Uganda, DRCongo: There Is Hope Yet
Sisulu, Sheila, New African
Sheila Sisulu, the deputy executive director of the UN World Food Programme (WFP), visited DRCongo and Uganda in March. Here, she tells how the two countries are at a turning point. "They stand at a crossroads of stark choice: one way leads to peace, security and development, the other to continued armed conflict, suffering and economic decline. I am among those who believe that the cycle of conflict and violence can be broken. There remains a vision of hope."
It is a sad and distressing irony that two of Africa's most fertile countries are currently unable to feed their own people. In DRCongo and Uganda, several million people are going hungry. That much is sad. If it were not for the ongoing armed conflict in both countries, there would not be millions of mouths to feed. That, whatever spin you put on it, is deeply distressing.
As long as armed militias and rebel groups continue to see life only down the barrel of a gun, peace and real potential for both countries is all but impossible. That was my message to the people of Uganda and the DRCongo when I travelled there for two weeks in March this year.
In the Acholi districts of northern Uganda, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony, himself an Acholi, claims to want to rule Uganda according to the Ten Commandments. The group has gained particular notoriety for kidnapping children and using them as the mainstay of their army as well as horrific brutality against civilians.
New reports suggest the number of people killed in the February attack by the LRA rebels on the Barlonyo refugee camp may have been well over 300. It was only the latest atrocity in an 18-year civil war that has laid waste to the region. Over 1.5 million Ugandans are refugees within their own country and dependent on humanitarian supplies for their daily needs.
In eastern DRC, a low-level conflict persists despite a peace deal struck nearly two years ago. Women continue to be subjected to the most brutal forms of sexual assault and torture, children continue to be coerced into joining the militias and farmers continue to be terrorised from their fields and robbed of their food stocks.
Although the natural wealth of both countries should enable them to be self-sufficient in food, war and subsequent economic decline mean that the World Food Programme (WFP) has to provide food on a massive scale. Every month the WFP spends more than $6m on supplying food aid to Uganda. Over the next two years, the WFP will spend $156m feeding 1.6 million people in the DRC.
As is so often the case, it is women and children who bear the brunt of the fighting in both countries. In the eastern DRC, the story of how women have suffered immeasurable horrors at the hands of marauding soldiers is only just beginning to be told. Comprehensive statistics are unavailable, but between March and June last year, 5,000 cases of rape were reported. This is believed to be just the tip of the iceberg.
While I was visiting the eastern DRC, I spent two emotionally draining hours listening to the testimonies of women at a Goma medical centre which specialises in operating on rape victims. The worst cases require as many as four separate surgical procedures.
Elizabeth, a fragile looking woman, is a patient. "I was in my house one evening when they attacked at about eight o'clock," Elizabeth (not her real name) remembers, painfully uncovering the memories. "They raped me and inserted sticks until I lost consciousness. They kept me for six days, burnt our homestead and killed my parents. They even killed my husband and then left me for dead."
Elizabeth only survived because she was taken, her wounds bleeding and suppurating, to a local clinic that referred her on to Goma. Another woman told of how her husband had his hands and feet chopped off when he tried to protect her from soldiers who had broken into their home. …