lobbied other governments around the world, including Germany, Canada and some of the Scandinavian countries, they’ve been told that those countries are deferring to the United States and Great Britain — both of which are so strongly supportive of Museveni that they jointly vetoed three U.N. Security Council resolutions to take action against Uganda.
Lakony argued that the U.S. is applying a double standard, letting Uganda get away with actions that this country has condemned elsewhere in the world. “When Museveni decided to take people from their homes and put them in camps, Burundi’s government was doing the same thing — and the U.S said they couldn’t do that,” Lakony said. “Bosnia was recognized as a genocide and the world said it would never happen again. Rwanda happened, and the world said, ‘We dropped the ball.’ Each of you have heard of Darfur. But when we speak about northern Uganda, we hear people say they never heard of the genocide and ask what the government is doing. There seems to be a veil when you talk about the Ugandan government’s actions against the people.”
Kathy Smith of Amnesty International put the Ugandan situation in a regional context, pointing out that Uganda is part of the so-called “Great Lakes” region of Africa and most of the countries that border it, including Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Sudan, have had their own civil wars and atrocities. She cited the statement of Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International, after her field trip to the region in 2003, which pointed out that developed countries are helping keep these wars and genocides going by selling arms to those governments. “We call on all U.N. member states not to engage in arms transfers and supplies of military and police equipment or training to the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo], Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda unless they are able to subject these transfers to the most stringent certification and scrutiny to ensure that the equipment will not be used to perpetrate human-rights abuses,” Khan said.
According to Smith, there are a few positive signs in Uganda, including a reduction in the number of “night commuter” children from 30,000 to 7,000 in one city, Bulu. But she refused to say whether that was an indicator of stability. Like Lakony, Smith criticized the film Invisible Children for “not highlighting the responsibility of the government” for the deaths and abuses against Ugandan children. She cited the international Doctors Without Borders group for “highlighting the psychological abuse of children. Over 1,200 children seek refuge every evening. The children will say they are fleeing rebels and robbers, but there’s a general atmosphere of violence they face every day. The children are raped and they trade sexual favors; 23.5 percent demonstrate severe psychological distress and 37.5 percent are in danger of slipping into that fate.”
Lakony leads a coalition of local activists aimed at raising awareness of the genocide in northern Uganda and building a grass-roots movement aimed at putting pressure on U.S. Senators and Congressmembers to act. The group meets every Monday night at 7 at the Alliance for African Assistance, 5952 El Cajon Boulevard. For more information on the Ugandan genocide, visit the Human Rights Watch Web site, http://www.hrw.org, and download “Uprooted and Forgotten: Impunity and Human Rights Abuses in Northern Uganda.”