To End Uganda's Nightmare

Children rest in a shelter in Gulu, Uganda, last year.
Children rest in a shelter in Gulu, Uganda, last year. (By Riccardo Gangale -- Associated Press)

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By John Edwards
Tuesday, October 31, 2006

At a moment of tremendous global hardship -- from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the killing fields of Darfur -- it is rare to find hope. So when there is the possibility for peace, we must seize it. That's why one of the world's great tragedies, the conflict in Northern Uganda, deserves our attention.

It is perhaps the worst humanitarian catastrophe to have gone practically unnoticed by most of the world. The two decades of violence in Northern Uganda have had devastating consequences -- nearly 2 million people have been run out of their homes and forced to live in overcrowded, squalid camps; tens of thousands have died; 30,000 children have been abducted by an organization called the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and forced to fight as child soldiers or used as sex slaves. Hundreds of villages have been abandoned and destroyed.

To witness the ravaging of Northern Uganda is searing. But meeting its people inspires hope. During a recent visit, I went to the Palabek-Kal camp, where thousands have been crammed into a makeshift village. Hearing their stories of suffering and survival made two points abundantly clear: They are praying for peace every moment, and they expect the world community to do everything possible to help them achieve it. Their yearning was deeply moving, and their collective intensity and faith to build a better future in the midst of such hardship was powerful.

In areas where security is improving and people are beginning to go home, the challenges are just beginning. First among them is the need for adequate access to clean water and sanitation. The rehabilitation and reconstruction of schools, health clinics and other basic infrastructure are equally critical.

Yet before people will feel safe to go home, there must be peace. The talks between the government of Uganda and the LRA offer an unprecedented opportunity to secure a lasting peace in this long and deadly conflict. A cease-fire was signed at the end of August, but as was made clear during my discussions there, it is very fragile. As these African-led negotiations continue, the United States and the international community must step forward to support the talks -- not stand on the sidelines and hope for the best.

First, the United States and the United Nations should offer whatever support outside mediators, led by the government of southern Sudan, require. In particular, assistance in monitoring the cease-fire and the assembly of LRA fighters at two agreed-upon sites in southern Sudan would be critical to boosting the confidence of both sides -- while also holding them accountable to their commitments.

Second, the United States should publicly voice its support of the peace talks and encourage the Ugandan government and the LRA to maintain their commitment to the process. It's understandable that Uganda's government is skeptical of the LRA's intentions, given the atrocities that organization has committed. Yet this is the closest the two sides have ever come to a comprehensive agreement. Uganda needs to know that Washington stands behind the drive for peace and will be a supportive ally after an accord is signed.

Third, the key donors -- the United States, European countries and the United Nations -- must come together and make clear their commitment to providing the financial assistance necessary to help victims rebuild their homes and villages. This will create incentives for both sides and, just as important, lay the foundation for long-term reconstruction and reconciliation -- not only in Northern communities that have been terrorized by the LRA but also between Northern and Southern Uganda. Once the agricultural breadbasket of Uganda, the North has been marginalized and impoverished for decades. It must be integrated more fully into the country.

Finally, the United States and the international community must fulfill their pledges to help southern Sudan recover after more than 30 years of its own war. Peace and reconstruction in Northern Uganda have to be supported by reconstruction and development in neighboring southern Sudan, which is critical for regional economic recovery and cross-border trade.

In a world of unending troubles for the United States, few would argue that Northern Uganda's future is among the most urgent strategic challenges. But our actions in coming weeks will be a critical test of our global leadership. How we act -- and if and how we lead -- will send a message throughout Africa and the rest of the world about what America stands for. We must not sit idly by as Uganda's people strive for peace.

The writer, a former Democratic senator from North Carolina and the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee, traveled to Uganda recently with the International Rescue Committee.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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