In-depth: In the wake of the LRA: HIV in Uganda and Sudan

SUDAN-UGANDA: Overview - A new challenge

Photo: Sven Torfinn/IRIN
GULU, 27 August 2007 (IRIN In-Depth) - Out of the turbulence in northern Uganda in the late 1980s, a new rebel group emerged led by Joseph Kony, a former altar boy and spirit medium.

His Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) grew out of the Holy Spirit Movement of Alice Lakwena, which galvanised an insurgency in Acholiland against President Yoweri Museveni before her followers were routed 40km from the capital, Kampala, in November 1987.

Twenty-three months earlier Museveni's National Resistance Army (NRA) had overthrown President Tito Okello, an ethnic Acholi, who had ordered a brutal counter-insurgency campaign against the NRA in southwestern Uganda's Luwero Triangle. Okello's defeat seemed to mark the end of the Acholi's traditional control of the armed forces, and triggered panic that the NRA would wreak revenge in the north.

By 1988 the LRA's guerrilla campaign was a force for the government to reckon with, and has continued for almost two decades in the historically underdeveloped Acholi districts of Gulu, Kitgum and Pader. Kony's goals have been to establish a government based on the Biblical Ten Commandments and "Acholi values".

Although a "low-intensity" conflict, the war has been marked by extreme violence: the LRA's reputation for atrocities and abductions pushed an estimated two million people into sprawling, squalid camps for the displaced.

The war has also had a regional dimension - a reflection of the tension between Uganda and neighbouring Sudan. While Kampala supported the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), Khartoum provided the LRA with bases in the south of the country.

The HIV threat

In Uganda, the areas worst affected by the violence were close to the border with Sudan, far from the urban centres around which most camps for internally displaced persons (IDP) grew. It is the urban areas, such as Gulu in northern Uganda and Yei in southern Sudan, which have the highest HIV prevalence rates.

Years of encampment and dependency on relief handouts have had a profound effect on the traditionally conservative Acholi. Alcoholism and sexual violence have become particular problems, and the heavy presence of the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces soldiers, with money in their pockets, has also helped give rise to a sex industry.

The Naivasha peace agreement in 2005 between Khartoum and the SPLM ushered in an autonomous government in Southern Sudan, threatening the LRA's bases. Mediators have managed to bring both the Ugandan government and LRA to the table for talks, and there has been a cessation of hostilities since August 2006. But peace brings its own set of challenges.

Many areas of southern Sudan and northern Uganda are rapidly opening up to trade, and health workers are worried that unless information about HIV reaches these populations early enough, they will be unprepared for the possibility of a rapid spread of HIV.

In Sudan, proper prevalence and behaviour surveillance will need to be carried out in order to tackle the pandemic effectively. Statistics on prevalence in the region are scanty, but the one-year-old South Sudan AIDS Commission has charted a road map for fighting HIV that includes gathering accurate data on the scale of HIV in the region.

The absence of aggressive AIDS awareness programmes has been reflected in attitudes among the youth. In Southern Sudan knowledge is particularly low, while in fast-growing towns like Kitgum in northern Uganda, the peace dividend is being cashed in the bars and clubs that have opened as insecurity ebbs.


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