Adam Lichtenheld: World turns blind eye to the horrors in Uganda

Untitled DocWorld Turns Blind Eye To The Horrors In Uganda

The Capital Times :: OP-ED ::

Saturday, February 4, 2006

Adam Lichtenheld, Guest Columnist. Lichtenheld is a UW-Madison student majoring in political science

Lichtenheld received a special award in May 2006. For more information click here.

Nightfall in the East African nation of Uganda ushers in a dark cloud of fear. Northern guerillas called the Lord’s Resistance Army roam the countryside, snatching children from their beds and taking them into the bush. Those spared death are forced to be instigators in it, the newest recruits in a nomadic insurgency.

Since President Yoweri Museveni’s violent rise to power in 1986, the LRA has stalked citizens in a bloody, anti-government campaign.

Their ranks swollen with 8-year-old militiamen and teenage concubines, the ethnic Acholi rebels have slaughtered, maimed and raped tens of thousands and abducted over 25,000 children. Trying to avoid these atrocities, 50,000 children — known as “night commuters” — flee their homes at sunset each evening for temporary sanctuary in local towns. There they huddle together on the concrete floors of bus parks and hospital basements, embodiments of fear and international neglect.

While ethnic cleansing in neighboring Sudan receives sustained international attention, the carnage in Uganda — presently the longest-standing conflict in Africa — is continuously overlooked. The conflicts in Sudan and Uganda are deeply interconnected, stemming from a decade-long proxy war between the two nations in which each government supported the others’ rebels. Sudan’s Islamist regime began training and financing the LRA in 1994 in retaliation for Kampala’s longstanding support of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army — whose 2003 uprising helped transform a Sudanese civil war into full-fledged mass extermination in Darfur.

Meanwhile, Uganda has spiraled into a chaotic anomaly, as its militants persecute the very people they claim to fight for. Because the perpetrators of the violence are also the victims — 90 percent of the rebels are abductees — a military response by the Ugandan army would only lead to the deaths of more innocents. Yet peace talks between LRA leader Joseph Kony and Ugandan officials have continually broken down under pressure from President Museveni, a staunch American ally who adheres to restrictive U.S. policies that prohibit negotiating with terrorists. Though Sudan and Uganda signed reconciliatory pacts in 1999 agreeing to sever their rebel ties, the violence in each nation rages on.

The lack of global engagement in Uganda compared to its neighbor derives from how the war and its victims are viewed by international law. Uganda avoids the label “genocide” because the LRA’s killings are indiscriminate — thus, it is exempted from receiving conflict response from other nations under post-Holocaust genocide conventions.

In addition, the international community’s failure to implement a legal instrument to protect the internally displaced gives NGOS (non-governmental organizations) and U.N. agencies no authority to aid the 2 million internal migrants in northern Uganda. Eighty percent of the population has been relocated in 200 indigent and overcrowded displacement camps. The government has assisted, and even forced, the relocation of citizens to protect them from the rebels, but the displaced have merely fled one hell for another. An estimated 1,000 individuals die every week in the camps, deprived of food and health care while suffering persistent abuse, rape and prolonged detention by their “protectors,” the undisciplined Ugandan army.

But until they leave the country and are eligible for “refugee” status under international law, the displaced are locked behind the iron doors of state sovereignty — even as aid workers provide resources to Sudanese exiles stationed inside northern Uganda, mere miles from the relocation camps.

Though internal exiles may never cross borders, the manifestations of their plight and the spin-offs of war — including health epidemics, environmental degradation, famine, social hostility and economic instability — inevitably will.

Just as in Darfur, the United States and its allies have repeatedly condemned the atrocities in Uganda. Just as in Darfur — and Burundi in 1993, Rwanda in 1994 and Sierra Leone in 1997 — Uganda, once seen as an African “success story,” has become a moral challenge for the international community in the most neglected and impoverished part of the world.

But unlike Darfur, world leaders have failed to follow their powerful rhetoric and respond to the tragedy with effective action. Uganda has become, as several U.N. officials have acknowledged, the world’s most underreported humanitarian crisis.

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We say we have dedicated ourselves to extinguishing terrorism, yet we betray our political priorities by allowing its deadly flame to burn out of control in the most vulnerable of places. Persistent international apathy could easily allow the Ugandan conflict to spawn a large-scale trans-national war, sucking the entire region into a destructive abyss.

In East Africa, the world’s worst acts of inhumanity are occurring — and Darfur is only half of it.