TOPICS > Nation

Uganda Attempts to End Decades’ Long Civil War

April 26, 2007 at 12:00 AM EDT

KIRA KAY, NewsHour Special Correspondent: Morning classes at the Laroo school in northern Uganda look like those at many American schools. The children are learning vocabulary, and the eager ones think they know all the answers.

But walk around the grounds of Laroo, and you notice this school is different. Barbed wire surrounds the campus, which itself is set down a dusty country road, isolated from nearby towns. And students are studying a subject you don’t normally see in middle school classrooms: anger management.

TEACHER: What is anger? What is anger?

STUDENT: Anger is a strong feeling of displeasure.

KIRA KAY: The Laroo school is officially called the School for War-Affected Children, and all 700 pupils who live and study here have in some way been brutally touched by a war that has raged around their community for 20 years, a war many Americans have never heard about, a war that has specifically targeted children, turning them into both victims and killers.

SARAH, Victim of Civil War (through translator): What I can remember is killing, putting people in a hut and burning them to death. I myself killed 30 people.

KIRA KAY: At the age of eight, Sarah was abducted from her bed at midnight by rebel fighters. She was handed a gun and made to join their fight. She was also raped by her captors and, at age 14, gave birth to a rebel’s child.

SARAH (through translator): The thoughts remain in my mind, and at night I dream of what I have seen. I don’t feel like a normal person.

KIRA KAY: Sarah’s classmates listened quietly to her story. And then 16-year-old Paska told us something almost unbearable to hear: She, too, was made to kill in unimaginable ways.

PASKA, Victim of Civil War (through translator): We used big sticks, and, afterwards, we were forced to eat their blood and their brains. And if we refused, we ourselves were killed.

KIRA KAY: Child counselor Florence Lacor explained that making children kill each other has been a kind of initiation rite.

FLORENCE LACOR, World Vision: They have to trample them on feet, or sometimes they have to box them until they’re dead. Sometimes they have to bite them with their teeth, and you have to bite so hard that you come out with blood on your teeth. And sometimes they tie them and just hit their head with a stick; they said that would make them strong.

Using messianic messages

John Prendergast
International Crisis Group
[Kony]'s messianic, and he believes, according to his closest confidantes, he believes that he is a Moses-like figure for northern Uganda.

KIRA KAY: These children are the lucky ones. They managed to escape the brutal lives they were forced into.

But there is literally an army of children still out there, exploited and abused by this man, a warlord named Joseph Kony. Kony is a self-styled prophet of the African jungle who has assembled a renegade militia known as the Lord's Resistance Army.

The group once fought Uganda's army on behalf of tribes who felt oppressed by the ruling government. But political goals quickly degenerated into mass brutality, and now it's simply a predatory menace bent on its own survival.

Kony styles himself a mystic, saying he wants to rule Uganda by the Ten Commandments. He holds sway over his followers through biblical verse and trance-like rituals.

JOHN PRENDERGAST, International Crisis Group: He's messianic, and he believes, according to his closest confidantes, he believes that he is a Moses-like figure for northern Uganda.

KIRA KAY: John Prendergast, a former Clinton administration official and now senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, says Kony uses a blend of politics and religion to legitimize his brutality.

JOHN PRENDERGAST: He's going to lead the people of northern Uganda, who have discriminated against and treated badly by the government in the south, he's going to lead them to the promised land. Remember, Moses has to kill on his mission, so, of course, it's justifiable.

KIRA KAY: Messianic messages have the potential to resonate deeply among this devoutly Christian community. This is a place where tribal traditions mix comfortably with ecclesiastical faith. And as much as this war has been fought in the name of scripture, so, too, has the word of God comforted this war-torn populace.

KIRA KAY: Uganda has historically been a nation in great need of comfort. This is, after all, the country once ruled by the infamous Idi Amin, who killed hundreds of thousands of his own citizens in a brutal rein of terror. But these days, the hotel where he lived and where his victims were tortured sparkles under a fresh coat of paint, ready to host a headline meeting of global leaders this November.

In fact, much of Uganda's capital, Kampala, has grown into the very image of a modern African city. Construction is booming, and the streets are filled with office workers moving a quickly growing economy. Uganda has successfully dropped its rate of HIV-AIDS, and the United States considers President Yoweri Museveni one of its strongest allies in Africa.

Displacement camps

John Prendergast
International Crisis Group
One thousand people die every week as a result, an indirect result of the violence that has driven them into the camps, where disease is prevalent, where malnutrition is extensive, and where people just slowly erode in their capacity to survive.

But drive just four hours north of Kampala, and you cross the Nile River; you also cross into a different kind of country, one untouched by the Uganda success story, a place where years of torment by the LRA have bred poverty and illness, a place where 90 percent of the population, close to two million people, has fled to densely packed displacement camps for fear of their lives.

JOHN PRENDERGAST: Why? Why are they here? What caused them to come to this camp here?

UGANDAN: They are fearing death, you know, these rebels, when they get you, you get killed. So, you know, being a human being, you should fear death. That's why they are here in the camp.

KIRA KAY: John Prendergast says the camps have themselves become deadly.

JOHN PRENDERGAST: One thousand people die every week as a result, an indirect result of the violence that has driven them into the camps, where disease is prevalent, where malnutrition is extensive, and where people just slowly erode in their capacity to survive. In Uganda, it's just been a slow, steady erosion.

KIRA KAY: The camps are packed. Upwards of 20,000 people house together on a few acres, the huts just feet apart. Clean water is scarce, and sanitation is abysmal. Rudimentary latrines are a breeding ground for disease.

Jobs in these remote camps are hard to find, so many adults turn to alcohol to pass the time; these residents started drinking at 9:00 am. The suicide rate is also alarmingly high, especially among young mothers who feel they cannot properly care for their families.

Edward Langol is with the charity World Vision.

EDWARD LANGOL, World Vision: The culture, the cultural values have been destroyed. And (inaudible) the upbringing of the children is completely difficult. That means the future of these children, unless God shows us mercy, we can be very doubtful about the future of these children.

Charges against Joseph Kony

Christine Chung
International Criminal Court
There are 33 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes that have been leveled against Kony and three of his top commanders.

KIRA KAY: Indeed, after 20 years of war and brutality, northern Ugandans had little hope left. But surprisingly, a fragile calm has recently arrived here, because for the first time in years, representatives of warlord Joseph Kony sat down with counterparts from the Ugandan government and signed a cease-fire agreement.

Kony was in large part forced to the negotiating table because of events 4,000 miles away in the Hague, where he and his top commanders have been indicted by the International Criminal Court. The court was set up in 2002 to make sure more Bosnias and Rwandas don't happen.

Christine Chung drew up the charges against Kony and his men.

CHRISTINE CHUNG, International Criminal Court: There are 33 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes that have been leveled against Kony and three of his top commanders. The counts include charges of murder, enslavement, sexual enslavement, inducing of rape, conscripting of children, attacks against civilian populations, pillaging.

KIRA KAY: But the court has no police force to ensure Kony's arrest. And so far, Uganda's People's Defense Force, or UPDF, has been unable to capture him, according to former Ugandan government Minister Betty Bigombe.

BETTY BIGOMBE, U.S. Institute of Peace: UPDF has been trying for the last 20 years or so to kill or arrest them. What magic wand are you giving UPDF by giving them a piece of paper, an agreement that they can now do it when they have not been able to do it in so many years?

JOHN PRENDERGAST: The very countries that were making extraordinary speeches about the end of impunity the day that those indictments were issued, mostly from Europe, never lifted a pinkie to try to create a strategy for apprehending these suspects, and doing the necessary dirty work, rolling up your sleeves, investing in some of the military and police aspects of this strategy to be able to capture these guys.

ICC obstacle

KIRA KAY: Shrewdly sensing that lack of political will, Kony turned the table on the international community and now vows he will never surrender as long as he faces trial at the ICC.

For the first time in years, the people of northern Uganda are returning to the routine of daily life. But unless a real solution can be found on what to do with Joseph Kony and his top LRA leadership, many fear this peace will not last.

And increasingly Ugandans, especially those suffering in the camps, say they see the ICC charges as a major threat to this peace.

UGANDAN (through translator): Our problem is the ICC. They should drop the arrest warrants, because that's the main obstacle of the peace talks. Take our message. We have suffered for 20 years, and a number of people have died. If you care about our lives, let the ICC warrants be dropped.

UGANDAN (through translator): I feel like committing suicide because, if the peace talks fail, we are all going to die.

KIRA KAY: The people's desperation for peace is clear. But away from the outrage of a public gathering, you still hear from victims that they need to see some sort of punishment for the crimes they have suffered.

Back at the Laroo School for War-Affected Children, former abductees like Sarah and her classmates say their abusers should be put in prison, perhaps even face execution. For them, the ICC indictments do offer a hope for justice.

RAY SUAREZ: Talks to end the conflict in Uganda resumed today, and there will be demonstrations supporting those talks in 15 American cities this Saturday.