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Uganda's Conflict Largely Ignored by West as Thousands Die


Many of the nearly two million people displaced by northern Uganda's long-running conflict were set to return home after the country's presidential election, if President Yoweri Museveni was defeated. He won. Now, many in northern Uganda are bracing for another five years of suffering.

Aid agencies say as many as 100,000 people have died, and nearly a 1,000 more die every week, mainly from conflict-related hunger and lack of medicine. Nearly two million people have been displaced at the hands of a shadowy militia with ties to Sudan's Arab-led government. It sounds like western Sudan's Darfur conflict, but it's not. This is northern Uganda, where suffering from a 20-year insurgency has attracted little international media attention.

President Museveni has won international acclaim and financial aid from Western governments for tackling the country's rampant HIV and AIDS problem, and returning stability to a country devastated by two decades of brutal repression by former dictators Idi Amin and Milton Obote.

Father Carlos Rodriguez, a Spaniard, who has lived in northern Uganda for 20 years, helps to lead a network of religious groups in the region, the Religious Leaders Peace Initiative.

"Our conflict is taking place in an area where there are no economic or commercial interests. We also have a situation where the government of Uganda, Museveni's government, was always presented as a success story in Africa. So, for many, many years, this conflict was always minimized," Father Rodriguez said. "I think, these are some of the reasons why the conflict has not featured high in the international press, or international forums, like the United Nations."

A rebel group, known as the Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA, has terrorized this region of northern Uganda, raiding villages and committing atrocities that rank them among the world's most brutal and most feared fighters. They have kidnapped tens of thousands of children, turning them into sex slaves, porters and child soldiers.

They have spread fear across the region. The United Nations estimates they have killed as many as 100,000 people. About 1.7 million people, fearing attacks, have abandoned their farms and villages for the relative safety of camps in larger cities, such as Gulu, about 350 kilometers north of Kampala, Uganda's capital.

The LRA wants to topple Mr. Museveni's government for marginalizing the Acholi ethnic group in northern Uganda, the ethnic group from which the LRA draws its top-ranking commanders. They also want to install a government based on the biblical Ten Commandments.

Until 2002, the LRA received money and high-tech weaponry from Sudan's Arab-dominated government, mainly to carry out attacks against the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, southern Sudan's largest rebel group, which was backed by Mr. Museveni's government.

Observers say Mr. Museveni has either ignored or downplayed the seriousness of the conflict in northern Uganda, a poor region where Mr. Museveni has had very little support. But during the most recent election campaign, Mr. Museveni promised to end the war in the north and facilitate the return of the displaced to their homes.

Philip Lutara is the regional director for Concerned Parents, a Ugandan non-governmental organization helping parents find kidnapped or missing children in northern Uganda.

In addition to putting an end to the war, he says, Mr. Museveni should help rebuild the north, an area largely ignored by the government in Kampala.

"It's the LRA terrorizing the people, but the condition under which the government is protecting everybody is one, which is alarming everybody. How do you expect a family of eight people to share one hut? How do you expect a whole generation to live in that squalid condition for a decade? We are now closing in on a decade. What economic base do we have now? What economic activities can we carry out now?" asked Lutara.

For many, it's as if Uganda were two countries: the prosperous south, with its shiny shopping malls, luxury hotels and growing middle class, and the war-ravaged north, with its ghost villages and squalid camps for the displaced.

In Uganda's February election, most people in this northern region voted for Mr. Museveni's challenger, Kizza Besigye. A Besigye win, they say, would have automatically ended the war by eliminating the LRA's main reason for being, paving the way for them to return home.

But with Mr. Museveni extending his 20-year rule for another five-year term, people here are skeptical of Mr. Museveni's campaign promise to end the war.

Most people here believe this is a war Mr. Museveni is not in a hurry to win, especially because the people most affected are the Acholi, many of whom served in the armies of Amin and Obote, both of whom were overthrown by Mr. Museveni. Father Rodriguez says the Acholi see the lingering conflict, and the government's weak response, as a form of punishment for their opposition to Mr. Museveni.

"More than 95 percent of people here in Acholi would definitely support that point of view," added Father Rodriguez. "The best thing that Mr. Museveni could do is to prove people here wrong. Mr. Museveni has just won the election. He's now [in] for a new term in office. He did promise very strongly during his campaign that he's going to finish up this business to pacify the north, to make it possible for displaced people to go back home. So that, after a few months, people may be able to say, 'We were mistaken.'"

Until then, many northern Ugandans are trapped between two hard choices: returning to their outlying villages that are still vulnerable to rebel attacks, or remaining in the relative safety of camps, which are crowded and poorly protected and where they rely on food rations from the few aid agencies operating in the region.