HAVE HOPE FOR PEACE!
Dear people of God, our brothers and sisters:
Praise be to our merciful God, who is always with us in our trials. We greet all of you, who have just celebrated the religious feasts of Christmas and Idd El-Fitr.
With this religious spirit, we meditate on our lives in the present circumstances and realise that there are moments in which we feel that we are "passing through deep waters... passing through fire and hard trials" (Isaiah 43:2). These are times in which in the midst of deep anguish our faith makes us hear God's voice telling us again and again, "Do not be afraid, I am with you!"(Isaiah 43:5). This is very much our case, in Acholi, at the end of the year 2000. We all remember that in 1999 we enjoyed a long period of relative peace and expectations were high, after Uganda and Sudan signed a peace agreement, the Khartoum government announced that our children in captivity were going to be released, and Parliament passed the Amnesty Law. Peace seemed to be at hand, at last; but hopes vanished quickly after a new incursion of rebels shortly before Christmas and it became evident that some promises were not fulfilled. Ever since we have been living once again in fear and misery and we have had to realise that it takes more than a piece of paper to attain real peace.
The last few months have been particularly trying for all of us. We remember the tragic death of our courageous and beloved Fr. Raphael Di Bari in his mission of Pajule, the attack on Gulu on the night of the 9th October, which left sixteen people killed, and the many ambushes, killings and abductions which have been going on. Many of our people continue to live in the misery of the displaced camps and despite some commendable local and international efforts we don't see any concrete signs indicating that the end of the war is near. The situation has been aggravated by the Ebola epidemic, which has claimed the lives of many of our people.
In these sad circumstances, the words of Jesus "Come to me all you who are overburdened and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28) seem to have been said particularly for our people, who are very much in need of real hope for peace. As religious leaders we are writing to you to give you this hope, since a true believer can never be pessimistic, no matter how much suffering we see around us! It is therefore considering our life as God's children that we would like to point at some aspects of our situation in order to propose some ways out.
1. We denounce the scandal of those making big profits out of this war. It is with a very heavy heart that we see how this continuous insecurity has become an easy way of life for some unscrupulous individuals who are making fortunes out of innocent people who have been robbed or killed. As pastors, we have to raise our voices, since we seem to be living in a situation similar to the time of the prophet Micah, who cried out against those who "build Zion on a foundation of blood, Jerusalem with crime" (Micah 3:10). The Moslem Scriptures, too, teach us: "Remember when you took your covenant: Shed not the blood of your people" (Verse 84 Baqarah). We call on these profiteers to repent of their grave sin and make serious amendment and reparation, and we call on all people of good will to play a role in changing the hearts of those who, in different ways, are benefiting from the suffering of our innocent people.
2. We shall never tire of proclaiming that conversion and forgiveness is the only way out of this war. "The recompense for an evil is an evil, but whoever forgives and makes reconciliation his reward is with God" Sura 40). When the Amnesty Law was passed we were very happy and announced immediately that we were ready to give our full co-operation. One year later we have to commend our people for generally keeping their spirit of forgiveness, and at the same time we have to make an appeal our rebel brothers and sisters: Violence is never the solution to any conflict or problem, you should stop fighting and accept to be reintegrated into a normal life. Do not respond to people's willingness to forgive with further aggressions, but repent for your sins and change your lives, for God "does not want the death of a sinner, but his conversion so that he may live" (Ezekiel 18:23). We call on you once again to report to any religious leader in any locality easily accessible to you, or to pass to us any serious message you may have for a peaceful resolution of this armed rebellion. We appeal also to the Government of Uganda to speed up the Amnesty process by urgently facilitating the Amnesty Commission on the ground and to put in place the Demobilisation and Resettlement team.
3. People have suffered enough in the displaced camps and they should be helped to go back to their homes. About half of our population still lives in these miserable settlements which were started four years ago and that hardly match their official name of "protected villages", since people have often been killed or abducted in attacks on these camps. The ugly picture of thousands of people in danger of losing their good cultural values, their moral fibre and their family life makes us wonder if there cannot be more humane ways of protecting people in their homes, while making use of their God-given land. There should be no more delay in dismantling the camps and enabling people to return to their homes.
4. Let us show special care to our children, who have become the main victims of this war. Children are the joy of our homes and our future. When children are brutally victimised the joys and hopes of our families are being destroyed. Efforts made at international level seem to be making little headway, and the sad fact remains that thousands of children are still in captivity, mainly in Sudan. Once again, we appeal to the LRA to release all of them quickly and unconditionally, and we appeal to the international community to intervene to ensure the return of all our children from Sudan. At the same time, we want to express our concern about returned abducted children who have been held in military installations for months, adding to their trauma and to the suffering of their parents. We hope there will be no more cases of this kind. Children who have gone through the painful experience of abduction and have escaped or been rescued must not be allowed to join the Local Defence Units. Those who are under age in these units should be demobilised at once. In this connection, we have a special word of encouragement to school teachers: Your role in rehabilitating children who have become victims of violence is extremely important, as well as in educating the younger generations in the value of peace. Do not get tired of doing this.
5. The poverty of our people cries out to heaven. Ordinary people have to bear a lot of violence and at the same time are victims of a sinful economic system that pays them less for the fruit of their hard work and charges more for essential commodities. Transport has become very costly and travelling extremely risky. How can people living in these circumstances support their children in school and look forward to a better future? Despite many promises of development and rehabilitation, we still remain the poorest part of Uganda, though our people are hardworking and development-minded. In this respect, we would like to advise our farmers to come together in associations to sell their produce at a fair price, so as to avoid exploitation by unscrupulous businessmen. In the midst of this painful picture we cannot but express our deep gratitude to some groups who are sincerely dedicated to improving the life conditions of our people. We very much appreciate various efforts put in place by NGOs, religious bodies, Government programmes and the international community groups who are sincerely dedicated to improving the living conditions of our people.
6. Let our country be a true promoter of peace. Looking at a wider picture of the situation, we realise that much of the Great Lakes Region and the Horn of Africa has for some years now been turning into a huge battlefield in which thousands of people are dying for the sake of international economic interests. Our situation in Northern Uganda is part of this complex situation. As believers in God, we cannot stop proclaiming that ours is a God of life, who wants His children to live in peace. It is in this respect that we want to state clearly that:
- We add our voices to what has been said many times before by different bodies in this country and internationally that Uganda should withdraw all UPDF troops from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
- As far as some domestic conflicts are concerned, we state that we cannot support the distribution of guns to civilians for their self-defence as a means to solve problems with neighbouring communities. In this respect we are happy to tell you that ARLPI has been involved for several months now in trying to solve the conflict with our Karimojong (Jie) neighbours by peaceful means, offering our mediation. We ask you to support us with your prayers so that this dry season may not be like the last one, in which more than eighty people were killed in Kitgum district.
7. Ebola has hit us deeply, but we can learn from this experience. The outbreak of the Ebola epidemic in October left us wondering why we should still have to bear this terrible extra burden. In such circumstances we have to draw strength from our faith in God. Far from falling into despair, we want to tell you that there are at least two important lessons that we have been able to learn from this new plague:
- In the first place, it is amazing and most commendable the way people united in their response against Ebola. Even though we are not yet completely out of it, if we continue with this spirit we shall definitely overcome it. Why can't we respond in the same way to the "virus" of brutal violence which has survived in Acholiland for more than fourteen years now: all united and determined in a group effort, tirelessly, against war and for peace.
- Secondly, we have to draw a deep lesson from our twelve medical personnel who perished in the course of their dedication to the sick. We have to remember in a very special way our dear Dr. Matthew Lukwiya, medical superintendent of Lacor Hospital, who gave his life for the poorest of our people. His death, like the one of Christ, was in order to give life, and made us remember that in the saddest of circumstances God always brings forth people who show us the way to follow. We are still going through difficult times of violence, but there is a way out and we can have hope in peace, because our God is a caring God.
Our final appeal goes to our leaders. Be united among yourselves in giving this real hope for peace to the people you are meant to serve, and use a language of conciliation and appeal, according to the spirit of the Amnesty. Also to the LRA: once again we call on you to co-operate with the people and join us in overcoming this violence once and for all. Trust the good will of the local population, who are ready to forgive the evil of the past and accept you back.
We greet you warmly in the name of God and assure you of our solidarity with all of you.
Gulu, 30th December, 2000
Bishop Nelson Onono-Onweng. Northern Uganda Diocese, Church of Uganda.
Archbishop John Baptist Odama, Catholic Archdiocese of Gulu.
Sheikh Musa Khalil, District Khadi Moslem Community Gulu
Bishop McLeord Baker Ochola II. Kitgum Diocese, Church of Uganda
Mgr. Matthew Ojara, Episcopal Vicar Catholic Church Kitgum Vicariate.
Sheikh Dehiya Shafi,, Kitgum District Khadi, Moslem Community.