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Northern Uganda Awaits Final Peace

As northern Ugandans wait for a historic peace deal to be signed, many are looking forward to a period of recovery and regrowth.
By Joe Wacha
Peace is about to break out across war-torn northern Uganda, with a formal accord making it official expected to be signed on March 28. Many people here are already looking to a future without conflict.

Some have already begun to sing about the impending peace. Among them is singer-songwriter Bosmic Otim, who has won acclaim for his work, particularly a song called, “Peace Return to Northern Uganda” where he challenges the rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, to stop their senseless war against the government and return home.

Whether the song has had any effect on the LRA is unclear, but it does reflect the experiences, thoughts and hopes of many northern Ugandans.

“Many of the songs I have composed are a result of witnessing the problems people have gone through,” says the Gulu-based singer. “I also know that the rebels have been listening to our songs. So it is an effective way to deliver the messages to them, yet in an entertaining way.”

Otim said his peace songs prompted a direct phone call from Vincent Otti, the former deputy commander of the LRA, before he was killed in October, reportedly by the rebels’ commander Joseph Kony.

The dreadlocked singer said Otti had invited him to come and visit the rebels in the bush and perform for them. But the tour never came off, due to Otti’s death.

An estimated 1.7 million people across northern Uganda have been displaced by the two-decade war, and many of them are now anxious to leave the 200 refugee camps in the north and return to their villages.

Singers have been reflecting the new mood by composing songs urging the rebels and the Ugandan government to conclude a permanent peace. Some of them call on LRA members to renounce past atrocities, return home, and take part in rebuilding a society devastated by war.

While the music sounds out on the airwaves of radio stations in the north, the population is are anxiously waiting to see whether, as promised, a final peace agreement will be signed in Juba, South Sudan.

Doubts have clouded the signing ceremony, because Kony is not expected to turn up, although he will send one of his commanders in his place.

Ugandan officials have confirmed that Kony and some of his forces have decamped to the Central African Republic, CAR, from their long-term base in the Garamba National Park of northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Regardless of whether Kony makes an appearance, Ugandan government officials have indicated they intend to sign the document. The lack of Kony’s signature may, however, undermine the agreement and the permanent ceasefire for which it provides.

Gulu’s resident district commissioner, Walter Ochora, has said Kony’s conduct demonstrates a disregard for the Juba-based peace process which has been going on for more than 18 months.

“LRA’s conduct, especially the latest relocation [to CAR], leaves a lot to be desired,” he said.

Because of these concerns, Ochora refused to join a delegation from northern Uganda that travelled to South Sudan this week to meet the LRA.

He cited Ugandan intelligence reports that Kony has delegated Abudema, one of his top commanders, to meet the visitors, and will not show up in person.

“They are even going to meet Abudema, Kony’s chief executor,” said Ochora. “They won’t meet Kony himself.”

Whatever happens on March 28 when the agreement is due to be signed, community leaders in northern Uganda told IWPR they were now looking forward to a time of development and growth.

Boniface Ojok, a researcher in Gulu, said he hoped rebel combatants would now return home and be reintegrated into their communities, or perhaps into the government military forces.

Ojok acknowledged that this process will be no easy matter, as there could well be tensions between returning guerrillas and civilian communities. At worst, he warned, this could lead to renewed conflict.

“Acholi [main northern ethnic group], being a communal society, used to share common resources like water wells and forests and stuff like that,” Ojok said. “These scenarios will present the victims with a face-to-face encounter with the perpetrators, and this could raise tension.”

In some locations in the north, violence has resulted when former refugees have attempted to claim or reclaim their lost lands.

Norbert Mao, the Gulu district chairperson, predicted a rocky period after the peace pact is signed. The signing will only be a beginning of a long healing process, he said.

“For those of us who live in Gulu, and who are the heads of local government, we know our work will just be beginning when Joseph Kony and [Ugandan president] Yoweri Museveni have signed an agreement,” he said.

“We are the people who are going to bind the wounds, deal with the disabled people, return the displaced, comfort the widows and orphans.”

Yet Mao remains optimistic that the coming peace will be a real and enduring one.

“For the first time, we have an African-led peace process,” he explained, referring to the two key mediators in the deal, South Sudanese vice-president Riek Machar and United Nations envoy, Joachim Chissano, former president of Mozambique.

“I have no doubt that we have all contributed,” Mao continued. “Everyone, including musicians, has played a role – the number of songs that have been composed for peace is testimony.”

Ojok warned that plans to serve justice on former rebels either through the Ugandan judiciary or via traditional mechanisms such as the “mato oput” ceremony will be difficult to put into practice.

“[A] few mato oput have been carried out between those abducted and the community, but little has been achieved,” he said. “The weakness is [that] clans have disintegrated due to the years spent in camps, and many [people] have been born during the insurgency [and] witnessed a washed-down culture.”

Civilians who have lost family members at the hands of rebels say they may be able to forgive the offenders, but they also want reparations before they can accept reconciliation.

Mildred Akello, 57, a former refugee at Abia camp in Lira district who was burned during a rebel attack on the camp in 2004, said that although she could accept the rebels being tried in a local court, the rebels should compensate her. Akello said she suffered burns from an explosion in her hut that seriously disfigured her four children and killed her husband instantly.

“They [LRA rebels] should first of all pay for those they killed and wounded during their atrocities,” said Akello. “For my children who are disfigured, the rebels should pay their school fees, because they killed my husband who used to fend for the children and also left me disabled after burning us in a house. Only after they have done those [things] will I consider forgiving them.”

Akello’s demands typify the views of many across the north.

George Okello, now a 12-year-old pupil at the Abia primary school in Lira, lost his leg in a rebel attack on the same camp, also in 2004. He walks with the aid of an artificial leg, and told IWPR he wants the rebels to pay his school fees.

For the moment, though, Okello is happy to be alive and to be able to walk and attend school.

Joe Wacha is a reporter for Uganda Radio Network and an IWPR contributor.

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