Saving Our Children from the Scourge of War
As we meet here today to focus on the fate of children being destroyed in situations of war, I must draw your attention to the worst place on earth to be a child today. That place is the northern region of the Republic of Uganda.
What is going on in northern Uganda is not a usual humanitarian crisis nor a natural disaster, for which an adequate response might be the mobilisation of necessary humanitarian support and relief.
In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina last August, Americans and the world were horrified to see some 10,000 citizens exposed to conditions of utter despair and vulnerability in the New Orleans Superdome.
In northern Uganda, the government has warehoused two million people in 200 'superdomes', for the last 10 years, in conditions more abominable than what we witnessed in the New Orleans Superdome.
The human rights and humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in northern Uganda is a methodical and comprehensive genocide, conceived and being carried out by the government. An entire society is being systematically destroyed -- physically, culturally, emotionally, socially, and economically -- in full view of the international community. In the sobering words of Father Carlos Rodriguez, a Catholic missionary priest in the region, "Everything Acholi is dying". Or, as MSF (Medicine Sans Frontiers, Doctors Without Borders) has reported, "The extent of suffering is overwhelming--according to international benchmarks this constitutes an emergency out of control."
I know of no recent or present situation where all the elements that constitute genocide under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) have been brought together in such a chillingly comprehensive manner, as in northern Uganda today.
According to the Convention, genocide is a project or campaign directed against a racial, national, linguistic, religious or political group with the purpose of "destroying it in whole or in part or of preventing its preservation or development."
Typically, these efforts are directed at destroying "in whole or in part" the physical preservation, the livelihood, the culture, the children, the public health, and the family structure and life of a community. The result is usually an unnatural depletion rate of the community and a radical undermining of its capacity for preservation, regeneration, and development, as a group.
This is precisely what has been going on in northern Uganda for many years. In fact, in northern Uganda, a whole infrastructure--the concentration camps--has been put in place, as the most efficient locale to prosecute the genocidal project.
The concentration camps provide a controlled environment, in which to impose deadly conditions on the targeted populations, while maintaining total control over them. Here all the key elements that comprise genocide have been brought together in a diabolically comprehensive manner.
The result is all too evident--a once-vibrant society has now been reduced to a mere existential shadow of itself.
Following a recent visit to the region, the Ugandan journalist Elias Biryabarema wrote: "Not a single explanation on earth can justify the sickening human catastrophe going on in Lango and Acholiland: the degradation, desolation and the horrors killing off generation after generation. Frankly, it's not entirely imprecise to describe what I saw as a slow extinction facing the Acholi and Langi people. I encountered unique and heart-stopping suffering, shocking cruelty and death stalking a people by the minute, by the hour, by the day; for the last two decades."
There is a huge discrepancy in the international response to the situations in Darfur and Zimbabwe, on the one hand, and the genocide in northern Uganda, on the other.
What shall we tell the children of northern Uganda when they ask: how come that the same international community that has rightly turned such spotlight and heat on Darfur and Zimbabwe has steadfastly turned a blind eye to the genocide in their land?
Witness the following concerning the situation in northern Uganda:
The human rights and humanitarian catastrophe in northern Uganda has been going on, non-stop, for 20 years.
For over 10 years, a population of almost two million people have been herded like animals into concentration camps, some 200 camps in all (although the camps are predominantly concentrated in Acholi--95% of the Acholi are in the camps, Lango and Teso are also gravely affected) in abominable living conditions, defined by staggering levels of squalor, disease and death, humiliation and despair, appalling sanitation and hygiene, and massive overcrowding and malnutrition.
These rural communities were brutally uprooted from their homes and lands by the government, in an operation marked by the systematic bombing of villages, and the burning of homes, grain stores and crops. As a relief official in Gulu described it, "People are living like animals. They do not have the bare minimum."
A recent survey by international agencies reported that 1,000 people are dying in the camps in Acholi every week, that is about 50,000 each year. The survey also estimated that, in the first half of this year, around 30,000 died in the camps in Acholi, of which over 11,000 were children under five.
These camps have the worst infant mortality rates anywhere in the world today. The infant mortality rate in northern Uganda is 172 per 1000 live births; the situation is worse for children under five where 276/1,000 die in the region.
The maternal mortality ratio is 700 per 100,000 live births in the north; the national figure is 506 per 100,000.
As reported recently by IDMC, "Access to healthcare is almost nonexistent."
Chronic malnutrition is widespread; 41% of children under five have been seriously stunted in their growth. A ration of 25 kilos of corn flour and six kilos of pulses is provided to each family, of six to eight persons in a household.
Access to latrines is abominable. A recent survey found that 85% of camp population in Gulu district did not have access to latrines. The minimum requirements for such emergency situations is one toilet for 20 adults and one toilet for 10 children. In Otuboi camp, there is one latrine for 1,566 persons -- this translates on average into access of 30 seconds per person per day. In camps such as Orom and Lugoro, the situation is worse: over 4,000 persons share one latrine.
Access to water is equally shocking. 2,500 to 3,000 persons share a water source. It takes four to six hours (with peaks of 12 hours) of waiting in line to collect water; the standard waiting time in such emergencies should be 15 minutes.
The camps are over-congested. A family of six to eight persons have to pack themselves, sardine-like, into a tiny hut of 4.5 square metres; the minimum standard for such emergencies is 3.5 square metres per person. And contrary to traditional culture, three generations of a family--parents, children and grandparents --are all forced to share the same living space, with loss of all privacy and dignity.
Two generations of children have been denied education as a matter of government policy; they have been deliberately condemned to a life of darkness and ignorance, deprived of all hope and opportunity.
In a society renowned for its deep-rooted and rich culture, values system and family structure--these have all been destroyed under the conditions imposed in the camps. This loss is colossal and virtually irreparable; it signals the death of a people and their civilisation.
Among the population in the camps, 85% suffer from severe trauma and depression. In the face of relentless cultural and personal humiliations and abuse, suicide has risen to unprecedented levels. Suicide is highest among mothers who feel utter despair at their inability to provide for their children or save them from starvation, and death from preventable diseases.
As several reports have documented, rape and generalized sexual exploitation, especially by government soldiers (both those stationed in the camps and the mobile units) have become "entirely normal." The soldiers feel entitled to take any woman or girl and do anything they want with her, with complete impunity. As noted in a recent report by Human Rights Watch, "Women in a number of camps told Human Rights Watch how they had been raped by soldiers from the Ugandan army. It is exceptionally difficult for women to find protection from sexual abuse by government soldiers."
In Uganda, HIV/AIDS is being used as a deliberate weapon of mass destruction. Government soldiers are screened and those who have tested HIV-positive are then especially deployed to the north, with the mission to commit maximum havoc on the local girls and women. Thus from almost a zero base, the rate of HIV infection among these rural communities has galloped to staggering levels; a recent survey found 30% infection in Kitgum district, compared with a national level of 5%. Last June, the medical superintendent of Gulu Hospital reported that 27% of children who were tested there were found to be HIV-positive; 40% of pregnant women attending Lacor Hospital for routine prenatal visits tested HIV-positive. It is instructive to note that, although they are in the greatest need, the facilities and programs under the Global Fund for distribution of anti-retroviral drugs (ARV) have not been made available to the populations in the camps. All this, even as official propaganda touts Uganda's experience as the model for the fight against HIV/Aids!
The population has been deprived of all means of livelihood. The people have been uprooted from their lands. In their absence, powerful government and military officials have embarked on a frantic land-grab in Acholi, in partnership with commercial farmers from South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Over the years, over 20,000 children, unprotected, have been abducted by the brutal rebel group, the Lord's Resitance Army (LRA); similarly some 40,000 children, the so called "night commuters," trek several hours each evening to sleep in the streets of Gulu and Kitgum towns (and walk back the same distances in the morning) to avoid abduction; one such street location in Gulu town, Noah's Ark, packs in some 6,000 children every night.
The population has been rendered totally vulnerable; they are trapped between the gruesome violence of the LRA and the genocidal project, atrocities and humiliations which are being systematically committed by the Museveni regime.
In the 1970s, the Acholi were especially targeted by the Idi Amin regime, absorbing the heaviest toll of its atrocities and repression. Amin decimated the Acholi leadership, intelligentsia, businessmen, and military officers. It was therefore unimaginable for the Acholi that they would ever experience a worse nightmare Alas, the genocide unleashed by Museveni has turned out to be many times more systematically devastating and deadly for the community. A mother in one of the concentration camps lamented: "At least Amin killed only our educated sons and parents, but Museveni and his accomplice, Kony, are determined to wipe out a whole people."
The nightmare and staggering facts outlined above are well known in foreign chancelleries, UN agencies, international NGOs and human rights organizations. Yet, with precious few exceptions, those in a position to raise their voices have instead chosen to join in a conspiracy of silence.
This betrayal is all the more painful for the people of northern Uganda because it has come from the very governments and organisations on which they had counted to mount a vigorous defence of their human rights.
These governments and organisations have been applauded for making the values of human rights, democracy, good governance, rule of law, and accountability the cornerstones of their international policy; yet in the face of the complete and consistent negation of these principles by the Museveni regime in Uganda, they have adopted a different policy: "We see no evil, we hear no evil, we know no evil."
In spite of a record of 20 years of one-party undemocratic rule, genocide, and massive corruption in Uganda, and the invasion and plunder of neighbouring Congo, Museveni has been proclaimed the 'model African leader,' indeed the paramount chief of a 'new breed of African leaders.'
An important question needs to be asked: wherein lies the accountability of donors and external partners, when their policies and actions produce such a costly disaster for a country and its neighbors?
Read the second part here: SOS, Profile of a Genocide Part II