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17 Sep 2003 14:27:00 GMT

Celebrating peace to a backdrop of war: Uganda to mark U.N. International Day of Peace

Gina L. Bramucci

Association of Volunteers in International Service
While the long-running war between the government of Uganda and rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army marks its fifteenth month of escalated violence, religious leaders from various denominations will offer a gesture for peace in Kampala on Sept. 21.

In commemoration of the U.N. International Day of Peace, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Ba’hai and others will march through the Ugandan capital city to Constitutional Square, where they will hold prayers for peace in the world.

The gathering is particularly significant in Uganda, where the LRA’s 18-year war has grown increasingly brutal since June 2002 and has recently spread into eastern districts previously untouched by the war.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that 240,000 people have been newly displaced from their homes since a rebel incursion into the eastern Teso region. Meanwhile, at least 800,000 people are still living in displaced camps or sleeping in the open each night in Uganda’s northern Acholi districts.

With civilians largely cut off from their fields, hundreds of thousands are now dependent on outside aid delivered by the World Food Programme. Malnutrition is on the rise and regional hospitals are stretched for material and human resources. Most rural health units in the north have been closed as a result of insecurity, leaving hospitals to deal with the medical needs of the entire region as well as those of southern Sudan.

Rebel threat has also forced school closures across the north, and children have flocked to urban centers such as Gulu and Kitgum towns. Parents hope that sending their children to sleep in towns, missionaries or on hospital grounds will offer protection from rebel abduction, the LRA’s tactic of choice as it builds an army of child soldiers.

Human rights groups estimate that the rebels have abducted at least 20,000 children since the beginning of the war, and around 8,500 in the past 15 months alone. It is estimated that around 90 percent of LRA “soldiers” are children who are forced to fight under a system of kill-or-be-killed.

It is to this backdrop of violence and uncertainty that religious leaders, drawn together through the efforts of the Inter-Religious Dialogue Program, will come together to offer their prayers for peace.

The International Day of Peace, established by the U.N. General Assembly in 2001, is meant to be a day of global ceasefire and non-violence. Peaceful demonstrations, academic conferences, concerts and prayers have been organized around the world, and the United Nations will hold several special events at its headquarters in New York.

In Uganda, many observers, donors and relief workers cite lingering mistrust between the north and south as a major obstacle to establishing peace. The war waged by the LRA is widely considered an “Acholi problem” rather than a national one, a view that has been divisive and stirred animosity between civilian populations and the government soldiers sent to protect them.

Organizers of Sunday’s peace demonstration say it is an effort to draw greater national attention to the war and the suffering of civilians in other parts of the country.

“Every Ugandan at this time should be concerned with our war in the north,” said Sister Mary Goretti Kisakye of the Inter-Religious Dialogue Program. “We are going to pray for those people because it is a concern for everybody.”

The notable absence of northern leaders among organizers, however, points to the difficulty of building a united front against the war in Uganda. While the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI) was sent an invitation to Sunday’s events, Kisakye was unclear about the level of participation. A spokesman from the ARLPI office in Gulu was unaware of any Peace Day celebration in Kampala; representatives from the group plan to attend activities in Kibale, Western Uganda, on Saturday.

Monsignor John Baptist Odama, ARLPI chairman and a vocal advocate for peace in northern Uganda, is currently out of the country on a visit to the Vatican City with other Ugandan bishops. While in Italy, Odama repeated his plea for greater international attention to conflict in northern Uganda.

“The direct intervention of the international community cannot be postponed,” the Italian missionary news agency quoted Odama as saying on Monday. “The population has an urgent need to be protected. I am appealing for the opening of humanitarian corridors to guarantee the indispensable arrival of humanitarian aid,” he said.

This call for outside intervention has been echoed frequently in recent months as civilians and northern leaders who live in their home districts feel the impact of spiraling violence.

“The last 18 years have shown that we alone will not be in a position to end the war,” reads an August newsletter from the Gulu-based Justice and Peace Commission. “The spread of rebel activities to other districts should be an eye-opener to all that we finally have to get serious about opening up alternative paths to reach peace.”

While activists call for dialogue and intervention, while politicians debate new military budgets and religious leaders offer their prayers for peace, civilians in northern Uganda will mark Sept. 21—-one more day of uncertainty in their war-torn land.

©Copyright 2003, Reuters Foundation

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