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

Ugandans Call for Economic Justice

Amid focus on punishing war criminals, victims say they need help to rebuild their lives.
By Bill Oketch, Florence Ogola, Blake Evans-Pritchard
  • Lira, northern Uganda - a student in the classroom of a newly-built local school. (Photo: Petty Officer 2nd Class Jesse Awalt, US army)
    Lira, northern Uganda - a student in the classroom of a newly-built local school. (Photo: Petty Officer 2nd Class Jesse Awalt, US army)

Moses Ogwang’s remote village of Te-Yao, in Otwal sub-county, northern Uganda, was destroyed by Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, rebel forces in 2000.

Three of his brothers were abducted during the raid, and his family's possessions were looted. Since then, he has been struggling to rebuild his life.

“We are not saying that taking [LRA leader Joseph] Kony to the International Criminal Court [ICC] is bad, but this will be of no use if our homes are not rebuilt,” he said.

Ogwang is one of a group of citizens from the Lango region who are suing the government for damages that they suffered during the years-long struggle between the Ugandan army and the LRA, which continues sporadically.

So far, over 50,000 war victims have joined the Lango War Claimants Association, LAWCAS. According to their lawyer, Makmot Kibwanga, more than 20,000 have already filed their claims at the High Court in the town of Lira.

The claimants are demanding compensation for the harm caused by the LRA, arguing that it was the responsibility of the government to protect them against rebel raids.

They also want Kampala to pay for animals that were slaughtered by government soldiers during the insurgency.

“We don't want to reopen the deep wounds caused by the LRA,” Ogwang said. “We just want the government to return the wealth we had in our possession before the war.”

Total claims amount to 1.4 trillion Ugandan shillings (650 billion US dollars).

There is some doubt about whether the war claimants will be successful in their pursuit of justice, since claims should have been filed within two years of damages being incurred.

But lawyers for the victims argue that this time constraint could be disputed in cases where victims felt their life would have been threatened if they had come forward sooner.

The government, meanwhile, has been keen to settle the claims out of court.

Richard Todwong, presidential adviser for northern Uganda, says Kampala has so far paid out more than 1.5 billion Ugandan shillings (700,000 dollars) in compensation, but this is just a fraction of what the total damages could amount to.

Besides reparations, the government is also offering support for those who were injured in the fighting.

Todwong says that, so far, his office has registered 5,000 people who were maimed during the LRA insurgency, with more turning up all the time.

“Around 400 or 500 of these needed medical attention, which is provided by the ministry of health in cooperation with Mulago Hospital [in Kampala],” Todwong said. “Doctors assess the needs of the patients to determine who requires treatment.”

The government is working together with NGO partners to provide funds to enable these victims to undergo surgery, but Todwong admits that there are still huge gaps to be filled.

“Someone whose limbs have been cut off cannot now live on his own,” he said. “He has to be attended to 24 hours a day and, with such a person, the demands are just too much.”

Kizito Wamala, a clinical psychologist at the African Centre for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims in Kampala, says that more resources should be made available.

“I think the organisations in the region are doing whatever they can with the resources they have,” he said. “But, when you look at the magnitude of the needs, there is a lot that still goes unattended to.”

He also points out that, since many victims have now left displacement camps and returned home, offering help has become even more of a challenge.

“In the past, it was very easy to go to the camps and meet 100 people at the same time,” he said. “Today, you go to one village and perhaps find three people who need help. Then you move to another village and find three more.”

Wamala says that, last year, his clinic attended to 1,402 new patients, as well as reviewing 1,302 who came back for further services.

One of these, Ongwen George, says he suffered horrific injuries when his village was attacked by LRA soldiers in 2001.

“The rebels came in the middle of the night and ordered all of us outside,” he said. “When we came out, they ordered us to lie on the ground with our heads facing the ground. They started hacking at us [with machetes]. I felt a sharp pain on my neck and, when I came to, I found myself in hospital, where I stayed for two months.”

Although George appreciates what the Kampala centre has tried to do for him and other victims of war, he feels that the treatment has often been inadequate. He says he receives regular painkillers, but little else.

The ICC has made some attempts of its own to address the needs of victims.

One of the criticisms of many war crimes tribunals in the past is that the successful prosecution of those who committed atrocities has rarely left the affected communities better off.

A Trust Fund for Victims, TFV, administered by the ICC, was set up in part to counter such criticism.

The TFV has a fairly small budget – just 1.4 million euro (1.8 million dollars) was spent on projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, and Uganda in 2008.

But Kristin Kalla, acting executive director of the TFV, says that the fund's “targeted approach” allows the money to get to those who really need it, and fill some of the gaps that are not being adequately addressed by other organisations in the region.

“We found that there were no organisations focusing on providing support for the victims that were mutilated in northern Uganda,” Kalla said. “For these people, our ability to provide plastic and reconstructive surgery twice a year has been something that has changed their lives and the lives of those living in their communities.”

The TFV also helps to provide psychological support to those who have suffered the traumas of war – another area where Kalla says there has been a lack of local expertise.

“We have been really focusing on building local capacity, to ensure that the TFV rehabilitation support is sustainable and can be carried forward by other donors,” Kalla said. “We're not there for long-term development, but for shorter-term rehabilitation and possibly administering ... reparations if instructed to do so by the ICC.”

Under the terms of its founding Rome Statute, the ICC can order a convicted war criminal to make reparations to victims, and can select the TFV as the vehicle through which to make these payments.

However, since no case before the ICC has yet run to completion, this function of the TFV has not been put to the test so far.

Kampala remains critical of the TFV, saying that more should be done.

“It is sometimes difficult to see what they are doing,” said Todwong, from the Ugandan government. “They come here and meet victims, but nothing seems to change. The Ugandan government is raising a lot of awareness about war victims, and we would like to know what the TFV is doing.”

Kalla responds by highlighting some of the challenges faced in delivering aid to northern Uganda. In particular, since aid is directly linked to the ICC's judicial process, the TFV operates under strict parameters laid down by court judges.

The branding of TFV support can sometimes be difficult, too, because NGOs that are delivering the aid do not always want to be associated with the ICC.

At the beginning of June, the member states of the International Criminal Court, ICC, will gather in Kampala to take stock of what the ICC has so far accomplished.

One of the central aims of the ICC is to fight against the culture of impunity throughout the world, by sending out a signal to would-be warlords that they will eventually face justice.

But, with only a small group of suspects arrested and no trials yet complete, many accept that it is too early to tell how successful the court has been in this respect.

Some fear, though, that focusing too much on this primary goal of the court could detract from the second aspect of justice – that war-ravaged communities must find some way of moving beyond the shadows of the past.

“In my own profession as a psychologist, I know that different people have different hierarchies of needs,” said Wamala, of the Kampala treatment centre. “There are some who want the perpetrators brought to book, but others whose main desire is to live in peace.”

Bill Oketch and Florence Ogola are IWPR-trained reporters. Blake Evans-Pritchard is IWPR's Africa Editor.