Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Landmines Leave Deadly Legacy

The fighting may have halted, but unexploded arms are a continuing danger to returning villagers in northern Uganda.
By Bill Oketch

The death of seven children in a landmine explosion in northern Uganda in recent weeks has highlighted the dangers still posed by unexploded devices left over from two decades of conflict between the Ugandan government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA.

There are fears the risks posed by landmines and other weapons could slow the return of war-weary refugees to their villages.

“I’m going nowhere, even though our [refugee] camp has been dismantled by the government,” said Bonny Opio, who lost four children in the blast.

The three other children who died were his nieces and nephews, whom Opio had taken into his home after his brother died during the conflict a few years ago.

According to Captain Deo Akiiki, spokesman for the Ugandan army in the north of the country, the explosion involved a cluster-bomb rather than a landmine.

He said four of the children died on the spot and ten others seriously wounded in the explosion. Three of the ten died later in hospital.

Akiiki said the incident occurred while the children were out gathering scrap metal that they hoped to sell to recycling companies. He underlined how dangerous this was, explaining how children pick up unexploded ordnance in the belief it is harmless.

Opio now worries that if he goes back to his village, “I will step on [a] landmine and die like my children.”

He is one of nearly two million people who have been living in the 200 refugee camps spread across the north for more than a decade, but are now being encouraged to return home.

The conflict has subsided as the LRA and the Kampala government have been engaged in peace talks for the past 22 months. A peace agreement has been drafted but not yet signed.

The return to normality has been obstructed by the landmines the LRA rebels planted over the years of conflict, to prevent the army from pursuing them after their attacks. As people repopulate the villages and start working the surrounding lands, they risk setting off a mine planted there deliberately, or some other live explosive weapon left behind from the war.

“The biggest problem as we prepare to recover from war is the abundance of unexploded ordinance,” said Patrick Omara, who lives in Pader district. “Many people now fear to go back to their villages because of this problem.”

The Ugandan army has begun an operation to find and destroy as much of the scattered ordnance as possible.

“We have launched an operation to dig out mines and unexploded bombs which were planted by the LRA,” said Akiiki. “We have recovered 2,153 bombs and 318 unexploded fuses.”

The operation is concentrated in Pader, a former LRA stronghold which along with the town of Kitgum to the north has the biggest problem with unexploded ordnance. Some of the worst affected areas are Awere, on the administrative boundary between Gulu and Pader districts, and Omot, about 50 kilometres east of Awere, just outside Pader.

Areas around two other district centres in the north, Gulu and Lira, are not affected to the same extent.

Akiiki said the government launched its programme because humanitarian groups involved in demining were unable to keep pace with the demand for clearing areas of unexploded devices

Every week, he said, the government teams were recovering an assortment of explosive items such as hand grenades, rockets, missiles, cluster bombs, bullets and shell fuses in and around Pader and Kitgum.

Uganda’s state minister for disaster preparedness and refugees, Musa Ecweru, told IWPR that the government planned to train an auxiliary force to help the military demining teams.

Ecweru said areas lying to the south of Pader, including the town of Lira, were less strewn with mines than the more northerly parts of the country.

“The pressure the government forces put on Kony did not allow the rebel commanders to plant a lot of landmines in Lango and Teso [sub-regions],” he explained.

In his view, “It’s up to local leaders to get down to the communities and [inform] the locals on mine detonation.”

Ocii Okello, who lives in the village of Awere, close to the epicentre of the conflict, believes increasing numbers of people are being killed by landmines.

Most of the victims, he said, are children oblivious to the dangers, or women who come across explosive devices while out hunting for firewood.

Despite the efforts to address the problem, people remain worried.

“It’s [easier] to die of unexploded bombs than of LRA attacks,” Jaspher Abok Ocere, a former LRA fighter who has returned to civilian life, sees the lethal debris of war as the most dangerous part of life in the north these days. he said.

Ocere noted that most people had now left the refugee camps and returned to their villages, despite the lack of a final peace deal.

On April 10, LRA leader Joseph Kony was scheduled to sign a final peace agreement drafted during lengthy negotiations, but he failed to turn up.

Kony was expected to meet peace negotiators this week to obtain clarification on the justice issues that have been incorporated into the peace agreement. The meeting was supposed to have taken place last weekend but the rebel leader was reportedly delayed in getting to the location of the talks.

Despite the delays, many across the north say they hope Kony and his men will finally come out of the bush and come back home.

“Kony must come out and sign the peace talks,” said Alex Alobo, formerly one of the child soldiers used by the LRA. “We don’t want to go to the same conflict again. We are tired of useless war.”

Another woman who spoke to IWPR on condition of anonymity, said she could only forgive the rebels if they finally released all the women and children they still hold captive.

“I request Kony to sign the peace deal so that our children and women who were abducted are released,” she said. “We want our children back.”

Meanwhile, returning villagers are looking forward to planting their crops and returning to their old way of life.

“We hope if rains [do] well, we shall reap [a] better harvest,” said Ocere. “We shall be able to feed our children out of our sweat, and not [rely on] the United Nations World Food Programme.”

Bill Oketch is an IWPR-trained journalist in Uganda.

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