Feature

The Secret Genocide

Not far from Darfur, another humanitarian catastrophe is under way. The Ugandan government -- once touted as a model for African reform -- is systematically destroying a people. So far, the world hasn't done anything.

The world’s appetite for humanitarian disasters in far-off lands is limited. One crisis is usually more than enough to fill the quota. Today, that crisis is Darfur, the war-torn region of western Sudan. But Darfur, alas, has no monopoly on misery. And much of it can be found in the same neighborhood.

To the extent nearby Uganda receives any attention, it is generally in the context of the bizarre and brutal Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which has become notorious for abducting as many as 25,000 children during the conflict. Harrowing images of Ugandan children walking at night to avoid LRA raids have seeped into the public consciousness. That is where the awareness ends, however, and that’s just how the Ugandan government wants it.

The truth is that reports of indisputable atrocities of the LRA are being employed to mask more serious crimes by the government itself. To keep the eyes of the world averted, the government has carefully scripted a narrative in which the catastrophe in northern Uganda begins with the LRA and will only end with its demise. But, under the cover of the war against these outlaws, an entire society, the Acholi people, has been moved to concentration camps and is being systematically destroyed — physically, culturally, and economically. "Everything Acholi is dying," declared Father Carlos Rodriguez, a Catholic missionary priest in the region. After his own visit, Ugandan journalist Elias Biryabarema wrote, "Not a single explanation on [E]arth can justify the sickening human catastrophe [of] the degradation, desolation, and the horrors killing off generation after generation."

It’s not the first time the Acholi have been in the cross hairs. In the 1970s, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s regime decimated the Acholi political leaders, intelligentsia, business community, and military officers. A worse nightmare for the Acholi was hard to imagine. Yet, the campaign of the current Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, has turned out to be many times more devastating. "At least Amin killed only our educated sons and parents, but Museveni and his accomplice, [LRA leader Joseph] Kony, are determined to wipe out a whole people," a mother in a concentration camp lamented to a human rights worker.

The situation in northern Uganda rivals Darfur in terms of its duration, magnitude, and consequences. For more than a decade, government forces have kept a population of almost 2 million (from the Acholi, Lango, and Teso regions) in some 200 concentration camps, where they face squalor, disease, starvation, and death. Imagine 4,000 people sharing a latrine, women waiting in line for 12 hours to fill a jerrycan at a well, and up to 10 people packing themselves sardine-like into tiny huts.

Ninety-five percent of the Acholi population now resides in these camps. In January 2006, World Vision Uganda reported that 1,000 children are dying each week in the region, one of the worst mortality rates in the world. More recent estimates indicate that number may have climbed to 1,500 deaths a week. In March, a survey by a consortium of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that the death rates in the concentration camps are three times those of Darfur.

In the face of relentless cultural and personal humiliations and abuse, suicide has risen to alarming levels, and is particularly high among mothers. Last August, 13 mothers committed suicide in the Pabbo camp alone. The archbishop of Gulu, John Baptist Odama, sees these as acts of extreme desperation. "The concept of suicide does not belong to the culture of the Acholi people." Rape and sexual exploitation, especially by government soldiers, have become routine, as the advocacy group Human Rights Watch has documented. HIV/AIDS is being used as a deliberate weapon of mass destruction. Government soldiers are screened, and those who test HIV-positive are deployed to the north, with the mission of wreaking maximum havoc on the local girls and women. Consequently, the rate of HIV infection there has exploded from near zero to staggering levels of 30 to 50 percent. (The infection rate nationwide is 6.4 percent.)

A government campaign of dehumanization against the Acholi and other northerners has kept most Ugandans ignorant about the situation or, worse, unsympathetic to their plight. Like recent hatemongers in Rwanda or the Balkans, Uganda’s leaders have stoked ethnic racism to divide and rule. "Those people are not human beings; they are biological substances … that should be eliminated," said Cmdr. Kajabago Karushoke, a principal ideologist for the government. As powerful as the vitriol is ignorance. "Ugandans south of the River Nile and their friends [the international community] do not know of the genocide taking place in northern Uganda," wrote Ugandan journalist P.K. Mwanje.

The Acholis’ plight, however, is well known to embassies, U.N. agencies, NGOs, and human rights organizations. Yet those in a position to raise their voices have chosen to remain silent — or worse, speak out in support of Museveni’s regime. In spite of a 20-year record of one-party rule, massive corruption, and the invasion and plunder of the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, Museveni is still touted in Western political and media circles as the new breed of African leader. Cleverly, Museveni invited the International Criminal Court to investigate crimes committed in the north. Yet, the court seems to have been carefully steered in the direction of the LRA — and away from the government.

The genocide in northern Uganda is a burning test for the United Nations’ declaration on the "Responsibility to Protect," which was solemnly adopted by world leaders in their special summit last September. It was a commitment to act together to protect populations exposed to mass existential threats when their own government is unable to protect them or is itself the instrument of their suffering.

Even as world leaders inked that commitment, however, they were shirking their duty to the people of northern Uganda. Urgent action is essential to save them — and redeem the international community’s promise. Independent international observers should be deployed immediately to report on atrocities and conditions in the camps. The international community must demand the dismantling of all the camps in the Acholi, Lango, and Teso regions and institute an organized program of resettlement.

Northern Uganda will test the maturity of the world’s humanitarian instincts. Responsible humanitarianism must be comprehensive. The activism on Darfur’s behalf is laudable, but international concern must extend beyond the crisis du jour. Above all, humanitarianism must be smart. The LRA is frightening, but northern Uganda’s people have more to fear from their own government. It’s time the world understood that.

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