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

Refugees Fear Renewed Conflict

By Columbus Onoo in Gulu, northern Uganda (AR No. 165, 08-Apr-08)
As almost two million internal refugees in northern Uganda anxiously wait for a peace deal – nearly two years in the making – to be signed by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan government, some worry that war could return.

Many of the refugees fear that rebel leader Joseph Kony may not respect the peace agreement or sign it – instead getting one of his commanders to put pen to paper, so giving him an excuse to eventually restart the war.

One such refugee, who declined to give her name fearing for her safety, said she will not leave the refugee camp that has been her home for many years until Kony signs the peace agreement and all of his fighters are disarmed.

“Unless the LRA fighters are demobilised, I will not go home to expose my children [to the threat of] fresh abduction,” she told IWPR.

Negotiators for the rebel army and Uganda are currently in Juba, South Sudan, and some have reportedly traveled to a meeting point on the border of South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo where Kony is expected to sign the agreement this week.

Peter Obita, a resident of one of the many refugee camps that surround Gulu, said he doubts that a permanent peace will come to northern Uganda because the signing has been delayed so many times.

“Much as the local and religious leaders, including politicians, are encouraging people to have hope, there is no clear sign that can make the [refugees] believe that peace is really around the corner,” said Obita.

He said the signing date had already been postponed twice so far, and he anticipated further postponements.

Although some people have returned to their villages, Obita said most still maintain homes in the refugee camps because they fear that the peace deal will never materialise.

If the agreement is not signed, most expect fighting will start once again, he said, and then refugees will once more be confined to the camps. Because of this prospect, few are willing to give up their homes in the camps.

Last week, LRA chief negotiator David Matsanga restated the claim by Kony that he will sign the peace deal, but won’t disarm or demobilise because of the International Criminal Court indictments against him and two of his commanders.

Kony and his top two lieutenants are wanted for trial before the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity, but Kony has said he would only face traditional justice ceremonies in northern Uganda.

Meanwhile, the Ugandan government has agreed to establish a special court in which Kony and others would face charges of war crimes committed in the north.

Matsanga and lawyers representing Kony recently traveled to The Hague to ask that the charges be dropped, but were told they would stand until the court ruled otherwise.

These latest statements by Matsanga have done little to assure refugees that the deal will be signed or become permanent.

Jim Otto of Gulu said many refugees view the ICC indictments as a major obstacle to a final peace and believe that until they are lifted, the LRA leader will not come out of the bush.

He said both LRA and government soldiers committed crimes in northern Uganda during the 20 years of war. It is unfair of the ICC to issue arrest warrants only for LRA commanders and not those on the government side, he said.

“Some people joined rebel ranks because their parents were killed by government soldiers,” said Otto. “It would have been prudent for the ICC to investigate government soldiers, if the court really wants to punish those who committed crimes against humanity on the people in northern Uganda.”

The ICC was asked in late 2003 by Uganda president Yoweri Museveni to investigate crimes committed by the LRA in northern Uganda. After nearly two years of research, the ICC issued indictments against Kony and four of his commanders, two of whom have since died.

Although the ICC has noted violations by the Ugandan army, the court indicated they did not match the gravity of acts committed by the LRA.

Otto said the traditional reconciliation ceremonies of mato oput had advantages over the international court since both rebel fighters and government soldiers would be brought together in a ceremony after which they are forgiven.

While the ICC issues punishment, some have complained that it leaves people with unresolved anger, he said.

A displaced woman who also asked not to be identified but who lost four children during the war, however, argued that the ICC should prosecute all those who committed crimes in northern Uganda.

Such prosecutions would act as a deterrent to others who intend to do the same thing, she said.

A youth group in Gulu, the Foundation for Youth Transformation in Northern Uganda, last week appealed to Kony to release all the children still in captivity in rebel hideouts.

Although others have made similar appeals, Kony has consistently denied that he has abductees in his force, which some estimate to be about 2,000 or more people, including fighters, women and children.

According to various estimates, nearly 40,000 people have been abducted during the war, most of them young boys and girls.

The youth group also encouraged the ICC to lift its indictments to encourage Kony to sign the peace agreement, as he has said he would, without fear of arrest.

Rosalba Oywa, a human rights activist, said that although the rebel war is all but over, the north is still dangerous due to roving bandits who have taken to attacking farmers. Some people have been killed this way, she said.

“Apart from the silence of the gun in the region,” said Oywa, “nothing much has been done to protect people [even though] they’re being urged by the government to return to their homes.”

Santa Okot, a member of LRA peace delegation, speaking last week on Gulu radio, said she was confident Kony would sign the peace agreement this week.

Okot, however, also asked the ICC to lift the arrest warrants in order for a meaningful peace to be reached. Otherwise, she said, rebel fighters would not disarm.

A member of Gulu local council, Martin Ojara, said both the Ugandan government and the LRA should remain committed to peace because the world is waiting and watching.

Postponing the signing of the agreement, he said, is only postponing a resolution to the problems that have plagues the north for two decades.

Columbus Onoo is an IWPR-trained reporter in Gulu.

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