March 30, 2006
Northern Uganda's War-Sick Children Move into the Media Spotlight
-- Rosalind I. J. Hackett
After years of neglect and obscurity, the plight of Northern Uganda's war-sick children is finally becoming a global media item. Journalists and filmmakers are vying for the most apposite epithet —abducted, lost, stolen, invisible, forgotten—to describe those at the center of this seemingly endless war. Articles on the horror stories of the 30,000 children abducted by the rebel insurgents of the Lord's Resistance Army, and turned into killing machines, sex slaves, or corpses, can now be found in regional newspapers from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Sligo, Ireland, and online news sources from OhmyNews, South Korea, to CNN's Anderson Cooper's 360 Blog. Celebrities from Don Cheadle of Hotel Rwanda fame to author Christopher Hitchens have visited the region, recounting vividly their experiences on ABC's "Nightline" and in Vanity Fair, respectively.
Yet human-rights and humanitarian agencies have long been sounding the
alarm about this twenty-year-old war between the LRA, led by the mysterious
and elusive Joseph Kony, and the Ugandan government, headed by President
Yoweri Museveni, now in a controversial third term of office. The United
Nations lists Northern Uganda as one of the "Ten Stories the World
Should Hear More About." Jan Egeland, the U.N. Under-Secretary General
of Humanitarian Affairs, has called the situation "the world's most
neglected humanitarian crisis" and "one of the biggest scandals
of our generation," with 1.6 million, or 90 percent, of the Acholi
people herded into internally displaced people's camps. In these insecure,
unsanitary, and miserable conditions, where rates of rape, murder, suicide,
and HIV/AIDS are high, it is not surprising that the UN cites a death
toll of 1,000 each week as a consequence of this low-intensity "dirty
Archbishop John Baptist Odama, Catholic archbishop of Gulu Diocese, has tirelessly circled the globe as an advocate for the children who know only the abject poverty of refugee camps or the nightly treks from their villages to seek safe haven in the urban areas. Odama's pleas, along with others from the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, for political action on the part of the Ugandan government and the international community to end the conflict through peace talks rather than military action are gradually being heard.
Meanwhile, efforts by three youth-based organizations have been making most noticeable impact in recent months. Uganda-CAN (Uganda Conflict Action Network) was founded in May 2005 by five American undergraduates studying in Uganda as "a project for Ugandans and non-Ugandans to work together for a comprehensive resolution to the war and its consequent suffering." Working under the auspices of the Africa Faith and Justice Network, they have been very effective in raising awareness about the conflict, mobilizing support, and influencing U.S. and Ugandan policy. GuluWalk was introduced in July of 2005 as an attempt by two Canadians, through their well-publicized walks, to better understand the ordeal of the night-commuter children. It has since developed into an impassioned worldwide movement for peace.
The third initiative is the film Invisible Children, which is flying around to church congregations and high school and college campuses. Racy and moving, with touches of MTV and reality TV, it is striking a chord with youngsters who, like many other Americans, did not know or care about genocides and child soldiers in Africa. In addition, it has spawned an NGO seeking to channel this surge of youthful humanitarian concern. Joining forces with Uganda-CAN at a screening for policy-makers in Washington, D.C., in March 2006, they have discovered that they can, and should, influence political will.
Beyond the frontline, so to speak, let us not forget the efforts of academics and media and policy analysts to scrutinize the history of the conflict, its political logic or lack thereof, the vested economic interests on both sides, and series of failed peace negotiations. The debates surrounding the religious elements of the war are also significant, for the deviant labeling of Kony as crazed Christian fundamentalist, Muslim convert, traditional prophet, and/or Satanist, in addition to "terrorist," influences both national and international political and military strategies. For anyone imagining that the story of this tragic war is some local, ethnic conflict, there are plenty of sources to indicate its international dimensions, not least Sudanese government support for the rebels and U.S. aid to the Ugandan military. The International Criminal Court has weighed in, too, issuing arrest warrants for Kony and four of his commanders, despite calls by many Acholi for traditional methods of reconciliation and rehabilitation.
As rebel forces weaken, there is no improvement in the humanitarian situation, and fears concerning aid distribution and government efforts to end the war grow, given the massive defeat of Museveni's party in the North in the recent elections. Uganda's lost generation is going to need more than the global media spotlight for some years to come. Perhaps in the future some of the survivors will offer trenchant theological reflections on how Sartre's famous dictum "hell is other people" became "hell is being forgotten by other people."
References and for Further Reading:
Information about Uganda-CAN can be found at www.ugandacan.org. For information about GuluWalk, see www.guluwalk.com. You may read about Friends for Peace in Africa at www.friendsforpeaceinafrica.org. Consult www.invisiblechildren.com for information about the movie and mission of Invisible Children.
Rosalind I. J. Hackett is Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at the University of Tennessee, where she teaches Religious Studies and Anthropology.