Sandlines: Where the Wild Things Are

By Edward B. Rackley

B_crane2_2_2The Crowned Crane is Uganda’s national symbol. A majestically feathered, noble bird with piercing grey eyes, it moves with an erect, nervous strut. It is difficult to spot in the wild, yet all Ugandans know its features. Its crested silhouette is visible as the watermark on banknotes of every denomination. Its profile graces the nation’s red, yellow and black-striped flag, which is painted, pasted or flying almost everywhere one looks in Uganda.

As an index of state presence, a national flag incorporates the symbolic and the concrete. In the north of the country, a twenty-year insurgency by the Lord’s Resisistance Army saw Acholi extremists terrorizing their own people, ostensibly to radicalize or awaken them to the necessity of LRA ‘liberation’ of all Acholis. Then the national flag served only to remind Ugandans in LRA areas that they lived in a phantom state subjected to the terrors of mystical despotism. Today, the LRA have retreated and security is improving. A corresponding increase in local trade and mobility suggests lasting normalization is underway. The national flag, once an empty signifier, is now associated with the central government’s return and, by extension, with the tangible dividends of peace.

Insurgencies and rebellions have a long history in Uganda, some more violent than others. In the case of the LRA, dismemberment, sexual slavery and other atrocities were common; most were inflicted by Acholi child combatants on other Acholi children. Bringing mute agony upon innocent victims, especially children, exceeds the grasp of many a sentient mind, but insofar as many insurgencies in Uganda (and elsewhere in Africa) share an elemental grievance as their catalyst, there’s nothing exceptional or irrational about them. In each case, one or another region/ethnicity is marginalized from decision-making or the national budget. A saturation point is reached; it is time to act. Some strongman or another succumbs to delusions of political messianism. Visited by ‘laundry detergent dreams’, the rebel/messiah must now cleanse the state of its sins.

Your cattle, my guns

Under colonial rule and since independence, the Ugandan state flag has rarely flown over Karamoja, the remote and semi-arid northeastern region bordering Kenya and Sudan. Armed violence was first documented there among resident pastoralist tribes in the early 1900s. Muskets and rifles gradually replaced spears, bows and arrows. Violence spiked to new levels when automatic weapons flooded the area after Idi Amin’s local armories were abandoned in his 1979 flight from power. At the same time a regional arms market encompassing seven local nations saw escalating armament and munitions stockpiling among Karamoja’s disparate clans.

Today, few Ugandan flags are flying in Karamoja; there are no Crowned Cranes in the sky and little currency in circulation. Perched on the rim of the Great Rift Valley, Karamoja’s expanse of rugged low plains is hemmed in by gorgeous massifs, the occasional extinct volcano, and solemn stone monoliths. I first learned of Karamoja as a teenager, reading The Mountain People by British anthropologist Colin Turnbull. It described a small, vulnerable and cruel tribe, the Ik, living high on the mountainous terrain along the Kenyan border. The area has fascinated me ever since.

Karamojong warriors inflict violence indiscriminately on women and children. Boys as young as twelve carry weapons to protect their herds or to participate in inter-communal raiding. In cattle-raiding, the loss of life and destruction of property that ensues are neither religiously inspired nor ideological; Karamoja’s militant pastoralism shares nothing with the self-appointed messiahs of the LRA and their extermination of non-believers. And given the amount of firepower in Karamoja, a single large raid may result in the deaths of hundreds of people. Children are often abducted along with the cattle.

Much of the armed raiding is reportedly directed by seers and shamans, who divine immediate futures from the spilled intestines of slaughtered goats. They are said to share in the spoils of a successful cattle raid, compensation for their accurate prophecy. To ensure repeated success of the warriors or a successful planting season, children are reportedly abducted and sacrificed. Everyone I met to discuss the costs of militant pastoralism for women and children mentioned child sacrifices, genital cutting of pre-pubescent girls as a widely practiced maturation rite (girls are only then ‘available’ for marriage), and the occasional forced marriage of young girls for bride price–an attractive, hard-working and unschooled girl can bring 40 to 60 head of cattle. Even primary education is rejected by parents as it takes time away from herding and housework, and ‘makes children lazy’.

From the perspective of local communities, life is characterized by many features typically associated with armed conflict. These include large-scale military operations employing helicopter gunships, tanks, armed personnel carriers, heavy artillery and aerial bombardment, proliferation of UXOs, regular clashes between local “warriors” and government troops, frequent forced displacement, and military courts martial in place of civilian courts.

With estimates of between 30,000 to 200,000 illegal weapons in a region of almost one million people, President Museveni sent in the army to disarm the Karamojong and to restore order. The job was judged too great for the region’s 130 police officers, each armed with a pistol (that’s a ratio of 1 cop to 7300 citizens—the  international standard is 1:450). This Reuters photo captures a dejected Karamojong warrior caught in a cordon and search exercise.

The Black Spot

Ugkaramojongwarrior193_3_2My travels around the region are escorted by military convoys of government soldiers. Based in Moroto, I spend equal time in Kaabong and Kotido districts where raids, ambushes and sniper attacks occur daily on the rocky roads.   

The natural environment is inhospitable to those unschooled in its extremes. Karamojong live in their own ‘gated communities’, called manyatta, a collection of mud and thatch huts surrounded by an imposing barrier made of local thorn bushes, which serve to protect inhabitants and livestock from external raids. Looking out over the plains, manyatta are invisible to the untrained eye; from the air they are unmistakable and iconic.

Despite the physical harshness of the place, a surprising variety and number of bird species thrive in the region. Their migration patterns are local and reflect the transhumance patterns of Karamojong pastoralists, who lead their cattle to grazing lands and watering areas according to seasonal fluctuations in rainfall. I managed to spot some of my favorite species on this trip: the African Hoopoe, the ever cheeky and curious ‘Go Away’ Bird whose raspy call sounds like ‘go away!’ barked through a megaphone. Manyattaetvaches_3_4The Lilac-breasted Roller was another regular sighting, as were varieties of Kingfisher [click here for photos of these species].

But besides the heightened military presence, there is little sign that we are in Uganda. The landscape is identical to that of southern Sudan and northern Kenya, whose borders are nearby and unguarded. The region’s pastoralists have been crisscrossing between Kenya, Sudan and Uganda since long before these colonial demarcations were established. Transhumance patterns lead livestock and herders great distances in search of water points and grazing land. Protecting kin and assets on the move requires armed self-defense, given the cycles of raiding and counter-raiding long been practiced in the region.

Late one morning, I left Kotido for Kaabong with twenty or so soldiers in a three truck convoy. The landscape was lunar yet green from recent rains. My eyes scoured the landscape for birds, animals, people. It was also infamous raiding and ambushing country; one of the region’s well-known ‘no go zones’ where shepherds and their livestock dare not tread for fear of attack. Crucifixes marked the road where aid workers, priests, military and civilians had been killed in such activity. As we passed an extinct volcano I spotted a water point about 50 meters from the road. There was my all-time favourite raptor, the Secretary Bird, immobile and observing as our convoy broke the quiet of the thick heat and brilliant sunshine. 

A colleague I was riding with announced that we were entering the ‘black spot’. Crucifixes stood like goal posts marking the entrance and exit of this stretch of road, a gauntlet for us and a playing field for lurking snipers and would-be ambushers. I tried to keep a conversation going to distract us but no one would engage. The end of the gauntlet was an army detach on a hilltop after the last crucifix; after that ‘we were safe’.

No one else was on the road as we picked up speed, our body armor weighing heavy and hot inside the vehicle, our kevlar helmets bouncing up and down over the bumpy road. I spotted the huts and radio antenna of the detach on a rocky hilltop. As we approached, a commercial lorry stood parked in the middle of the road, a few people were milling around it. Soldiers were running down the hillside, apparently to meet those in the road. Relieved to be exiting the black spot, we slowed and asked what the matter was. Lots of gesticulation ensued, pointing at the truck with agitation. They had been shot at, repeatedly, about a kilometer earlier on the road.

Nothing we could do, so we drove on. Days later we passed through the same spot, stories of many such attacks and ambushes in our heads. Kevlar helmets bobbing, all of us sweating profusely under the body armor. About half-way back through the black spot, we got a puncture and had to pull over. I had to smile–this was the perfect ambush moment. We all stood in the sun, accepted our possible fate, some of us nonchalantly unzipping and peeing in the breeze. No one counted the crucifixes dotting the sides of the road.

In all my visits with locals, an estimated 75% of all rights violations or abuses involving children and women occurred during inter-communal raiding; only a minority result from government disarmament operations. This was significant, and underscored a bias in international human rights reporting that has long made me crazy. Recent reports and analysis from Save the Children, Human Rights Watch, and the Feinstein International Center (Tufts University) focus exclusively on government violations, passing over the slaughter of innocents by Karamojong in silence. This creates the unhelpful and unbalanced impression that all abuses are government, leaving those at the hands of Karamojong undocumented. Why this anti-government bias? Is the senseless carnage of Karamojong raiding to be condoned because somehow sacrosanct as ‘indigenous culture’?

Western liberal bias against African regimes as despotic and venal is most palpable in our human rights community, whose condemnations are a convenient luxury as they dont have a full time presence on the ground. For those of us who have to deal directly with such governments and their armies, as I often do, I see how discredited the moral high ground of the human rights movement is in the eyes of its intended audience, the Ugandan military in this case.

Getting information on abuses against children in Karamoja is near impossible. Because few people know their exact age or possess identification, only when a victim is manifestly pre-pubescent or a very early teenager can the term “child” is used in rights reporting. Traditional rites of passage, like genital cutting, serve to delineate the adult from the child; age in years is not used.

A long-term view

Emergence from the cycle of poverty and violence in Karamoja will not come from aid agencies but from a robust state presence, whose services must be widely available and tailored to the pastoralist social economy. State presence and services are exceedingly weak in both material and human resources; Karamoja does not attract government talent, most Ugandans fear the place as a certain death trap, and Karamojong are viewed as Neanderthals, as Pygmies or other indigenous folk are seen by majority populations elsewhere.

Spending time here and learning how the performance of local culture is warped through decades of armed violence, one appreciates how fragile social orders can be. As Valéry once said: “A civilization has the same fragility as a life.” What other commercial opportunities are there for people who’ve never been to school or learned a trade apart from armed survival, herding and raiding others’ livestock?

Perhaps Karamoja needs a political insurgency to make the depth of its crisis heard in Kampala. A fanciful notion, I realize, as for the Karamojong the Ugandan state does not exist. Their lives revolve around their herds, as is the case for other ethnic pastoralist groups in Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Nor is there evidence that a successful insurgency leads to accelerated development: it’s not the Kampala government who’s rebuilding former LRA areas now that security has returned. The international community is doing it.

On a final note, I was not able to visit the Ik, although I did get close to them. I met aid workers and locals who encountered them regularly; apparently there are only 2000 or so left of the Ik. As a coping mechanism to deal with successive raiding and looting by larger more powerful groups, the Ik have stopped keeping livestock entirely, and do not bear arms. With nothing to steal, why stop over to kill and loot? In such a dire place as Karamoja, adopting extreme poverty as your self-defence mechanism is a desperate act indeed.