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Peace anniversary

Isabella Bauer / cmJanuary 10, 2013

Almost unnoticed by the outside world, a long and brutal civil war in northwestern Uganda came to an end in 2002. While many were happy to see the end of the conflict, victims are still crying out for justice.

Image: DW/I. Bauer

Yumbe is situated in the center of the West Nile region of Uganda.  Not many people know the northern district which borders South Sudan as the place where a peace agreement was signed. After almost two decades of civil war, Yumbe residents celebrated the tenth anniversary of the peace deal between the Ugandan National Rescue Front II (UNRFII) rebels and the Ugandan government.

Moses Akuma, a coordinator in charge of peace and conflict transformation at the West Nile Development Forum, told DW why the locals were so proud of their achievement.

“The identity or the image of West Nile people was painted as people who are rebellious, who can't listen to authorities, as people who believe in reaching their aims through the means of using the gun,” Akuma said in a telephone interview. The landmark peace agreement signed in Yumbe was necessary to bring about development and social justice, he added.

Roots of the war

Late Ugandan dictator Idi Amin came from northern Uganda, so it's no wonder that many men from the region were among his troops. After his fall in 1979, the new military rulers took action against soldiers and civilians perceived to have been loyal to Amin.

Noah Achikule, formerly a teacher who later joined the rebels, said he was left with no choice.

"At that time, before our men had founded the rebel group, they were simply arrested, tortured or killed," Achikule recalled.

Almost the entire population fled into exile in southern Sudan. It was in refugee camps that the UNRFII rebel movement was founded. The unsuccessful armed struggle with government forces plunged the region into a civil war that lasted 20 years. After seeing so much suffering inflicted on the civilian population, the locals decided to initiate a peace process.

Soldiers symbolically exchange a flag as others watch
The UNRFII rebels received four billion Ugandan shillings ($1.5 million) as compensationImage: Isabella Bauer

Concerted effort for peace

According to Joyce Ayikuro, a peace activist, Yumbe traditional elders used their authority and called on their sons who were rebels to return back home. This meant that anyone who continued to fight would bring evil upon the whole community.

An unoccupied ruined housed in Yumbe. Copyright: DW/I. Bauer
The civil war left much of Yumbe in ruinsImage: DW/I. Bauer

Local politician Mariam Lyotiga told DW that women also played a huge role in the peace process by refusing to send more children to fight.

“At the same time they told their husbands why don't you come back home and take care of the family?” Lyotiga said. In her opinion, the women fought for peace at the household level.

Muslim and Christian leaders prayed for an end to the fighting while local government officials made contact with the rebels. They gave them food and medicine as a way of winning their trust. Finally, non governmental organisations contributed to the process by training both rebel and government representatives in negotiation techniques.

The Ugandan government later agreed to the peace negotiations and the rebels began to campaign peacefully for development in their region. Their demands for regional reconstruction and greater political recognition were included in the treaty and they were granted unconditional amnesty as well as financial compensation.  Some took up political and military positions.

Scars remain

The Ugandan government has kept many of its promises. Nevertheless, much remains to be done. No one wants to return to war, but the war victims are still calling for justice.

Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Idi Amin came to power in 1971 after deposing Milton OboteImage: Getty Images

Psychologist Grace Laki said there is a hidden tension in the community. "Peace is there, but there is bitterness, because people who suffered have not received any compensation,” Laki told DW. She said the anger is because the rebels have been compensated but the war victims have been left empty-handed.

“There's so much anger that living together is difficult," Laki said.

The issue of creating legislation for compensation for victims was discussed intensively during the anniversary celebrations, it is certainly not an easy task, but the people from the West Nile region have a lot of experience with major challenges.