ACHOLI RELIGIOUS LEADERS PEACE INITIATIVE RECONCILIATION AGENDA AND THE SEARCH FOR PEACE IN NORTHERN UGANDA A Message of the Acholi Religious Leaders to All People of Goodwill. Introduction In August 1986, rebels operating under the name of Uganda People’s Democratic Army (UPDA) attacked elements of the National Resistance Army (NRA), at Bibia near the Uganda—Sudan border. This marked the beginning of the current rebellion and conflict in Acholiland. Different rebel groups have been involved in the conflict, but the Lord’s Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony has been the most persistent of all these groups in northern Uganda. In 1994, peace talks between the government of Uganda and the LRA broke down. The LRA eventually secured a base in the Sudan with the support of the Sudanese Government. The LRA has abducted thousands of people, both young and old, many of whom are forced to join the rebel ranks. Many of the abducted children have died in the hands of the rebels and many have been killed in the course of fighting between the rebels and Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF). The war has caused serious disruption in terms of social, economic and cultural of the people. About half of the population of Gulu and Kitgum districts live in “protected villages” in shocking and appalling conditions. In Pabo camp, one of the largest protected villages, about 42,000 people live within a radius of two kilometres in crowded grass-thatched huts. Key issues that require urgent attention 1. Return of abducted children. According to UNICEF, over 14,000 have been abducted by the LRA, from northern Uganda in the course of its brutal campaign against the government of Uganda. The abducted children, including primary and secondary school boys and girls, have been forcibly recruited into rebel ranks. Some have been forcibly married, raped and defiled, maimed or killed. This is a serious humanitarian disaster that requires quick international response. These children are traumatised and feel betrayed by society which has not been able to protect them. 2. The Amnesty Law. The Acholi and all people of goodwill would like to see an immediate end to the war. This position was stated clearly by a cross-section of Acholi who testified before the Parliamentary Committee on Defence and Internal Affairs in 1997 and during several meetings attended by the Acholi including the “Kacoke Madit” 1997, “the Bedo-Piny” in June 1998, the “Kacoke Madit” 1998 and the International Peace Conference on the “Reconciliation Agenda” in September this year. The same sentiment has been echoed in all sensitisation seminars during the our “Community Peace Education”. The Acholi people are asking for an Amnesty Law that will serve as an instrument of reconciliation. They are looking forward to an early enactment of the Amnesty Bill 1999 by the Parliament of Uganda. The Law must be comprehensive and should have in-built mechanisms for sensitising the people for demobilisation and for monitoring compliance by all major players. 3. Uganda—Sudan Relationship. The current strained diplomatic relations between Uganda and the Sudan is perceived by a large section of the population of Northern Uganda as being responsible for their suffering. The Government of the Sudan is supporting the Lord’s Resistance Army. On the other hand, Uganda is also accused of supporting the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). The Acholi and all people of goodwill, particularly those from other parts of northern Uganda who are affected by the war, would like Uganda and the Sudan to resolve their differences through dialogue involving all stakeholders. We would like to see a negotiated solution to the armed conflicts between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo and a complete demilitarisation of the entire African continent. 4. Resettlement, Reconstruction & Development. The war in northern Uganda has disrupted the social fibre of Acholi society. Families have been separated. Thousands of people, both young and old have been up-rooted from their homes and are scattered all over the globe. In an attempt to protect the local people from the LRA rebel attack, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) created “protected villages”. The people living in these villages are deprived of their natural means of livelihood and are being assisted by various non-governmental organisations; but this is not adequate. Time will come when these people will have to go back to their villages. It is important early preparation be made for their resettlement. They will require food, shelter and basic re-settlement kits. If the Amnesty Law takes effect as is expected, the returning rebels and abducted children will require a whole range of rehabilitation services including counselling, vocational training and substantial re-settlement packages. Owing to the devastating effect of the 13 year conflict, the Acholi sub-region will require special post-war reconstruction and development programme. These should cover all the key sectors such as roads, water, transport and communication, commercial agriculture, tourism, small scale industries, rural electrification and the manufacturing sector. 5. Education. The education sector has been the main victim of the war. Many teachers have been killed and schools burnt down. Nearly all secondary schools outside the urban centres have been forced to re-locate to Gulu and Kitgum towns. As mentioned earlier, thousands of children of school going age have been abducted and forced to take up arms. Those who escaped from captivity have received limited help in terms of counselling. Many are unable to continue with their studies. During the early part of the insurgency the Acholi lost their cattle, which is a source of wealth and of payment of school fees, to the warring parties and cattle rustlers who took advantage of the conflict. Many parents are, therefore, unable to meet the high cost of education. The instability has also led to a drastic decline in the academic standard of schools in the two districts. Consequently, the number of young people in institutions of higher learning, in comparison with other parts of Uganda, is disappointingly low. This state of affairs has very serious implications for the development of the country. The Acholi community are asking for a special scholarship fund to support secondary and higher education in Gulu and Kitgum. 6. Human Rights and the Rule of Law. The Human Rights situation in Northern Uganda is quite grim. Since the out break of the insurgency in 1986, thousands of people have been killed, abducted or brutalised in one way or the other by various armed elements including the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF). Various non-governmental organisations including Amnesty International have taken up this matter with the concerned authorities and have publicised numerous reports featuring human rights violation in the region. This matter has also been highlighted by The Uganda Human Rights Commission in its 1997 Annual Report. The institutional machinery for addressing human rights violations has been weak. There is need to create awareness of fundamental human rights and how these rights can be protected. The Churches and non-governmental organisations can play a very important role in this respect. The Uganda Human Rights Commission has just opened a regional office for Northern Uganda in Gulu. This is a most welcomed development. We look forward to working closely with this office to address issues relating to human rights protection and promotion and the rule of law in a comprehensive manner. An Appeal We are aware that the conflict in northern Uganda has many complex dimensions. The Government and people of the United States of America are in position to turn the tide of events, if they can give full backing to the current peace initiatives by various forces including the Religious Leaders in Northern Uganda. The International community acting through the United Nations also has the capacity to bring about sustainable peace in Uganda and other conflict ridden countries of Africa. And, therefore: 1. We appeal to the Government of the United States of America to use its good offices to bring pressure to bear on the government of the Sudan in order to facilitate the immediate and unconditional release of the abducted children. 2. To exert pressure on the government of Uganda and that of the Sudan, to resolve their conflicts through dialogue and diplomatic means. 3. To our partners in mission, to come to the assistance of the suffering people of northern Uganda by joining hands with us and other concerned organisations in the gigantic task of peace-building, rehabilitation, resettlement and post-war reconstruction programme. 4. To support the government and people of Uganda in promoting dialogue and reconciliation through the proposed Amnesty Law. The implementation of the Law requires goodwill on the part of all stakeholders and substantial resources. Conclusion We would like to record our gratitude to the Episcopal Church in the United States of America for inviting us and making it possible to share with you our experiences and concerns. We, the Religious Leaders in Acholi, are committed to peace-building and reconciliation (mato oput). Our people have suffered long enough. It is high time the spirit of confrontation is abandoned. It is also high time for the arms manufacturers to give Africa and the whole world a breathing space. Finally, we do call upon all concerned to re-dedicate themselves to the cause of peace-building and reconciliation.