Uganda’s Violent Legacy

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By Lejla Hodzic

More than ten years ago, a UN official described the conflict in Uganda as “the biggest forgotten, neglected humanitarian emergency in the world,” adding that the war in the northern part of the country targeted the civilian population, especially children.

Since its declaration of independence in 1962, Uganda has experienced conflicts among different ethnic, religious and national groups, but the scale of atrocities committed by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) over a period of more than 20 years has been particularly shocking. The LRA insurgency continues – albeit with diminished intensity – today, with children being the principal victims of abductions and forcible conscription.

The LRA came to prominence in the 1980s, one of several rebel movements in Uganda’s economically and politically marginalized north.[1] The group, led by Joseph Kony, began practicing extreme brutality against the Acholi people while claiming to defend their rights.[2] It gained control of large parts of northern Uganda, already ravaged by years of conflict, and has been fighting the Kampala Government ever since.

The LRA’s violence contributed to its rejection by the Acholi and a growing refusal by citizens to join the movement. To maintain its military capacity, the LRA applied a strategy of forced conscription mainly targeting children and young people (deemed easier to manipulate). Although there are no agreed official numbers, one study from 2008 estimates that the LRA abducted 54,000 to 75,000 people between 1986 and 2006, of whom 25,000 to 38,000 were children at the time of abduction.[3] In addition to continuous abductions, the rebels have used violence as a means of social control and as a way of undermining the authority of the government. This has contributed substantially to a climate of fear and democratic instability in the country.

In response to the growing number of abductions of children, the Government created “protected villages” designed to enable citizens to live unmolested by LRA fighters. At the height of the conflict, nearly two million people in northern Uganda were living in these displacement camps.[4]

While adults have also been victims of abductions, they are less often forced to become combatants. Through mind-control techniques that instill fear, and through sheer brutality, the LRA initiates children and forces them to undergo “military training”[5] which often means participation in ceremonial killings, or involves killing other children who disobey the rules. While boys are trained for combat, girls abducted by the LRA are forced to become “wives” or sexual slaves. Girls accompany fighters in combat, where they witness the brutality of the conflict at first hand.

The abduction of children has been a key characteristic of a conflict in which children fight and in which children are victims: minors account for almost 90 percent of the LRA’s soldiers.[6]

UNICEF is among the many organizations that have expressed outrage and condemnation at the psychological trauma that abducted children are made to endure.

In August 2006, a Cessation of Hostilities agreement was signed by the LRA and the government of Uganda. Joseph Kony did not sign the Final Peace Agreement in 2008 and has since disappeared. The LRA has continued to commit atrocities, among which were massacres in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) carried out in 2008 and 2009. [7]

Although the LRA has transferred its troops to the DRC, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan, the consequences of its activities are omnipresent in Uganda today. Joseph Kony and others in the LRA leadership have been indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, and his apprehension and transfer to the Court will have a major positive impact on efforts to help Uganda emerge from the long conflict.[8]

As long as thousands of families live in a state of uncertainty over the whereabouts of their relatives, it will be difficult for Ugandan society, particularly in the north of the country, to establish long-term stability and peace. It is essential that a comprehensive list of the dead and missing is drawn up as a prerequisite for a sustained effort to account for the missing. This will require cooperation between the government and the rebels. It will be the forerunner of comprehensive research and analysis of atrocities committed on both sides.

The Agreement on Accountability and Reconciliation signed between the rebels and the government provides for reparations to all survivors of the conflict. Considering the scale of atrocities committed by the LRA, especially against children, it is important to establish a mechanism for providing support to families of the abducted and the war dead.

As time passes, the authorities and local leaders have become increasingly aware of the need to address the legacies of a violent past. However, there also seems to be a widespread lack of awareness about the difficulties that families of the missing face.

Although the conflict in Uganda is no longer being fought with the same intensity as a decade ago, thousands of families still live with the painful uncertainty that accompanies not knowing the fate of a loved one. The prosecution of war crimes can be a starting point for a transition to a permanent peace. Accounting for the missing will be a key element in this process.


[2] Ibid.