Genocide unfolding in northern Uganda
From Olara Otunnu, January 4, 2006
May I, first of all, congratulate you on your election as the President of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). I warmly applaud the efforts of FDC, together with those of the other democracy-seeking political parties, in the common struggle to reestablish genuine democratic practice and space in Uganda.
- I write this letter with a very heavy and anguished heart, concerning a national catastrophe and shame, the full magnitude of which is beyond belief. I refer to the genocide unfolding in northern Uganda. I know and very much appreciate your deep personal preoccupation in this respect.
- I believe that we need a robust non-partisan all-party response to the genocide. I am therefore writing this letter to you and to the presidents of the other democracy-seeking political parties.
- What is going on in northern Uganda is not a usual humanitarian crisis, for which an adequate response might be the mobilization of necessary humanitarian support and relief. The human rights and humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in northern Uganda is a methodical and comprehensive genocide, conceived and being carried out by the government. An entire society is being systematically destroyed -- physically, culturally, emotionally, socially, and economically - in full view of the country. In the sobering words of Father Carlos Rodriguez, a Catholic missionary priest in the region, "Everything Acoli is dying". Or, as MSF has reported, "The extent of suffering is overwhelming...according to international benchmarks this constitutes an emergency out of control."
- I know of no recent or present situation where all the elements that constitute genocide under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (UNGA resolution 260 A of 1948) have been brought together in such a diabolically and chillingly comprehensive manner, as in northern Uganda today.
- Genocide is a precise project. Its determination does not lie in the eye of the beholder. The actions that constitute genocide have been laid out in the 1948 Convention. According to the Convention, genocide is a project or campaign directed against a racial, national, linguistic, religious or political group with the purpose of "destroying it in whole or in part or of preventing its preservation or development." Typically, these efforts are directed at destroying "in whole or in part" the physical preservation, the livelihood, the culture, the children, the public health, and the family structure and life of a community. The result is unnatural rates of physical depletion and socio-economic regression of the community, and a radical undermining of its capacity for preservation, regeneration, and development, as a group.
- This is precisely what has been going on in northern Uganda for many years. In fact, in northern Uganda, a whole infrastructure -- the concentration camps-- has been put in place, as the most efficient locale to prosecute the genocidal project. The concentration camps provide a controlled environment, in which deadly living conditions are imposed on the targeted populations, while maintaining total control over them. Here all the ingredients that comprise genocide have been brought together in a diabolically comprehensive way. The result is all too evident -- a once-vibrant society has been reduced to a mere existential shadow of itself.
- Following a recent visit to the region, the Ugandan journalist, Elias Biryabarema, wrote: "Not a single explanation on earth can justify the sickening human catastrophe going on in Lango and Acoliland: the degradation, desolation and the horrors killing off generation after generation... Frankly, it's not entirely imprecise to describe what I saw as a slow extinction facing the Acoli and Langi peoples... I encountered unique and heart-stopping suffering,... shocking cruelty and death stalking a people by the minute, by the hour, by the day; for the last two decades...These children, these women have committed no crime to deserve this. They deserve an explanation from their president...Museveni owes these children, these women an answer: they deserved it yesterday, they do today and will tomorrow."
- The situation in northern Uganda is far worse than that of Darfur, in terms of its duration, its magnitude, the scope of its diabolical comprehensiveness, and its deep and long-term consequences for the society being destroyed.
Profile of the genocide
- Although cold facts and data are woefully inadequate to convey the full depth and measure of what is unfolding in northern Uganda, it is a starting point. Witness the following:
- 20 years of war. The human rights and humanitarian catastrophe in northern Uganda has been going on, non-stop, for twenty years.
- 10 years in concentration camps. For over 10 years, a population of almost 2 million people have been herded like animals into concentration camps, some 200 camps* where they live in abominable conditions, defined by staggering levels of squalor, disease and death, humiliation and despair, appalling sanitation and hygiene, and massive overcrowding and malnutrition.
As a relief official in Gulu described it, "People are living like animals. They do not have the bare minimum."
Today virtually the entire population (95%) of Acoli is in these concentration camps.
- Staggering death levels in the camps. A recent joint survey by the Ministry of Health and international agencies reported that 1,000 excess deaths in the camps in Acoli every week, that is about 50,000 each year.
The survey also estimated that, in the first half of this year, around 30,000 died in the camps in Acoli, of which over 11,000 were children under five. In November, in the space of three days in Awere camp alone, 27 people were buried, 19 of them children. These figures do not include those who have been killed in outright atrocities by both the LRA and the government.
As Gulu NGO Forum reported, "The camp population is not coping anymore but only slowly but gradually dying." This observation was underscored by the UN in a report in November, "The mortality rates are double those of Darfur."
- Worst infant and maternal mortality. These camps have the worst infant mortality rates anywhere in the world today. The infant mortality rate in northern Uganda is 172 per 1000 live births; the situation is worse for children under five where 276/1000 die in the region. Children under five years of age die at the rate of 5 - 6 out of 10,000 each day; in one camp (Agweng) a survey found that the rate was as high as 10.5 deaths / 10,000 children a day. The emergency threshold is less than 2 deaths/10, 000 children. Meanwhile, the maternal mortality ratio is 700 per 100,000 live births in the north; the national figure is 506/ 100,000.
- Healthcare, non-existent. As reported by the international agency IDMC, "Access to healthcare is almost nonexistent."
- Malnutrition and stunted growth. Chronic malnutrition is widespread; 41&percent; of children under 5 years have been seriously stunted in their growth. A ration of 25 kilos of corn flour and six kilos of pulses is provided to each family, regardless of size, which could vary from 6 to 10 persons in a household.
- Access to latrines, abominable. Access to latrines is abominable. A recent survey found that 85&percent; of camp population in Gulu district do not have access to latrines. The minimum requirements for such emergency situations is 1 toilet for 20 adults and 1 toilet for 10 children. In Otuboi camp, there is one latrine for 1,566 persons - - this translates on average into access of 30 seconds per person per day. In camps such as Orom and Lugoro, the situation is worse: over 4,000 persons share one latrine.
- Access to water, appalling. Access to water is equally appalling. 2500-3000 persons share a water source. It takes 4-6 hours (with peaks of 12 hours) of waiting in line to collect water; the standard waiting time in such emergencies should be 15 minutes.
- Camps massively congested. The camps are massively over-congested. Pabbo and Kalongo, for example, have a population of 72,000 and 55,000, respectively, herded into a space of 1 square kilometer. This translates into a space of 16m2 for each person, whereas the recommended minimum surface area for each person is 45 m2. Most of the camps have less than 1/4 of the area recommended in such emergencies. A family of 6-8 persons have to pack themselves, sardine-like, into a tiny hut of 1.5 metre radius; the minimum standard for such emergencies is 3.5 square metres per person. And contrary to traditional culture, three generations of a family-- parents, children and grandparents -- are all forced to share the same living space, with loss of all privacy and dignity.
- 20 years without education. Two generations of children have been denied education as a matter of policy. They have been deliberately condemned to a life of darkness and ignorance, deprived of all hope and opportunity. Imagine this in the land of Archbishop Janani Luwum, Professor Okot p'Bitek (the teacher, philosopher, literary pioneer and poet) and Professor A. M. Odonga (the pioneer physician and renowned surgeon); they are among Uganda's gifts to the world. But the children of northern Uganda have been deliberately denied the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of these role-models and pioneers. These children are being targeted for systematic deprivation in this way within the twisted and racist logic of genocide -- to ensure that "those people" will never rise again!
- Death of culture and values system. In a society renowned for its deep-rooted and rich culture, values system and family structure -- all these have been destroyed under the living conditions imposed and prevailing over the last 10 years in the camps. This loss is colossal and virtually irreparable; it signals the death of a people and their civilization. At first this seemed unimaginable but now it has become a grim reality staring us in the face. As stated in a report by a consortium of NGOs, "Rejuvenation of the Acoli institutions into action, effectiveness and efficiency seem far- fetched as the Acoli well- cherished and very rich African culture will never be the same again in its social and cultural centre."
- Suicide and despair. In the face of relentless cultural and personal humiliations and abuse, suicide has risen to alarming levels. A survey has reported that, among the population in the camps, 85% suffer from severe trauma and depression. Suicide is highest among mothers who feel utter despair at their inability to provide for their children or save them from starvation, or death from preventable diseases. For example, in August, 13 mothers committed suicide in Pabbo camp alone. A survey by MSF shows that 62&percent; of women interviewed in the camps think of committing suicide. As Archbishop John Baptist Odama has observed, These are acts of extreme desperation. The concept of suicide does not belong to the culture of the Acoli people."
- Rampant rape and sexual abuse. As several reports have documented, rape and generalized sexual exploitation, especially by government soldiers (both those stationed in the camps and the mobile units) have become "entirely normal." The soldiers feel entitled to take any woman or girl and do anything they want with her, with complete impunity. As noted in a recent report by Human Rights Watch, "Women in a number of camps told how they had been raped by soldiers from the Ugandan army... It is exceptionally difficult for women to find protection from sexual abuse by government soldiers."
- Using HIV/AIDS as weapon of mass destruction. In northern Uganda, HIV/AIDS is being used as a deliberate weapon of mass destruction. Soldiers are screened and those who have tested HIV-positive are especially deployed to the north, with the mission to commit maximum havoc on the local girls and women. Thus from almost a zero base, the rate of HIV infection among these rural communities has galloped to staggering levels. A recent survey found 30&percent; infection in Kitgum district, compared with a national level of 5&percent;. Last June, the medical superintendent of Gulu Hospital reported that 27&percent; of children who were tested there were found to be HIV-positive; 40&percent; of pregnant women attending Lacor Hospital for routine prenatal visits tested HIV-positive. Journalists John Muto-Ono p'Lajur and Wendy Glauser reported that, "Awer camp leader Benjamin Oballim believes HIV infection is close to 50&percent; among adults living in his camp. A 2004 study in Lira found out of 4,026 IDPs who went for testing, 37&percent; were positive." It is instructive to note that, although they are in the greatest need, the facilities and programs under the Global Fund for distribution of anti-retroviral drugs (ARV) have not been made available to the populations in the camps. All this, even as official propaganda touts Uganda's experience as the model for the fight against HIV/Aids!
- Loss of livelihood. The population has been deprived of all means of livelihood. The people have been uprooted from their lands. In their absence, some powerful government officials have embarked on a land grab in Acoli, in possible partnership with commercial farmers from South Africa and Zimbabwe. The entire mass of livestock from Acoli, Lango and Teso has been forcibly confiscated and simply exported from the region; before the looting, the average household in northern Uganda owned 33 cattle, 17 goats, and 23 chickens. According to USAID-sponsored field study, "The vast majority of savings- 300,000 cattle and most other livestock, including oxen upon which agricultural acreage and yield depend have disappeared." The situation is so desperate in the camps that the few people who are able to cobble together a savings of US $25-50 cents are considered very well-off, because the rest of the population has nothing at all.
- Children abducted and brutalized. Over the years, over 20,000 children, unprotected, have been abducted and brutalized by the LRA. Some 40,000 children, the so called "night commuters", trek several hours each evening to sleep in the streets of Gulu and Kitgum towns (and walk back the same distances in the morning) to avoid abduction.
- This is the face of genocide writ large. Sadly, most Ugandans have been shielded from the nightmare and staggering facts outlined above, although some in the know may have chosen the path of silence and indifference. In the words of Ugandan journalist, P.K. Mwanje, "Ugandans south of the River Nile and their friends do not know of the genocide taking place in northern Uganda."
- Can the attributes of peace, stability, good government and accountability, in any way, be ascribed to Uganda, while a significant part of its population is being exterminated in this way in the concentration camps?
- In the 1970s, the Amin regime especially targeted and decimated Acoli leadership, intelligentsia, businessmen, and military officers and men. It was therefore unimaginable for the Acoli that they would ever experience a worse nightmare. Alas, the systematic genocide unleashed by the Museveni regime has turned out to be many times more devastating and deadly for the community. A mother in one of the concentration camps lamented: "At least Amin killed only our educated sons and parents, but Museveni and his accomplice, Kony, are determined to wipe out a whole people."
Hate campaign and demonisation as prelude to the genocide
- Genocide, by definition, is a deliberate and intended project; it does not occur through inadvertence. Those who plan to carry out genocide, typically prepare the ground through a hate campaign directed at the targeted community. In the case of northern Uganda, a long trail of both the pronouncements and the deeds of the Museveni regime have consistently pointed towards the same objective. In fact, President Museveni has personally led a very toxic campaign of ethnic racism, hatred, demonization, and dehumanization, echoed by his close associates. In numerous declarations, they have made manifest their intention and scheme. Here are some examples of the pronouncements and themes that have been orchestrated through this campaign:
- "We shall make 'them' become like the ensenene insects; you know what happens when you trap them in a bottle and close the lid."
- "Let them go and eat grass and lizards." This, in response to reports of widespread starvation and death in the northeastern region.
- "'Those people' are not human beings; 'they' are biological substances."
- "'They' are backward and primitive."
- "You wait and see, we shall teach 'them' a lesson from which 'they' will never recover."
- "'Those people' are swine."
- "Yes, we are killing off the 'anyanya', they are not Ugandans". The appellation "anyanya" is a term from Sudan which has been corrupted by the Museveni regime, which now uses it to demonize northerners as "terrorists" and "foreigners" who emanate from southern Sudan.
- "The chauvinism of the Acoli has to be destroyed."
- "It is Acoli soldiers causing the problems. It is the cultural background of the people here; they are very violent. It is genetic."
- "We have not yet punished "them' enough."
- "Alice Lakwena has been very useful to us;" "We have massacred them"; "We mowed them down." This refers to a series of wholesale massacres of unarmed populations by government forces in the wake of the uprising led by Alice Lakwena.
- In fact, Museveni's tribalist politics and virulent rhetoric against the Acoli and other northerners first surfaced seriously in the 1970s while in Tanzania. As an insurgent leader in Luwero in the 1980s, Museveni escalated and deepened his campaign of ethnic hatred and demonization, teaching his largely southern cadres that the real enemies they were fighting were the 'Abacoli'.
Eleven-Point Agenda for Action on Northern Uganda
- When faced with genocide, we have a moral and political obligation to recognize it, denounce it, and stop it, regardless of the ethnicity or political affiliation of the population being destroyed.
- The enormity and nature of what is unfolding in northern Uganda calls for a bold prophetic voice -- a moral voice of witness and action. We look particularly to the new leaders of the democracy-seeking parties to provide that prophetic voice and leadership.
- There is a need for a non-partisan agenda for action on northern Uganda.
I believe that the following key issues should constitute that agenda.
- Breaking the silence on the genocide. The leaders of the political parties should take the lead in recognizing and breaking the silence on the genocide, and in informing Ugandans of the sordid crimes being committed in their name. This is a matter of truth-telling and bearing witness. The country has to come clean on the unfolding genocide.
- Genocide in the north is a national catastrophe. The genocide going on in northern Uganda is a national catastrophe of immense scale and consequence. It is of a whole different order of magnitude. As such, it should be at the top, front and centre of national discourse and preoccupation. Sadly, as yet, this is far from being the case. Can Ugandans carry on economic and political business as usual, against the backdrop of on-going genocide against their compatriots behind the iron curtain? We look to the leaders of the political parties to give this national emergency the urgency and priority it deserves.
- Campaign to end the genocide. In the face of genocide, the first order of business must be to immediately employ all means necessary to stop it. This cannot wait. We know that every day and week that pass literally wreak their steep toll, especially in the camps. We look to the leaders of the political parties to mount right away a robust national campaign to end the genocide.
- Independent observers for the camps and the region. A significant team of independent observers, composed of trained personnel, both international and national, should be deployed right away in northern Uganda to monitor and report first-hand on security, living conditions, and treatment of the populations in the camps; they would also monitor their subsequent return to their villages. Such arrangements, usually under the auspices of the UN, have served as effective protection mechanisms, for example, in Burundi, eastern DRC and Darfur. We look to the leaders of the political parties to insist on such protection measures for the sake of the populations now rendered utterly vulnerable in the north.
- Dismantling the concentration camps. The camps and the abominable living conditions imposed therein are at the centre of the genocide project. The most urgent step towards ending the genocide must therefore be the dismantling, without delay, of all the camps in Acoli, Lango, and Teso, under an organized programme of resettlement and assistance. We look to the leaders of the political parties to insist on this demand on behalf of the camp populations.
- Total picture of situation in northern Uganda The LRA have been responsible for brutal atrocities, including massacres, abduction of children and gruesome maiming, for which they must be held accountable. However, it is clear that the LRA factor has been cynically manipulated to divert attention from the genocide unfolding in the camps and other atrocities being committed by the government itself. A carefully scripted narrative is promoted, according to which the catastrophe in northern Uganda begins with the LRA and ends with their demise. In this respect, the LRA and the 'war' have become both the cover and the pretext under which genocide is being conducted in the region. The continued existence of the LRA serves several very important purposes for the government. We look to the leaders of the political parties to challenge the scripted narrative and present to Ugandans and the world, the full picture on the situation in the north.
- Halting the land grab. There is disturbing and growing incidence of appropriation and exploitation of land in Acoli by some powerful government officials, while the population remains displaced and alienated from their land and villages. The modification of land status and entitlements in such circumstances is inadmissible and unconscionable. The land grab should be halted and reversed. We look to the leaders of the political parties to take a clear stand on this issue.
- Special programme for rehabilitation, healing and reconstruction. A special and major program for rehabilitation, healing and reconstruction, will be needed in post-genocide northern Uganda. The challenges are immense and particularly daunting. This will require very strong commitment and support from a democratic national government as well as the international community. We look to the leaders of the political parties to make clear their serious commitment and plan for this undertaking. This should be reflected in national policy making, priority-setting and resource allocation.
- ICC and ensuring accountability. President Museveni has invited the ICC to investigate crimes committed in the north; this is to be welcomed. Regrettably, the ICC seems to have been carefully steered in only one direction. It is critical that ICC pursue the Ugandan dossier with complete independence and impartiality. It needs to investigate and ensure accountability for all major crimes, including genocide, crimes against humanity, and other crimes of war, regardless of the identity and affiliation of the perpetrators. Only such an approach can contribute to justice and healing in Uganda, while preserving the credibility of the ICC itself.
- Ending the war. Ending the war, by all means necessary, should become an absolute and non-partisan priority for all political parties. For all these years, all attempts to accomplish this, through a negotiated settlement or the government's preferred means of a military campaign, have been sabotaged, because the status quo serves important purposes for those prosecuting the war. In this context, it should be stressed that dismantling the concentration camps should not be made hostage to ending the war; this has been used as a pretext for maintaining the concentration camps for the last ten years.
- Comprehensive truth-seeking and reconciliation process. When a new democratic space makes it possible to do so, there should be a comprehensive and rigorous truth-seeking process, on the genocide in northern Uganda and other traumatic periods in Uganda's post- independence history. This is a necessary and much-needed step towards reconciliation and healing in the country.
- As I review what is unfolding in northern Uganda, I cannot help but wonder if we have learned any lessons from the earlier dark episodes of history: millions of Jews exterminated during the Holocaust in Europe, genocide perpetrated in Rwanda, children and women systematically massacred in the Balkans. Each time we have said, "never again", but only after the dark deed was accomplished.
- The genocide unfolding in northern Uganda today is happening on our watch, with our full knowledge. And tomorrow, shall we once again be heard to say that we did not know what was going on for all these years? And what shall we tell the survivor children in northern Uganda, when they ask why no one came to stop the dark deeds stalking their land and devouring its people?
Rebuilding the Ugandan national project.
- It is clear that ending the genocide and addressing its horrendous legacy is the most urgent and haunting horror and emergency facing the country and its leaders today. There is another challenge that will require no less commitment and determination -- that of rebuilding the Ugandan national project.
- Following 20 years of the systematic promotion of exclusion, ethnic racism, demonization and humiliation directed at certain ethnic groups, as a matter of government policy and practice, the Ugandan national project lies deeply wounded and shattered. Years of indoctrination has inculcated the racist typologies of "us" and "those people." In effect, two countries have been deliberately created out of the one. There is "Uganda", and then, across the river, there is another country, alien and far away, called "Northern Uganda."
- All patriotic Ugandans who are concerned for the political health and future of the country have to be prepared to reckon with and repudiate this deeply corrosive legacy of the NRM which has been embedded into the body politic of the country.
- The purpose of all this has been to divide and rule, to gain and retain power. Whereas the compatriots in the north have been subjected to genocide, discrimination and humiliations, the compatriots in the south have witnessed grand deception, denial of democratic practice, massive corruption and plunder, and political repression. In this scheme of things, apart from a small political and military clan, for whose benefit the system has operated, all Ugandans have in fact been losers. This picture is now becoming clearer and clearer for all Ugandans to see.
- The country has never been in greater need of authentic national leadership, a leadership animated by genuine patriotic vision and a deep commitment to the country as a whole.
- We look to the leaders of the democracy-seeking political parties to provide this leadership. We look to them to begin the process of rebuilding the shattered national project -- the sense of a shared national purpose and common belonging. We look to the day when Ugandans can once again declare with confidence and conviction: "We are all Ugandans. We have a common destiny. We have equal rights."
- Is this a utopian dream? Not so. I believe, with all my heart, that this dream is realizable, if all patriotic forces decide to commit to it, to work for it, and to invest in it.
- I wish you and FDC, together with the other democracy-seeking political parties, great success in our common struggle to end genocide, and to reestablish democracy, accountability and the rule of law. In this respect, our prayers and efforts will be that 2006 should mark a new beginning for the beloved country.
With my prayers and very good wishes,
Olara A. Otunnu
LBL Foundation for Children
* Although the camps are predominantly concentrated in Acoli since 1995, Lango (particularly Lira district) and Teso (Katakwi, Kaberamaido, and Soroti) are also gravely affected; the living conditions in all the camps in the region are abominable.