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

War Fears Return

Villagers in northern Uganda gripped with fear following rebel attacks in South Sudan.
Francis Oryem, a farmer from the Adagayela village in northern Uganda, is happy about the last two years of peace.

He has worked on his fields, grown produce he’s sold at market, and raises poultry and livestock.

His wife and four children enjoy the lifestyle they lived before the rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, forced them into one of the many internal refugee camps that once dotted the region.

“The past two years of relative peace has almost brought life to normal in my village,” said Oryem as he paused to talk to IWPR while ploughing a neighbour’s field with a team of two oxen.

“My children now have ample space to play and are healthy too. Besides, it is easier for me as a parent to guide and teach my children from my home as compared to what used to be when we had run to the camps.”

Oryem makes a living now as a contract ploughman for the village and neighbouring areas with the oxen and plough he bought with profits from selling his produce.

“Every morning, I leave my home to offer ploughing services to those willing to pay me some money. I usually do this until around midday when I get back to plough my own [plot of land],” he said.

“By doing this I have been able to save money and buy more chickens, goats and cows.”

But Oryem worries that his new life could come to a sudden end after hearing news that Uganda and other countries in the region were talking about an attack on the LRA rebel camp in Garamba Park in the northeastern corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC.

Oryem said he and his neighbours worry that such an attack could bring the war back to northern Uganda. And those fears were heightened with reports that last week the LRA attacked a military outpost in South Sudan and were headed to the border of Uganda.

“Last week we all fled our homes and spent nights in the bush in fear,” said Lucy Alyang, a local council representative. The villagers had heard that the rebels had been sighted.

“Some families that are well-off even transported their members to the safety of urban centres,” she went on.

The panic typifies the tensions that permeate the region. Many recall 2002 when Uganda crossed the border with South Sudan to pursue rebels, vowing to end the war.

Instead, the LRA returned to northern Uganda with renewed strength and committed some of the worst atrocities of the 20-year war against the government.

The latest LRA attacks have come after Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni said Uganda had no choice but to continue fighting the LRA since rebel leader Joseph Kony did not sign a peace deal in May that had been two years in the making in Juba, South Sudan.

Before peace talks began in 2006, the rebel war in northern Uganda displaced nearly two million people and caused an estimated 100,000 deaths. At least 50,000 people were abducted in the war, many of them young boys and girls.

“The Juba peace negotiations were the only hope for the return of lasting peace in northern Uganda,” said David Livingstone Okwir, 67, who lost two of his sons during the LRA rebellion. Kony’s refusal to sign the peace deal means a renewed war.

“I don’t feel happy at all. The International Criminal Court and international community should ensure that he [Kony] is arrested and tried. We are tired.”

Mary Apio, 64, was among those who ran to the bush last week when she and her neighbours heard that LRA fighters had been sighted.

“I was so sick that night, but I had to flee my house and sleep in the bush,” said Apio, one of the few people who still live in the Otwal refugee camp, which has not yet been completely vacated. “I wish Kony could be shot dead, we have suffered enough.”

Tony Okello, a security official in the area, said there were no facts to back up claims of rebels in the area, and suspected that normal military patrols were mistaken as rebels.

Robert Odyek, a deputy head teacher at the nearby Abela primary school where Kony was educated, said the panic and fear has affected school attendance.

The day after villagers fled to the bush, class attendance dropped by two thirds.

Alyang said many villagers feel less secure in part because most of the Ugandan army soldiers in the area have been withdrawn as the refugee camps are demolished.

Government and military officials say villagers have little to worry about, however.

Colonel Francis Acoka, who monitors the return of former refugees to their villages, said the LRA was far away and not a threat.

“Kony is not here. He shouldn’t cause you sleepless night, because he will never come back,” he said recently to a group of villagers.

But Kenneth Nyeko, who lives in camp not far from the sprawling Pabbo camp north of Gulu, told IWPR that he had little faith in the government.

“The government has failed to fight Kony for many years, so what makes them think this time they will defeat him?” he asked.

Nyeko told IWPR that he did not understand how the government could insist that people leave the camps and return to their villages, while at the same time talking about attacking Kony. As a result, few are abandoning the camps.

“Telling the IDPs (internally displaced persons) to leave the camp has been as hard as preaching the gospel,” he said. “Many gather to hear whatever the officials say, but only a few take action.”

Wilson Ojok, the Pabbo camp leader, said only about 20,000 of the 64,000 inhabitants have built new huts in their original villages. Most return to the camps after tending their farms.

Christopher Omara of Gulu suggested that the LRA had become stronger during the two years of peace, especially since the rebel force has been sent supplies by the international community in an effort to prevent them from looting.

If an attack on Kony’s base was not well coordinated, he said, it could result in a war that spreads to South Sudan and northern Uganda.

“The LRA has regrouped, the sick were healed, and they made very many contacts as they garnered logistical support during the peace talks. [They] are now stronger than before. Waging war on the LRA would be a disaster,” said Omara.

“By attacking the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberations Army), the LRA wanted to show the world that they are not as weak as others proclaim,” Omara said of last week’s attack on a South Sudan army outpost that reportedly left 14 soldiers and about nine civilians dead.

“The attack has already created the impact [the LRA] wanted because people are already afraid.”

Patrick Oryema, an Amuru district official, said that the government’s announcement that Kony would be attacked and wiped out only provoked him into showing that the rebels are not dead and gone.

If Kony returns, it will be the civilians who suffer, he said.

That concern is shared by many, including children who escaped the LRA after they’d been abducted and forced to become soldiers.

“I really believe Kony could easily find his way back against and start his abducting and killing people,” said George Ojok, 19, who was captured by the rebels in 2003.

Tony Okello, 17, who was abducted in 2004, said it is hard for him to relax knowing that a war with the rebels could return to northern Uganda.

“I don’t feel happy at all,” he said. “I think they can come back again. Kony should be arrested and tried for his crimes.”

Joe Wacha, Julius Ocen and Caroline Auygi are IWPR-trained journalists.

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