Seize opportunity for peace in Uganda

August 31, 2006|By Sarah Margon

PALABEK GEM CAMP, Uganda -- As we sat on the side of the dusty road 6 kilometers outside Palabek Gem camp in northern Uganda, an older woman named Joyce said to me, "When you go home, tell them you have seen the way we live here, and tell them that we are not free. Tell them the conditions are so bad, and our government does not take proper care of us."

For more than 20 years, a bloody conflict has raged between the government of Uganda and the Lord's Resistance Army. This brutal rebel group, best known for abducting and enslaving children who are then forced to commit unspeakable atrocities, has killed more than half a million people and forced nearly 2 million from their homes. The displaced now live in cramped huts called tukuls and are trapped with little access to land, employment or education. Despite the tireless efforts of relief agencies, there is insufficient access to food, water or medical treatment.

Yet hope may finally be within their grasp.

Last weekend, the LRA signed a truce with the government of Uganda, which, if it holds, will be a critical step toward ending 20 years of violence.

In the days before the signing of the truce, Joyce and her friend Balbeena showed me their newly planted cotton field - a development possible only because they feel safer. It became clear that this was the first time in years they had been able to travel beyond the camp perimeter to cultivate enough land to supplement their meager food rations and potentially generate some personal income.

The rampant insecurity that characterizes northern Uganda has yet to formally end, but the conflict's recent expansion into neighboring Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has brought with it increased international attention and, for many of its victims, a break from endemic violence.

The recent calm is also the result, in part, of the government of southern Sudan's decision to broker peace talks. Although previous peace efforts have failed, many are cautiously optimistic this time around, especially given the weekend truce. Julius, a program officer for the aid group Oxfam, who is from a small village, told me, "These peace talks are different. They are more real because even though [LRA leader Joseph] Kony is not at the table, they have met with him, and there is now help from the outside. The violence for us is down because Kony is paying attention, and the Ugandan government is there too."

These negotiations may be Uganda's best chance for peace, and yet the United States and others have been silent - even though, as Julius stated, "outside support" for the talks may be a key tool for success.

The United States was a leader in the effort to bring lasting peace to Sudan, and its open support of these negotiations would symbolize the talks' potential to contribute to a broader regional peace. The United States and other core donors need not meddle in the African-led process but could use their support to signal to the marginalized local communities in the north that their right to peace and security is as important as anyone else's.

The United States could also do much more to develop a wider justice and reconciliation plan throughout Uganda. This would help bring lower- and midlevel combatants - many under the age of 18 - out of the bush so they can be reintegrated into their communities and reclaim their lives. "The Acholi [tribes] are very forgiving," Joseph, a public health engineer, told me. "People want to see justice as they understand it so they can resume their lives."

Calls from the international community for justice and accountability are important, but as James says, it must also acknowledge the option of traditional mechanisms that could genuinely address victims' grievances.

Finally, the United States could begin working with the Ugandan government to develop infrastructure in the north. Although most northern Ugandans live in deplorable conditions, the land that surrounds the camps is extremely fertile. Through regional increased trade, there is great potential for it to benefit the entire country. Vital economic ties are developing between Uganda and Sudan; once peace is consolidated, modernized infrastructure can only strengthen this relationship.

Governments and global institutions may be working behind the scenes to support the talks in Juba, Sudan, but the people of northern Uganda also need to know the international community supports this initiative. Should negotiations fail, the almost 2 million people affected by the conflict have the most to lose.

Joyce, Balbeena and the other Ugandans I met had one main request: for the international community to support their dreams to go home. How can the United States be so deafeningly silent to such a simple request?

Sarah Margon, a conflict policy adviser for Oxfam America, is based in Washington. She recently returned from a trip to Uganda. Her e-mail is smargon@oxfamamerica.org.

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