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Civil Wars

How the World Suffers

By Kristin McHugh

Map of Uganda

This report is part of "Security Check: Confronting Today's Global Threats," a radio documentary produced by the Stanley Foundation in association with KQED radio.

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Winston Churchill once described Uganda as the "Pearl of Africa." The luster still exists in parts of this east African state and the country's economic success is hailed as a model for the whole continent.

But northern Uganda has been at war for decades and the country's main rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army, is particularly vicious. Known as the LRA, the cult-like group wants to establish a government based on the Bible's Ten Commandments. But the LRA is best known for the abduction of tens of thousands of children and bizarre practices of maiming their victims. What's more, the country has been surrounded by neighboring conflicts in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda for decades.

Bujagali Falls—not far from the source of the Nile River in southeastern Uganda—is one of the country's most stunning tourist attractions. It's most attractive feature, a series of small crashing waterfalls, draws people to this location year-round.

The near-deafening, foam-capped waves from the falls are beautiful, but their violent movement is also a metaphor for Uganda's recent political history.

The North-South Divide

"Uganda is sort of divided nicely in half," said Stella Sabitti, executive director of the Center for Conflict Resolution, a Ugandan nongovernmental agency based in the country's capital, Kampala. "The southern part is very well developed, economically and otherwise, whereas the north isn't.

"We've lost, I think, a whole generation in the north," she said, "because children have grown up in violence, seeing nothing but violence. They don't know what peace means."

An estimated 1.6 million people have been displaced in northern Uganda by the country's 19-year war against the LRA.

One Camp Out of Hundreds

Bobi camp in northern Uganda

Hundreds of displacement camps like Bobi are spread throughout northern Uganda, providing shelter and safety to thousands of displaced.

Bobi camp, located 16 miles south of the city of Gulu, is a squalid, congested camp of compact mud and thatch huts. It is home to more than 18,000 people and one of hundreds of displacement camps in the eight conflict-affected districts of northern Uganda.

"In percentage terms, I would say just over 90 percent of [the] Gulu population is displaced," said Andrew Timson, adding that it is a typical percentage for most of northern Uganda. Timson heads the UN's Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for northern Uganda's Gulu district.

"I was speaking to a man here a few months ago who pointed his house out to me, which is all but 300 meters from this camp. He told me that he did not feel safe to stay there...and that gives you a sense of the fear that people still have about the LRA."

The river near Bobi camp

The river protects the Bobi camp residents from the dangers posed by the rebels.

Not Past the River

Near the perimeter of the Bobi camp is a shallow, muddy river. It is important to the camp's residents. It is where they get their water and wash their clothes, and where the children come to cool off, splash around, and have a good time. But the river is especially essential in the rainy season, providing not only drinking and washing water but also security. Just across the river is the bush where rebels hide. Residents of this camp refuse to go beyond the river for fear they will be captured or kidnapped by the LRA.

"You have to imagine a refugee camp," said Ken Davies, the United Nations' World Food Program director in Uganda. "And then try to make it ten times as bad. Keeping these people alive in the camps is the biggest activity. That said, we've also got 230,000 refugees from Sudan, Congo, and still some from Rwanda in Uganda.

"Where you have instability and you have poverty and you have pain, you have a fertile breeding ground for fundamentalists and radical ideologies," he said. "Remember that Osama Bin Laden was in Sudan before he went to Afghanistan. This whole terrorist thread affects the neighboring countries and it grows and it spreads."

Civil war in this part of Africa has indeed grown and spread, spilling across international borders along the way. The LRA, until recently, had a safe haven in neighboring Sudan. From there, aid agencies say the army was able to abduct as many as 30,000 Ugandans, many of them children.

Fearing the Dark

Fifteen-year-old Akello is what humanitarian groups refer to as a "night commuter." Fear of abduction and LRA attacks drives Akello and thousands of other children to seek refuge each night in hospitals, schools, and other town centers throughout northern Uganda. Akello has been a night commuter for three years.

"I fear being abducted by the rebels," said Akello. "So they commanded that anyone, wherever they find anyone, they are going to kill."

On the night we spoke, she trekked nearly five miles from her home to join nearly 1000 others at a night commuter facility known as Noah's Ark, in the center of Gulu. Surrounded by a tall razor wire fence, the children sleep on concrete slabs under tattered blankets.

The children who sleep at Noah's Ark do so in order to escape the fate of one 13-year-old boy, whom I've agreed not to name in order to protect his identity.

Wearing a pale yellow T-shirt, he said he was kidnapped at age nine. "When I was abducted I was taken to an LRA camp near Gulu for one month before being taken to Sudan." He had escaped his captors just days prior to our conversation.

"I was taught how to assemble and dismantle a gun," he said. "I was responsible for one magazine of bullets." He recently escaped his captors and is now a resident at the Gulu Support the Children Organization (GUSCO).

Funded in part by the United States, GUSCO helps children transition back to a life free of the LRA. Residents receive free basic medical care and counseling. Classes include hygiene, life skills, and English.

Akello shares her insight into reconstruction and rebuilding

At Olwal, Akello shares her insight into reconstruction and rebuilding.

Working for Peace

Grace Akello is the Minister of State for Northern Uganda. Wearing small wire-rim glasses, traditional African dress and modern hiking boots, it is clear she is on a mission as she arrives with dozens of well-armed military escorts at a displacement camp called Olwal, 18 miles west of Gulu.

"I am here to talk to the people about peace and reconstruction, rehabilitation, which is my main mandate," she adds.

Despite nearly 20 years of war and countless broken cease-fires, longtime observers of this conflict say Akello's enthusiasm is well-founded. Last year's peace agreement in southern Sudan raises the prospects for stability in northern Uganda as well.

In 2004, Uganda received well over $200 million in US aid, making it one of the largest US aid recipients in all of Africa. While much of the money pays for humanitarian programs, a portion of the American aid funds Uganda's participation in the East African Counterterrorism Initiative. This program, announced by President Bush two years ago, encourages east African governments to work together to identify the movement of terrorists across borders.

"Insecurity and conflict on one side of an international border certainly breeds insecurity on the other side of the border and what you see in northern Uganda is a consequence," said Ken Davies of the World Food Programme.

Even if a peace accord is finally reached in northern Uganda, Davies argues it will take global generosity, not just American aid, to bring a lasting peace to this troubled country.

"When you have development and you have peace and you have progress, people are content the way their lives are moving and they are not going to be prone to join fundamentalists and terrorist organizations," he said.

The Security of Development

On the traffic-clogged streets of Kampala it is hard to imagine that less than 200 miles to the north, Uganda is a country at war. Paved roads, modern stores, and upscale homes are obvious signs of development and progress in the capital.

Stella Sabiiti believes finding ways to spread Kampala's progress will ultimately benefit the children of northern Uganda, the region, and the world. The need to eliminate the civil war and poverty that afflicts the region is evident:

"We say this: every day someone doesn't go to bed, you know, feeling very happy and comfortable, well fed, and is not worried, and then in the morning, he or she get up and goes to kill people. It just doesn't happen like that. So, there is a reason why those acts take place."

Conflict Leads to Poverty

So how does civil war in Uganda—or in any other faraway spot for that matter—connect with other global security challenges and our own safety here at home?

"There's a number of connections going in different directions," said Macartan Humphreys, a professor of political science at Columbia University. "There's a very obvious connection that when you have a conflict, it can be extremely damaging to the economy. So the conflict results in a large increase in poverty. And we see that all over the place."

He said the connections don't stop there. "What's more contested, but for which there's a lot of evidence recently, is that the poorer you are, the more likely you are to go into conflict. And the problem with that is that that can lead to a vicious circle. You get poorer, you get more conflict, you get poorer, you get more conflict."

Development Promotes Security

Poverty and lack of development seem to go hand in hand with civil war. And experts are just beginning to understand how this connection works. Julia Taft, a former US Assistant Secretary of State, recently retired from the United Nations Development Programme.

"Development is the investment in helping communities have better health, improving school, improving democracy, and reducing corruption, and promoting good governance," she said. "If we don't do development, which is not all charity, it is also investment. If we don't do that, well then there is a prospect for political disaffection, but also transnational threats."

Ed Luck, a scholar and leading expert on the United Nations and international organizations, said America has a direct interest in promoting development and stability overseas.

"I think Americans have to care about development because we care about trade. And trade has to do with jobs here at home," he said. "Countries that are developing are markets, and they're very often markets for American products. And if they are stable, they may be helpful politically for us as well. If they're prospering, they're more likely to share the values that we have."

Beyond poverty and development, civil war is also connected to global security threats because it spreads. In Central America, the Balkans, East Asia, and across Africa we see examples of how neighbors get drawn in to domestic conflicts.

"In general, what you can see in this whole region is an interrelated set of conflicts," said Ciaran Donnelly, who heads the International Rescue Committee efforts in Uganda, "where we've a significant conflict ongoing in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in which Uganda has played a large role historically. Although, officially, Ugandan troops have withdrawn from Congo at this point, you have the southern Sudan problem, which is very key to American foreign policy interests, and there's a lot of cross-border dimensions there."

A Threat to One, a Threat to All

So, civil war tends to spread, and it leaves a wake of poverty and despair. Without sounding too egocentric, "US-centric" or any other centric, it is still fair to ask, how does this affect us here at home? Or, to be blunt, why should Americans care?

"Countries, particularly when they result in failed states, can serve as a breeding ground of some form for terrorism," Professor Humphreys said. "Its uncontrolled areas in which flows of illicit funds are more easily achieved, and which people can train, and so on."

"The Ugandans have been good partners in fighting terrorism." Jimmy Kolker is the American ambassador to Uganda. He sees clearly how Uganda's problems connect with the United States and rest of the world. "The Lord's Resistance Army has killed more people than any other terrorist group active in the world today. More than Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hizballah."

"If these countries implode," said Gareth Evans, former foreign minister of Australia and member of a blue-ribbon panel which explored how to improve the global security framework, "if they become failed states, we've seen how they can harbor and nurture terrorists. We've seen how refugee outflows can become a burden on northern economies. Over and over again there are ways in which these issues do impact upon us. So, quite apart from charity, quite apart from our own decent humanitarian instincts, which can be mobilized as we've seen, it really is a matter of a much cruder and legitimate set of national interests than that."

If civil war in Africa is truly a security threat to the whole world, US Ambassador Kolker said the nations of the world need to face that threat together.

"This is one where you need to think globally and act locally. I think all of us have learned from all sorts of experience that no one's alone in this. There's not a sense that, well, this is a problem only for Ugandans to worry about."

Ciaran Donnelly agrees: "In Uganda, the regional dimension of the conflict and the importance of Uganda in the region pretty much precludes the possibility of unilateral action. And so the aspect of collective responses to the international community's responsibility has been very important."

"This is not just a question of global solidarity." Bob Orr, an American, is UN Assistant Secretary-General for Strategic Planning. "It's a question of enlightened self-interest. Americans will benefit from all these activities—whether they're development, whether they're collective action in the peacekeeping and peace-building field—these are the ultimate guarantors of our own citizens' security.

"For a country like the United States that has real, legitimate security concerns in the realm of terrorism, in the realm of organized crime and drugs, the realm of proliferation, of weapons of mass destruction, every single one of these threats has a base, both inside the United States and outside the United States. We are not an island. Our oceans do not protect as they once did."

"Security Check: Confronting Today's Global Threats" is part of the 2005 Public Radio collaboration "Think Global," May 16-22. The documentary is produced by Simon Marks, Keith Porter, and Kristin McHugh. It is a Stanley Foundation production in association with KQED Public Radio. The full program includes segments on loose nuclear material in Russia, AIDS in Thailand, small arms in Colombia, and an exclusive interview with Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

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