I feel guilty for writing a blog about Karamoja without mentioning how stunningly beautiful the region is. Karamoja feels like the ends of the earth-it is vast, flat land dotted erratically by mountains on the horizon. I have never seen the stars so brightly in all my life than under the endless Karamoja sky. Set against this backdrop are the Karimojong people who are arrayed in radiantly colored garments and adorned head to toe in intricate beaded jewelry. The combined effect is breathtaking and utterly ethereal.
During CECORE’s workshop in Kotido with the Jie, I found it hard to believe that these were members of a belligerent clan. The people were so vibrant, constantly laughing, singing, and dancing. In the video (trouble uploading–check back soon), you can see how they would recount what they had learned during the workshop through rhythmic chants and songs. I found the same to be true during the second workshop which included members of the Dodoth, Bokora, and Matheniko clans. Interestingly enough, all clans seemed to express similar goals, concerns, and needs. They are physically indistinguishable, yet socially constructed identities have served to perpetuate violence among the groups.
In 2001, the Ugandan government began an aggressive campaign to disarm the Karimojong. The campaign has produced mixed results. No one seems to know how many guns are now in Karamoja. Civil society organizations estimated that there were 80,000 guns in Karamoja prior to the campaign, but the government countered that figure with its own estimate of 40,000. Captain Henry Obbo, a UPDF spokesman, claims that 30,000 guns have been seized, leaving 3,000 in circulation-a figure which doesn’t seem to match up with either of the two previous assessments. When asked about how people’s attitudes on firearms have changed since disarmament began, Romano Longole of Kotido Peace Initiative (KOPEIN) reflected that now, “if you have a gun, you don’t publicize it.”
In any case, everyone seems to agree that buying an illegal gun is very easy. When I asked Francis Lomongin of FORDIPOM whether or not it is easy to obtain a firearm, he joked, “You wanna make a deal?” He told me that as long as you know who to speak to, guns can be procured very easily. In Kangole Parish, for instance, ammunition can be purchased at the weekly market. Lomongin explained that there are three primary avenues for gun trafficking: (1) through the Turkana people of Kenya who facilitate the gun trade from Kenya to Somalia, (2) directly through traders in southern Sudan who sell to buyers in Kaabong and Kotido districts, and (3) from within through UPDF officers or in some cases police officers.
Because UPDF officers receive little (and rather infrequent) pay, they have been known to sell guns and particularly ammunition to supplement their incomes. Uganda has only one gun factory, which produces guns exclusively for the security sector. A number of the weapons that have been recovered from Karimojong warriors bear the mark from this factory, an indication that UPDF guns are being leaked to civilians. Such corruption and witch hunt tactics have tainted the army’s reputation among the Karimojong who view them with suspicion. While the UPDF deserve credit for reducing gun violence in the area, they have been accused of arbitrarily arresting cattle herders and refusing to release them until a gun is produced. Some officers have reportedly tortured detainees during interrogations to obtain intelligence. Longole claims that seven Karimojong have been killed by their fellow villagers because they were rumored to be UPDF informants.
At the same time, as the UPDF reports that they are slowly handing security over to local police forces, the Karimojong express fear over the pullout. Since the start of disarmament, the UPDF have provided security to communities that have disarmed voluntarily. The UPDF have maintained a visible presence in the area where they can be seen guarding cattle kraals or escorting migrant cattle herders. According to an article in Saturday’s edition of The Daily Monitor, “there have been increasing reports of interethnic clashes in Karamoja, an indication that insecurity caused by the presence of illegal arms in the region is still a big threat.”
As my colleagues traveled to Kangole Parish, they were met by a UPDF security escort who had been tipped off that a raid was anticipated in the general vicinity. Similarly when I spoke to Esther, who facilitates several women’s alliances in Kangole Parish, she told me that during the previous week, the Matheniko had been implicated in a raid in which one woman was shot and killed and several others critically injured. As Moroto Chairman Peter Ken Lochap told The Daily Monitor (5 September 2009), “People still live in fear, their safety is not guaranteed. People are still dying.”
Posted By Courtney Chance
Posted Sep 10th, 2009