Uganda: UNDHA IRIN Humanitarian Situation Report, 12/4/96

Uganda: UNDHA IRIN Humanitarian Situation Report, 12/4/96

Department of Humanitarian Affairs
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1. The reality of life in Uganda today is that the northern one-third of the country is in a state of crisis. Rebels of the West Nile Bank Front (WNBF) and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) are operating across the north of the country - from Arua, Moyo and Nebbi to Gulu, Kitgum and Apac. Their attacks against the population in the north constitute grave human rights abuses, while their activities are causing massive displacement of the Ugandan population and of Sudanese refugees, with very serious implications for their food security and health. Services such as health and education are in a state of collapse, while the rampant insecurity is undermining the efforts of humanitarian relief agencies to provide even basic emergency assistance.

2. This situation report follows a DHA fact-finding mission to Uganda which included visits to Gulu town and to the Kasese area in Kabarole district, scene of a recent rebel invasion from Zaire. It gives a detailed description of the current situation in Gulu district, as well as accounts of the situation in Kitgum and Arua. In looking at the Kasese conflict, it explores the links between this rebel attack and other rebel activities in Uganda as well as the situation in eastern Zaire. The report analyses the background to the current conflicts, setting them in their regional context, and concludes by looking at their implications for Uganda's wider development prospects.


3. The hospital at Lachor, 5kms from Gulu town, has recently started to receive a category of patient hitherto unseen even in an area which has witnessed barbaric human rights abuses for several years - young people whose feet have been hacked off by rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). Four people can be seen in one ward, deprived of their limbs as punishment for riding their bicycles, which the LRA seeks to prohibit on the grounds that bike riders can provide military intelligence to the Ugandan Army. `It is a miracle they survived', says the doctor in charge, noting that these patients reach the hospital only with the help of other people who risk their lives by providing such assistance.

4. The hospital itself has 446 beds, each of which is in use, but every evening it is home to some 6,000 people who have left the countryside for the relative safety of the hospital grounds. They lie in the wards, on the concrete pathways which link them, and on every spare patch of ground in the garden and compound. In the morning they filter back to their homes and their fields, only to return again as dusk approaches. The same is true for every major public building in-between the hospital and the centre of the town; a recent census carried out by the local authorities and MSF-Holland found that 15,400 people enter the town each night and leave again the following morning. In addition, some 30,000 displaced people live in Gulu town on a semi-permanent basis.

5. Lachor hospital is currently feeding 60 severely malnourished children, many of whom were caught in the measles epidemic which afflicted the district earlier in the year. In 1995 the hospital registered 184 patients suffering from measles; by October this year it had already registered 744 cases. The epidemic reflects the fact that the authority's immunization programme has been totally undermined by the rampant insecurity. The same is true for the range of health services - whether for treatment of disease or for assisting pregnancies and births. Of the estimated 45 health centres in the district, between 6 and 9 are believed to be still functioning in some fashion. Qualified staff have fled to the relative safety of the towns, while resupplying centres with drugs and medicines is usually out of the question.

6. Education has also been drastically affected by the conflict; only a handful of the district's 180 primary schools function at present. The targeting of schoolchildren by the LRA is believed to be one of the prime causes, with UNICEF estimating that 3,000 schoolchildren have been abducted by the rebels during 1995 and 1996. The problem is growing not only in Gulu district but also in Kitgum, Arua and Apac - increasingly rebels appear to see children as easy targets in their search to find recruits.

7. Out of Gulu district's population of 390,000 people, between 100,000 and 200,000 are estimated to be displaced from their homes. The figures are guesswork, extrapolated from the levels of displacement observed in those parts of the district from which the local authorities still receive information. What is clear is that displacement, either on a daily basis for overnight stays, or on a semi-permanent basis further away from home, is a way of life for much, perhaps even most, of Gulu's population.

8. A major consequence for farmers who have left their plots is that they cannot harvest their crops just at the time they have become ripe. Although Gulu district received a bumper harvest this year, thanks to successful planting in August and plentiful rains, rice is rotting in the fields. Farmers fear to return to their land, in case they are attacked by the LRA, or find themselves caught in the midst of fighting between the LRA and the Uganda People's Defence Forces (UPDF). This has implications not only for their day-to-day survival, but also for the population's medium-term food security, as they are not selling surpluses and building up the reserves that would see them through future lean times.

9. Landmines are also a serious - and growing - problem. The LRA is using both anti-personnel and anti-tank mines, in fields and on major roads. Lachor hospital carried out 60 amputations on the victims of anti-personnel mines between 1 January 1996 and mid-November; in 1995 the total number was 20. The people who reach the hospital are the lucky ones, most people never make it. If mines are one of the major problems preventing people in Gulu from resuming normal lives, they are also one of the reasons why none of the international relief agencies is currently working outside Gulu town, with the occasional exception of the ICRC.

10. The attention of the international humanitarian agencies has recently been focussed on the question of `protected villages'. The local authorities characterize these as places, often close to UPDF posts, where people have spontaneously gathered together for their own protection. Displaced people interviewed in Gulu, however, report that UPDF soldiers told them that they would be regarded as rebels if they stayed in their home villages. Leading politicians and soldiers are on record as saying that protected villages will be an important part of their strategy to isolate rebels and deny them food, freedom of movement and the ability to re-group.

11. Although a number of sites are reported each to have attracted several thousand people over the past few weeks, there are also reports that many of these people are already returning to their homes. Certainly, displaced people interviewed at a site designated by the authorities in Gulu expressed a reluctance to stay where they were; having found no food, water or sanitation facilities at the site they were talking about returning home. Several people said that they felt unsafe in the sites, one of which is already reported to have been attacked by the LRA.

12. Whether or not protected villages develop over the coming weeks will also depend on the ability of aid agencies to provide the services which are lacking, and certainly beyond the means of the local authorities. The LRA has already begun to issue threats against agencies working in the area, presumably aware that the protected villages would, if successful, make rebels much more vulnerable. If humanitarian agencies were seen to be working to the UPDF's agenda, they could easily find themselves the targets of rebel hostilities.

13. At present the World Food Programme is trying to supply emergency relief food to Gulu, and is currently planning a programme for 100,000 people in Gulu town and Kilak, Nyowa, Omoro and Awsa counties (as and when they can be accessed) as well as in the Masindi - Karuma area. In Gulu town the organizations distributing the food are World Vision, Oxfam/Acord, the Church of Uganda and the Catholic diocese. The local authorities have also distributed a certain amount of food. MSF-Holland is helping the health authorities to monitor the health situation, as well as assessing and assisting the water situation in Gulu town. UNICEF is funding vaccination activities in accessible areas and has provided tented schools for Gulu town, while the ICRC and ACF also have teams on the spot.


14. The LRA reportedly use Kitgum as a transit point into and out of Sudan, as well as a base from which to launch attacks in Gulu. Yet Kitgum is not merely an accessory to the conflict in Gulu, as the LRA is also carrying out abductions and killings there; in one incident earlier this year 106 Sudanese refugees were killed. Fighting between the UPDF and LRA is also a frequent occurrence. For these reasons Kitgum is experiencing many of Gulu's problems, notably population displacement and widespread disruption to agriculture, the latter manifesting itself in shortages of maize and millet. One international NGO estimates that half of the district's population, about 180,000 people, may suffer food shortages next year.

15. Kitgum's health situation is also of great concern, as insecurity allows only intermittent access to rural health centres by would- be beneficiaries and the district health teams upon whom they rely. As in Gulu, the authorities have found it hard to attract and retain qualified health staff. Kitgum has experienced two minor cholera outbreaks this year, one from January to March and another in September and October.

16. Growing insecurity has also prompted a major change in the way humanitarian agencies in Kitgum operate; while at the beginning of the year they were travelling around by road and carrying out routine activities, today they fly in and out of the district and focus on essential needs. `The quality and coverage in terms of health care in northern Uganda, particularly in Gulu and Kitgum, has declined in a drastic way in 1996', says Dr Viviane Van Steirteghen of UNICEF. THE WEST NILE

17. Arua has experienced insecurity for several years as it is the main district affected by the West Nile Bank Front's insurgency. At the beginning of this year, however, the situation was sufficiently stable for agencies working in the district to plan development programmes. Even until the end of September development agencies were working in rural areas, both with Ugandans and with approximately 190,000 Sudanese refugees (who are divided between Arua and the neighbouring district of Moyo to the east).

18. Yet during October and November the local population has found itself the target of a growing number of killings, rapes and abductions by the West Nile Bank Front (WNBF), whose modus operandi appears increasingly similar to that of the LRA. At the same time, attacks on Sudanese refugees and the agencies that are working with them have escalated dramatically. The result has been the large-scale displacement of the Ugandan population living close to the border with Zaire and the displacement from settled camps of tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees.

19. Sudanese refugees at Ikafe and Imvepi, camps which are home to 55,000 people, have been raped, abducted and killed. Their homes have been burnt to the ground and 25,000 people are known to be displaced. The agencies working with them have received threats and had their compounds repeatedly looted, while several Ugandan staff members have been abducted. Palorinya refugee camp in Moyo district has also been repeatedly attacked, while UNHCR's base at Pakelle was attacked and looted earlier this year.

20. The roads into and around Arua are increasingly difficult to use; anti-personnel and anti-tank mines are a major hazard, while one agency working in the district estimates that nine bridges have been blown in the last four weeks alone. The road from Pakwach which skirts the western edge of the district through Arua town and on to Koboko is described by WFP as `very insecure'.

21. The message received by the Sudanese refugees has been plain, as this testimony from a Sudanese woman, displaced from her refugee camp, reveals: `After the first attack, I moved from Point to Point; I was afraid to sleep in my own home. Sometimes I slept in the bush, sometimes with friends... My mind was badly disturbed. I had most of my things looted in the first attack, then when the rebels burnt Point J, I lost whatever was remaining. They told us that they didn't want to see anyone left in the camps; they said `Even if you go to Bidibidi [transit centre], we'll chase you from there. We're giving you a warning. Go back to Sudan. I fear in my heart that I will be killed; any one with any responsibility is targeted. If I could find a way of going out, I would try... we didn't come here to die.'(1)

22. Observers of Uganda believe that one of the reasons why refugees have been targeted is that the WNBF is believed to suspect them of supporting the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which is fighting a protracted war against the Islamic Government of Sudan. As the war rages on, many refugees fear that they will be conscripted if they return to Sudan. One young man, quoted in an internal NGO report said, `Anyone aged 12-20 years, girl or boy, is handed a gun immediately they cross to the liberated areas; then young men up to 50 years are all called on to fight. It's the same in the government areas, except the age limit is 18 years.'(2) 23. Arua town's population has been swelled by the influx of about 25,000 displaced people, while Koboko town to the north is home to 20,000 Sudanese refugees displaced from their camps. Although trading continues across the border with Zaire, supplying any part of the district with provisions from southern Uganda is exceptionally difficult under the present circumstances. Meanwhile, aid agencies are confining themselves to Arua town, hoping that security will improve, thereby allowing them to resume their programmes. There are, however, very few grounds for optimism.


24. On the morning of 13 November, residents of Bwera town suddenly heard gunshots around the UPDF's base in the town. Panic-stricken, they fled their homes, leaving possessions and relatives elsewhere in the town behind. They reported seeing `rebels', dressed in rags and dirty military uniforms, and speaking Baganda, Bankole and Bakanjo, the former being Ugandan languages and the latter the language of the border area between Uganda and Zaire that centres on the Ruhenzori mountains. An elderly woman was told either to get away from the fighting or to go behind the attackers; they were looking for UPDF soldiers.

25. Bwera town fell to the rebels but was re-taken by the UPDF over the course of the following weekend. Mpondwe border post was also taken by the rebels, but recaptured by the UPDF early the following week. Meanwhile, some 25,000 people from around the area fled their homes and congregated in Kasese town and along and around the small road that links the main Kasese - Bushenyi road with Bwera and Mpondwe to its west. The displaced people were assisted by the ICRC and the Ugandan Red Cross, WFP and MSF-France.

26. The account from the Government-owned New Vision was that the UPDF death toll stood at 34 and that `about 400' rebels had been killed. The UPDF response reportedly involved sending reinforcements from Mbarara and Mbale and soldiers from 4th Division, Gulu, as well as bombing the Zairean town of Kasindi which the UPDF alleged to be the rebel base. President Museveni visited the border area soon after security had been restored and was photographed on the spot with an AK-47 casually slung over his shoulder. As relative peace returned to the area, residents of Bwera began to make their way home, at first in small numbers and later with increasing urgency on hearing reports that their homes were being looted. 27. Throughout the duration of the conflict a series of conflicting reports and commentary made front page news on Uganda's leading papers - the New Vision and The Monitor. The rebels were described as being variously 450, 710 and 1,500 strong. They were said to be members of the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU), a small rebel movement that had caused skirmishes in the same area in the early 1990s, backed up by soldiers of the Zairean Army. Reports also emerged that the Rwandan Interahamwe and rebels from the West Nile Bank Front were involved. Later still there were reports that Salaf Tabliq Islamic militants had played a leading role and reference was made to a rebel group called the Allied Democratic Forces.

28. On 19 November the New Vision linked the attack with information received from surrendered LRA fighters who had reported that the LRA, WNBF, Salaf Tabliqs and other rebel groups had held a meeting in the main LRA camp at Aruu, about 50kms south of Juba in south Sudan, the previous week, and agreed to coordinate attacks on the UPDF beginning in November. Under this agreement, Joseph Kony, leader of the LRA, would be the overall commander of the Allied Democratic Forces. In broad terms this view appears to be shared by Museveni, who was reported to have alleged at a recent press conference that `Joseph Kony, Juma Oris, the Muslim tabliqs have done their coordination supported by Sudan'.

29. The close proximity of the crisis in eastern Zaire is already making its presence felt in Uganda, with the arrival of some 8,000 mainly Zairean refugees into the Kisoro area and another 3,500 to Matanda. Yet if the Banyamulenge forces continue their advance northwards along the Zaire-Uganda border, it appears likely that, as in the case of Uvira, Bukavu and Goma, there will be substantial displacement of populations in the border area. As the area further north is the stronghold of WNBF rebels, this could affect security in Uganda's border areas.


30. Certain points of comparison may be made between the two rebel movements now bringing insecurity to swathes of northern Uganda -the LRA and the WNBF. The north of the country was the major recruiting ground for soldiers in the Ugandan Army for several generations. While Milton Obote recruited his military elite from the Acholi and Langi ethnic groups in the Gulu area, Idi Amin favoured the Aringa and Kakwa people of Arua and many of his soldiers came from there. Both the LRA and the WNBF have drawn support from the defeated militaries of these previous regimes, and from two districts whose people feel they have lost power to the south.

31. The districts which form the heartland of the WNBF and the LRA - the West Nile (Arua, Nebbi and Moyo) and Gulu/Kitgum - are among the poorest in Uganda. Uganda's recent economic success has been first and foremost a southern phenomenon - its effects have barely been felt in the north, in part because of the catch-22 of the current insecurity. But in terms of services such as health and education, in terms of infrastructure and economic opportunities, northern Uganda has lagged behind the rest of the country. Its soldiers, defeated in battle and returning home after spells as refugees in neighbouring countries, came back to an impoverished countryside.

32. Yet while the WNBF appears to have the goal of restoring Idi Amin to power (its chief is Colonel Juma Oris, once Idi Amin's Foreign Minister), the LRA's philosophy is difficult to comprehend. Its leaders, first Alice Lakwena and now Joseph Kony, claim inspiration from a holy spirit claimed to be `the spirit of an Italian who had died during the First World War, aged 95, near the sources of the Nile'(3). This reincarnated being is supposed to have taken possession of the two successive leaders of the LRA, impelling them to fight the war they are now engaged in. The LRA's belief system reportedly echos strongly traditional belief systems among the Acholi.(4)

33. The extent to which either the WNBF or the LRA receive the active support of the population in the West Nile and Gulu/Kitgum is a hotly debated issue. Neither group could have survived for the past ten years without a substantial measure of local backing - but to what extent is this the result of genuine support and to what extent the result of fear? The WNBF has, until recently, not resorted to abducting people as a means of recruitment, suggesting it has been able to find people in the area who are willing to join voluntarily (although there are frequent reports that WNBF recruits are offered money as an inducement to joining). The WNBF has not, to anywhere near the same extent as the LRA, targeted the civilian population in the West Nile; one of the main reasons why the Government of Uganda has consistently offered former WNBF fighters amnesty. The same offer has been extended to the LRA rank and file, but not to senior commanders such as Joseph Kony.

34. The LRA, however, has made abductions of children a central part of its recruitment strategy, and its killings and maimings appear designed to induce terror among the civilian population. One Ugandan employee of an international NGO, when asked whether people in Gulu support the LRA, said, `the population is in a dilemma. They are very frightened. If they report on the rebels they fear the LRA will kill them, if they don't report they fear the UPDF will kill them. The army is near towns, people living out in the villages are unprotected. If the rebels come for food they have no way to say `no'.'

35. Neither the WNBF nor the LRA could have survived without using neighbouring countries as bases for their operations. The WNBF has used Zaire, establishing camps along the border west of Arua and north to Koboko, as well as Sudan, and is alleged by Ugandan officials to receive the backing of the Sudanese Government. The LRA uses southern Sudan as its base, and people formerly abducted by the rebels report this is where they received their training. The LRA's operations have intensified during 1996 and their weapons have become more sophisticated.

36. At the same time, there are continued allegations that the Government of Uganda supports the SPLA. Reports of direct clashes between the UPDF and the Sudanese Army are not unheard-of. The Economist Intelligence Unit, in its third-quarter report of 1996, states that `during an encounter with the pro-Idi Amin West Nile Bank Front (WNBF) rebels in the Uganda-Sudan- Zaire border region, the Ugandan army was drawn into an artillery exchange with the Sudanese army - a reminder of the continued hostilities between Kampala and Khartoum.'

37. Diplomatic efforts aimed at normalizing relations between the two countries, the most recent of which were mediated by Iran and resulted in an agreement on 8 September, appear to have made little difference to the realities on the ground. One of the central tenets of the agreement was that neither Uganda nor Sudan would allow its territory to be used to mount attacks on its neighbour. Yet, less than a fortnight later on 22 September, Sudanese Government aircraft bombed Moyo, apparently targeting the army camp there. Sudan at first denied the attack, then claimed it was the result of pilot error.

38. The growing crisis in the north currently dominates debate at the Parliament of Uganda, where the Parliamentary Committee on Defence and Internal Affairs is conducting an inquiry into the war. The Committee has been mandated to do this by the passage of a motion in Parliament in August calling for the committee to `urgently look into all aspects of the war currently taking place in Northern Uganda with the aim of bringing it to a speedy end.' Among the issues which the committee is expected to address are the `cause or causes of the war', the `reason or reasons why the war has taken so long', the `various solutions available to end the war' and `allegations of external support or influence'. The committee is expected to report to Parliament sometime before Christmas, and its recommendations will then be debated. Meanwhile, observers point to the appointment of Museveni's half-brother, Major General Salim Saleh, to the position of overall commander of the military operations, and Museveni's stay in Gulu during October, as signs that the President takes the conflict seriously.


39. The northern war is now high on the national political agenda, but will also be of growing concern to donors and would-be investors. Uganda's economy has been transformed over the past decade and during 1995/96 GDP was estimated to have grown by 8.2%, with `a notable 18% expansion in manufacturing (the best for ten years) and an unprecedented 16% in cash crop agriculture.' (5) Yet while these achievements are recognized abroad, there is also concern that, as the Economist put it, `[T]he northern rebels are responsible for causing unacceptable levels of military expenditure and the problem of instability is diverting government energies from important development problems.'(6)

40. These issues were raised by donors at the recent Consultative Group meeting in Paris, where donor countries failed to reach agreement on writing off part of Uganda's $3.3 billion debt. The problems in the north and rising military spending were cited as areas of particular concern, with a World Bank statement saying that donors expressed `considerable concern' about the northern war and `urged the Ugandan government to explore all possible initiatives which could bring a satisfactory resolution.'(7)

41. The crisis in the north is now receiving the national political attention it deserves. Quick-fix solutions are difficult to envisage, given the complex mix of military, political and economic issues at stake. The regional dimension to the conflict is another central issue, implying that Uganda's relations with its neighbours will continue to be a major influence on how the situation evolves. The Parliamentary Committee investigating the war and seeking to come up with solutions is a most welcome initiative and deserves the attention and support of governments worldwide. It is very much to be hoped that its recommendations will foster initiatives which bring the conflict, with all its attendant human suffering, closer to an end.


1. Oxfam UK and Ireland, `Ikafe and Imvepi Refugee Settlement Programmes, Current Situation', 20.11.96. 2. As for 1. 3. Heike Behrend, `Is Alice Lakwena a witch?', in Changing Uganda, James Curry, London 1994. 4. As for 3. 5. Economist Intelligence Unit, Uganda Country Report, 3rd Quarter 1996. 6. As for 5. 7. The East African, `No Debt Relief for Uganda as Donors Argue', 25.11-1.12.96.

[UNDHA/IRIN would like to express its thanks to WFP for providing the practical and logisticial support which made this mission possible.]


[Via the UN DHA Integrated Regional Information Network. The material contained in this communication may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. UN DHA IRIN Tel: +254 2 622123 Fax: +254 2 622129 e-mail: for more information. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer.]


Date: Wed, 4 Dec 1996 15:42:11 +0300 (GMT+0300) From: UN DHA IRIN - Great Lakes <> Subject: Uganda: UNDHA IRIN Humanitarian Situation Report 4 Dec 96 96.12.4 Message-ID: <>

Editor: Dr. Ali B. Ali-Dinar, Ph.D

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