Government has fallen short in its effort to rehabilitate and reintegrate former rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) abductees, some leaders in Gulu, which bore the harshest brunt of the insurgency, have said.
In recent interviews, the leaders said government has failed to fully finance a comprehensive rehabilitation and reintegration programme, more than 10 years after committing to do so during the South Sudan-mediated Juba peace talks.
Between July 2006 and April 2008, government and LRA leaders held negotiations in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. The talks, mediated by Dr Riek Machar, then South Sudan vice president, aimed to end 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 attacked a South Sudanese town, prompting the Juba government to withdraw from its mediation role.
The LRA rebels retreated to their bases in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Central African Republic. In December 2008, the UPDF launched Operation Lightning Thunder to dislodge the rebels from DRC’s Garamba national park. President Museveni later said his commanders made some mistakes, which largely allowed Kony to escape capture.
The army, though, did say its raids seized 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, said failure by government to implement critical aspects agreed upon during the Juba talks continue to frustrate LRA deserters.
Olaa said recovery of former abductees remains slow due to lack of a definitive development and livelihood programme for the returnees. John Baptist Odama, the archbishop of Gulu archdiocese, has no kind words for government. In a strongly-worded message to former abductees, Odama said government’s inability to apologise to them speaks volumes about its commitment to national peace and reconciliation.
Odama was key to getting government and LRA to talk peace in 2006. The peace negotiators agreed 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 rebels, which paved way for defections of hundreds of abducted children.
Martin Ojara Mapenduzi, the Gulu district chairperson, said government has betrayed the former abductees reintegrated into conflict-scarred communities. According to Mapenduzi, the amnesty package was largely inadequate to restart life at home after years in captivity.
Mapenduzi said while government has been promoting all-inclusive recovery efforts, there is need for parliament to enact a law targeting this unique special group of people.
Thirty-four-year-old Geoffrey Mike Acellam, a former LRA abductee in Nwoya district, spent 15 years in captivity. Acellam, who has a wife and eight children,said he depends on sports bets to raise school fees for his children after “fruitlessly knocking on all office doors in search of scholarships for his children.”
He said 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 lastest to arrive home is Julius Obirai, an abductee picked up from Obalanga sub-county in Teso.
He landed at Gulu airfield on February 20, 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 Fourth division in Gulu town.
Mapenduzi said that as the two men wait for reintegration into their communities, the joy that their return brought to their families might be short-lived by social demands. The challenges include; absence of a sustainable source of livelihood, unemployment, inability to access and utilise land resources, stigma, post-trauma and depression, among others.
Reverend Father Ponsiano Okello is a community psychology specialist at the Center for Children in Vulnerable Situations in Lira district. He said a baseline survey conducted in Gulu district in 2014 found that the reintegration and resettlement of LRA victims shifted the goalpost of the conflict from the sounds of the guns to the minds.
He said the results are glaring for many former abductees with untreated depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Okello said the absence of specialist psychologist counselors required to treat former abductees will prolong the recovery of the region from the effects of the conflict.
Lt Ahmad Hassan Kato, the UPDF fourth division spokesperson, said the military is the single biggest institution undertaking rehabilitation of the abducted children at its Child and Family Protection Unit in Gulu.
By 2014, there were only 32 community counseling psychologists specialized in treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder in Uganda. Many of these specialists are stationed outside northern Uganda, the region that bore the harshest brunt of LRA atrocities.
Gulu leaders want government to deliberately address some of these emerging gaps under the next Peace, Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP) phase set to begin this year.