Ugandan Rebels Putting Catholic Missions Under Siege

Refugees Starving, Says Agency Director

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KITGUM, Uganda, JUNE 12, 2003 (Zenit.org).- The rebel Lord's Resistance Army is now targeting Catholic churches and missions.



The director of the Misna missionary agency, who over the last few days has been in the Catholic mission of Kitgum, says the civilian population in Uganda is suffering under LRA violence.

"The situation is desperate because the principal inhabited centers are virtually surrounded by rebels, and the rural areas are infested by these 'olum' -- 'grass,' as the LRA guerrillas are called in the Acholi language," Father Giulio Albanese told Vatican Radio.

The people's food situation is equally worrying, given that provisions "came basically by land until recently; now, aid arrives only by air, and there are many locations that are practically isolated, where people are literally dying of hunger," he added.

In less than a week, the LRA has attacked four missions in the north: Omiya-Anyma, Opit, Madi Opei and Alito, the priest said. During the assault on Alito the guerrillas held Father Alex Ojera hostage along with 50 other people.

To Father Ojera, who was subsequently released together with 15 other hostages, the rebels signaled that they were ready to negotiate, but only if they dealt directly with President Yoweri Museveni.

Nahaman Ojwe, the top civil authority of the Kitgum district, said that the Acholi region, devastated by constant LRA attacks, is living in a "desperate humanitarian situation," the Misna agency reported last weekend.

Out of a population of 281,000, some 250,000 are now homeless. People are living in 18 refugee camps in the district under extremely precarious conditions, according to data reported by Ojwe.

Some 200 soldiers have been deployed from Kampala to protect Kitgum. The soldiers work in cooperation with the civil authorities, but their presence must be intensified to guarantee the security of inhabited areas, Ojwe said.

According to international observers, in 17 years of conflict at least 20,000 civilians and as many children have been kidnapped and enslaved or enrolled by force in the guerrillas' ranks, L'Osservatore Romano reported Sunday.

Led by Joseph Kony, the LRA struggles against the government to create a state based on the observance of alleged biblical concepts.

Father Albanese described Kony as a "mad visionary" whose "creed is of a syncretist type, where there is a bit of everything: elements of Christianity, Islam and also animism."

"Unfortunately, the kidnapped children are forced to kill, often even under the effect of drugs," the priest lamented.

Between Sudan and Uganda, the men of the LRA number 5,000, although some sources estimate the total at half this figure. In any case, Ojwe said the rebels are well organized. Recent reports say they now have antipersonnel mines.

"We need the solidarity of the international community in close cooperation with the government of Kampala," Nahaman Ojwe said. He expressed appreciation for the work of the missionaries and the private-group personnel in the area, "because to work here means to constantly risk one's life."

The Italian episcopal conference says the time has arrived for an urgent "international pronouncement" over Uganda, the SIR agency reported recently.

"The episcopal commission for the Evangelization of Peoples and Cooperation Among the Churches makes its own the appeal of missionaries working in the northern region of Uganda, that there be no further delay to an international pronouncement that will open the way for effective actions of humanitarian aid and credible actions of peace," said a statement issued by the Italian episcopate.

The commission appealed to the media to give "precise and objective information on all that happens in the region," and it called on the Italian government to express its concern before international institutions. It also asked the ecclesial community to pray "for peace and concord."