The Long March for Peace

Ugandan women lead arduous trek in support of talks on ending violence in the north of their country.

The Long March for Peace

Ugandan women lead arduous trek in support of talks on ending violence in the north of their country.

It looked like a modern-day re-enactment of the procession led by the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Many hundreds of women trekked hundreds of kilometres from southern Uganda into the war-torn north in support of peace.

The Women's Peace Caravan has pitched camp at Kitgum near the Sudan border, and in December will continue the march another 480 km to the southern Sudanese town of Juba, the site of peace talks between the Uganda government and rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, led by Joseph Kony.

The International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague has issued arrest warrants for Kony and his four main aides on 33 charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes. None has yet been arrested.

Uganda's president Yoweri Museveni referred the 20-year-long civil war in the north to the ICC - the world's first and only permanent war crimes tribunal - in December 2003. To the consternation of ICC prosecutors, Museveni changed his mind five months ago and on July 14 opened peace talks with the LRA in Juba.

The talks are stalled for the moment, but on November 22 Jan Egeland, the United Nation's under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs held a telephone conversation with a senior LRA leader and said he hoped dialogue would resume soon.

The purpose of the Peace Caravan is to demonstrate the support of Ugandan women for the peace talks which, if successful, would end a war that has taken an estimated 100,000 lives. As many as 1.6 million people - mainly from the Acholi ethnic group of northern Uganda - subsist in displacement, or internal refugee, camps, where nearly a thousand die each week from disease or violence. The LRA has abducted more than 20,000 children. Boys have been used as soldiers. Girls have become sex slaves as well as combatants.

In the villages and towns of northern Uganda, parents who fear their children might be abducted send them to night shelters where armed security forces try to repulse attacks. And over the years several rehabilitation centres have sprung up for women and children who managed to escape from the LRA. Here, counsellors try to repair the damage and reintegrate the women and children into society.

Undeterred by continuing sporadic violence, despite an August 26 truce between the Ugandan Army and the LRA, a group of women from non-government organisations and the Ugandan government mobilised like-minded women for the Peace Caravan. Across the border, in Kenya, women human rights workers, businesswomen and women members of parliament said they would join their Ugandan sisters.

Before they embarked on their trip to Kitgum, the women first marched to parliament in Kampala, Uganda's capital, where they handed over the African Women's Peace Torch to the speaker, Edward Ssekandi. The speaker's speech of thanks could hardly be heard for the women's chants of "We want peace now".

The torch - a symbol of the fight to end violence against women and children - has already travelled through the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Angola, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Mali, Liberia, Ethiopia and South Africa over the past two years. It was brought to Kampala by representatives of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, Unifem.

At the handing-over ceremony, Uganda's former minister of ethics Miria Matembe said the war in northern Uganda was caused by “selfish men”. Matembe, who was sacked from President Yoweri Museveni's government late last year for refusing to support his plans to stand for a third term, said, “The women in Uganda were badly hurt [by the war] and it is only by God’s mercy that they can heal.”

The Peace Caravan began its trek on November 8 by every means of transport available - from buses to bare feet. The VIPs piled into buses, others walked or were on donkeys. Most of the trekkers were women and girls, but a fair number of men turned up in support. "We have already achieved our purpose of showing unity,” local government minister of state Hope Mwesigye told IWPR. “At each little town we came to the people celebrated. They sang and danced and welcomed us.

“We spoke to community leaders and told internally displaced communities it is important to go back to farms that were abandoned years ago. Many women said they were going to go back to reclaim their land.”

As the caravan moved northwards along Uganda's red dust roads and tracks, more and more joined in. “I don’t know how many people were eventually part of the trek," said Mwesigye. "But there were thousands. It was wonderful to see these people being inspired. The caravan showed that women from all spheres of life can walk together.”

The international community has demanded that the LRA release all women and children they have recruited, whether they were inducted into the rebel ranks by force or by consent.

The stakes were high when the UN's Egeland met Kony in a jungle camp on the Sudan-Congo border on November 12. On Egeland’s shopping list was a request that women and children be released. Kony was hoping for reassurance that the ICC would not execute its warrant of arrest against him.

Kony rejected the proposal that women and children be released, stating flatly that the rebel movement has only “combatants”. Egeland said he could not speak on behalf of the ICC and had no jurisdiction over the body. Despite failing to secure a commitment from Kony to release child soldiers from his ranks, Egeland remained positive. He told reporters his meeting with the LRA leader was the first time it had been possible for the whole range of humanitarian issues, including the need for an end to hostilities and the return of abductees, to be put on the table before the LRA's top man.

In the meantime, as the Peace Caravan waits in Kitgum before pressing onwards to Juba, calls are being made for women to be acknowledged in all future peace talks in Uganda. In a recent speech before the UN Security Council, Unifem's executive director Noeleen Heyzer said that peace consolidation in general is an uncertain enterprise. By involving women, peace efforts stand a better chance of succeeding. “It is one thing to agree to a ceasefire and quite another to move from there to a point where societies can resolve conflicts through inclusive governance without reverting to armed combat,” she said.

Heyzer, a Singaporean, said that women make a difference during peace talks because they also address key social and economic issues that provide the foundations of sustainable peace.

Speaking about post-conflict violence, she said that sexual and gender-based violence is carried into peacetime homes and communities after wars have ended. “Ex-combatants return home with small arms," she said. "Social norms that protect women remain broken. We have learned that the earlier women are recognised as peace agents and engaged in peace processes, the more they are seen as legitimate actors.”

It is why, said Heyzer, Unifem is supporting the Peace Caravan.

Rosalba Oywa, a 2005 Nobel Peace Prize nominee and founder of the People’s Voice for Peace, an organisation working with traumatised victims of the northern Uganda war, told IWPR that women had to maintain families and communities even while the war was still raging around them.

“They had to take on additional burdens of taking care of children, the old and disabled," she said.

The majority of women had been sexually abused, either by government soldiers or the rebels. "That and other degrading experiences motivated many of them to try and stop the violence and any form of conflict," said Oywa, who had to flee with the children she was teaching in a rural school when the LRA launched an attack. She became an internal refugee and in 1995 founded the People's Voice for Peace.

"The skills for negotiations, mediation, counselling and community care are part of women’s lives based on their unique experiences,” she said. “We believe dialogue is better than violence as a way of solving conflicts. Through peace talks, consensus can be reached. War springs up new violence."

Although the LRA is being presented as the perpetrator of sexual violence, abductions and other human rights infringements, Oywa, a 53-year-old mother of five, said that she does not want to make what she calls “simplistic arguments” either against or in favour of the ICC indicting LRA rebels.

“The war has been complex and many crimes have been committed by both fighting forces," she said. "True justice should begin with an in-depth understanding of what happened and of what people’s perceptions and feelings are.

“There are different ideas about what type of justice system is appropriate to resolve the conflict that devastated northern Uganda for so long. The war has resulted in deep trauma for everybody. We are all traumatised.”

As the Peace Caravan rolled through Uganda, participants sought to spread a message of hope for the traumatised, mutilated and sexually assaulted victims of the fighting.

While the politicians and soldiers - mostly men - have seemed unable to end decisively the war and suffering, the women in the Peace Caravan hope that on the next leg of their journey to Juba they will build momentum that might yet lead to a peace breakthrough after more than two decades.

In the Sudanese town, the women will meet with both sides in the peace talks to tell them that the women of Uganda have had enough of the war, the violence and the disastrous effect of it all on all Ugandans.

Stephanie Nieuwoudt is a freelance South African journalist based in Nairobi who reports on the East African region.

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