Uganda: The Secret War

War, cannibalism, sex slavery, massacre, and mayhem are not usually words that one associates with Uganda. Indeed, if you mention this East African country to people outside East Africa they will likely say: “But I thought Uganda was one of the more successful African nations.” In many respects it is, but one of its greatest successes has been in concealing from the outside world the brutal war that has afflicted its northern region for eighteen years.

For the last decade or so Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, has been praised for his government’s success in fighting AIDS. Depending on which figure you choose to believe, the prevalence of the infection has tumbled from either 30 percent or 19 percent of the population to a national average of between 4 percent and 6 percent. But few people outside Uganda know that, mainly in three large northern districts, the Museveni government is fighting a rebel group—the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)—that abducts children; that 95 percent of the population in this part of northern Uganda have been forced by war from their homes; and that 1.8 million Ugandans—out of a population of 24.7 million—now live in refugee camps for fear of being attacked and killed in their villages.

No one knows exactly how many thousands have died in the long conflict in northern Uganda—some say the figure is about 30,000. But the appalling stories I have heard, including from former rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army, and from children who have escaped from them, confirm the view of Jan Egeland, the UN’s undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, when he said last November that this conflict was the “biggest forgotten, neglected humanitarian emergency in the world.”

Again and again I have heard the same stories that human rights activists have been collecting for years, while their reports, for all the hard work that has gone into them, have hardly been mentioned in the press.1 Children told me how they had been forced by the rebels at gunpoint to abduct and murder other children and to drink their blood. A former commander of the rebel group told me that he had forced villagers to chop up, cook, and eat their neighbors before he killed them, too. I saw thousands of children walking into northern towns at night for fear of abduction, remaining until morning before they returned to their homes on the towns’ outskirts.

In recent months the world press has concentrated on the Darfur region of Sudan, calling it the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” In fact this claim is incorrect, although the situation in Darfur is indeed horrifying, as John Ryle has recently shown in these pages.2 But the Ugandan conflict has been going on a lot longer, fewer people may have died in Darfur than in northern Uganda, and almost twice as many Ugandans have been forced to flee their villages as have non-Arab Sudanese in Darfur.

What has been little noticed is the link between the two disasters, although they seem…

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