Some leaders in Gulu district have faulted government for mishandling the rehabilitation and reintegration of former Lords Resistance Army LRA abductees. The leaders say government commitment towards financing a comprehensive rehabilitation and reintegration programme remains wanting, more than ten years after it committed to doing so during the Juba Peace Talks.
The leaders say government commitment towards financing a comprehensive rehabilitation and reintegration programme remains wanting, more than ten years after it committed to doing so during the Juba Peace Talks.
Between July 2006 and April 2008, the Uganda government and the LRA leaders held a series of negotiations in Juba, the capital of then autonomous Southern Sudan. The talks, mediated by Dr Riek Machar, then serving as Vice President, aimed at ending 20 years of war in Northern Uganda. Indeed, in September 2006, the two parties agreed to a ceasefire.
The talks however collapsed in April 2008 when LRA leader Joseph Kony refused to sign the peace agreement. Two months later, the LRA carried out attacks on a Southern Sudanese town, prompting the Government of Southern Sudan to withdraw from their mediation role.
The LRA rebels retreated back to their bases in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Central African Republic. In December 2008, the Uganda People's Defence Forces launched Operation Lightning Thunder to dislodge the rebels from DRC's Garamba National Park. President Yoweri Museveni later said that errors by his commanders were the reason for their failure to capture Kony, even though the army did say they captured the rebel leader's guitar and Kaunda suit.
But the rebel force has since weakened as many abductees continue to run away.
Ambrose Olaa, the Prime Minister of Ker Kwaro Acholi, the cultural institution that unites the Acholi people, says failure by government to implement critical agreements of the Juba talks has increased frustrations among former LRA deserters.
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Olaa says certain "kinds of behaviours" have resulted from the absence of a protracted government programme to deal with the legacies of the conflict in northern Uganda.
Olaa says recovery of former abductees remain slow due to lack of a definitive development and livelihood programme for the returnees.
Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu Archdiocese has no kind words for government. In a strongly worded message to former abductees, Dr. Odama says government's inability to apologise to them speaks volumes on its commitment to national peace and reconciliation.
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Archbishop Odama played instrumental roles in getting government and LRA to talk peace in 2006. The peace talks ended up with several frameworks on accountability, comprehensive solutions to the root causes of the conflict, and compensation amongst others.
Although Kony refused to sign the final peace agreement, government extended amnesty to the rebels which paved way for defection of hundreds of abducted children.
Martin Ojara Mapenduzi, the chairperson of Gulu district says government has betrayed the former abductees reintegrated into conflict affected communities of northern Uganda. According to Mapenduzi, the Amnesty package with which former LRA abductees were resettled was largely inadequate to restart life at home after years in captivity.
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Mapenduzi says while government has been promoting all-inclusive recovery efforts, there is need for parliament to enact law targeting this unique special group of people.
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Thirty four-year old Geoffrey Mike Acellam, a former LRA abductee in Nwoya district spent 15 years in captivity. He has a wife and eight children after returning home.
Acellam says he depends on sports betting to raise the school fees for his children after "fruitlessly knocking on all offices in search of scholarships for his children". He adds that his family is close to "feeding on grass" after being chased from his father's land.
LRA abductees like Acellam keep trickling into Uganda in ones and twos, from the jungles of the Central African Republic, DRC and South Sudan. The last to arrive home is Julius Obirai, an abductee picked up from Obalanga Sub County in Teso sub region in June 2003. He landed in Gulu airfield on February 20th, barely two weeks after Peter Kidega Okello touched down at the same field.
The two men were repatriated by the US special advisory forces fighting the LRA in Central African Republic alongside the UPDF. They are currently undergoing rehabilitation at UPDF's Child and Family Protection Unit of the 4th Division in Gulu town.
Mapenduzi says as the two men wait for reintegration into their communities, the joy that their return brought to their families might quickly be short-lived by social challenges. The challenges include absence of sustainable source of livelihood, unemployment, inability to access and utilise land resources, stigma, post-trauma and depression among others.
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Reverend Father Ponsiano Okello is a community phycology specialist at the Center for Children in vulnerable Situation in Lira district. He says a baseline survey they conducted in Gulu district in 2014 found that the reintegration and resettlement of LRA victims shifted the goal post of the conflict from the sounds of the guns to the minds.
He says the results are glaring for many former abductees with untreated depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
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Reverend Okello said government should prevent wastage of resources under the third phase of Peace Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP-3) by ignoring the psychosocial treatment of communities affecting by the conflict.
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He says the absence of specialists in counseling phycology required for treatment of the former abductees will prolong the recovery of the region from the impacts of the two decades of conflict.
A gapping institutional void prompted by the withdrawal of humanitarian organizations and lack of funding to few remaining civil society organizations exist in northern Uganda. This, Father Okello says, hinders proper rehabilitation of former LRA abductees.
Lt. Ahmad Hassan Kato, the UPDF 4th division spokesperson says the military is apparently the single biggest institution undertaking rehabilitation of the abducted children at its Child and Family Protection Unit in Gulu district.
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Outside the UPDF facility, the former abductees should get treatment in government health facilities. Unfortunately, most of these facilities are ill-equipped to offload their delicate bush baggage.
By 2014, there were only 32 community counselling psychologists specialised in treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder in Uganda. Many of these specialists are stationed outside Northern Uganda, the region that bore the brunt of LRA atrocities.
Gulu district leaders want government to deliberately address some of these emerging gaps under the next PRDP phase set to begin this year.