MATANY, Uganda — Okello Simon shifts uneasily on his bed in Matany Mission Hospital as he tries to find a better position to sit.
He is nursing five bullet wounds — one on each of his arms, on the shoulder, on the cheek and on the thigh. He is a member of the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) attached to the 403 Brigade in Matany, in the violence-wracked northeastern region of Uganda.
Another victim in the hospital, which is run by the Comboni Missionaries, is a 12-year-old boy who suffered bullet wounds at his waist that make it impossible for him to sit or stand.
The boy said his attackers were government soldiers who shot him accidentally while seeking to disarm his village.
“The soldiers had cordoned off our village and during the search operation I got shot, but it was a stray bullet,” he said.
Both Okello and the boy are among the many victims of gun battles between the local Karimojong warriors and government soldiers. Trying to find ways to evangelize —and to build a more peaceful and just society in this context of ingrained violence and poverty — is the challenge Catholic missionaries face every day in northeastern Uganda.
“Because of the gun culture, people fear to invest in the area,” said Father Chris Aleti, a Ugandan Comboni Missionary who is pastor of a local parish. “Even educated Karimojongs fear to invest in their own area because of insecurity.”
The Karimojong are a cattle-keeping tribe that inhabits Uganda’s arid northeastern region. They are dependent on their livestock for their survival, and the easiest way to acquire more is through armed raids.
Warriors once used spears and arrows for raids, but today they rely on firearms. Guns were introduced after the 1979 war that overthrew dictator Idi Amin. When the soldiers left, Karimojong warriors broke into a barracks and stole the small arms kept there.
More recently, courtesy of wars in neighboring countries, additional firearms have flooded into Karimojong hands. In fact, before disarmament efforts by the Ugandan government commenced in December 2001, warriors could be seen wielding guns even at social events.
The government campaign to quell the endemic violence through disarmament has produced more problems.
In an April 19 press release, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour asked the Ugandan government to review its forced disarmament strategy.
Between Nov. 16 and March 31, the press release stated, “the indiscriminate and excessive use of force of the Ugandan Peoples’ Defense Forces resulted in the killing of at least 69 civilians, including women and children, 10 cases of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment and the killing of over 400 cattle and numbers of traditional homesteads (manyattas) destroyed in Karamoja.”
Arbour also expressed concern about violence initiated by the Karimojong, noting that “armed Karimojong criminal activities continued to perpetuate a climate of fear and insecurity in Karamoja, reportedly killing at least seven soldiers, eight civilians and more than 288 cattle during the same period in road ambushes and cattle raids.”
In Nabuin village in northern Karamoja, eyewitnesses accused the Uganda People’s Defense Forces of using extreme force last Oct. 29.
Aleper Mark, 72, who lost his son during the military operation, said men were arrested and searched for guns. When few were found, the army opened fire.
Residents put the death toll at 190. Skeletons from shallow graves still protrude from the soil.
Although Father Aleti could not confirm the death toll, he said his parish had to move in to help the people as all houses were burnt down.
“We had to provide people with essential items like blankets, saucepans, etc.,” he said. Oxfam, a British aid agency, came in to help rebuild the houses.
Romano Longole, coordinator of the local interfaith Kotido Peace Initiative, said efforts to open up the historically closed Karimojong society have been hindered by government neglect.
“Uganda is paying a price for the negligence it has had towards the people of Karamoja for all these years since independence,” Longole said.
The peace initiative is working to enhance the Karimojongs’ techniques of resolving conflicts nonviolently.
“There has been an effort by the people coming together to talk peace,” Longole said.
During the period of British rule of the region, Karimojongs came to view all Europeans as British intruders seeking to impose their authority. That legacy of suspicion and hostility is the first difficulty European missionaries must confront.
Meanwhile, in the male-dominated Karimojong society, men make all the decisions. And while the men continue to entrust women and children to the care of missionaries, they have remained aloof from the Church themselves.
In one parish run by the Comboni Missionaries, out of 148 catechumens currently receiving instruction to be baptized, only one is a man.
But Comboni Sister Luigina Fausta, the senior nursing officer of Matany Hospital who has worked there for more than 30 years, is quite hopeful that the situation can improve.
She rejected the prejudices that other Ugandans hold toward the Karimojong, saying that if they grew up in a better environment they would contribute as much as other citizens.
“But this is their home,” Sister Luigina said, “and I think the poverty and misery of the environment impacts greatly on them.”
She noted that given the neglect of the area by government and industry, the whole process of development in Karamoja rests largely in the hands of the Church.
“The politicians need votes, while business people need money, but the people have very little to contribute in these aspects,” Sister Luigina said.
The nun acknowledged that life was very tough for everyone who lives in the area, including the hospital’s staff, who she said must work harder than their counterparts elsewhere in Uganda.
“As a matter of fact, our nurses get less salary but we invest heavily in their training, after which they serve the hospital or any other Church institution for two years and later on can choose to go or remain,” she said.
Joseph Lokong Adaktar, the hospital’s assistant administrator, is grateful to have been one of the beneficiaries of the sponsorship.
He cites Dr. Daniel Giusti, a Comboni Missionary who served as the hospital’s medical superintendent in the 1990s, as his role model.
“I admired his dedication to his work despite the harsh environment and that has been a turning point in my life,” Adaktar said.
When Adaktar was sponsored by the Comboni Missionaries to study for his bachelor’s degree in administration at Uganda Martyrs’ University, he was twice offered an opportunity to work there but declined.
Said Adaktar, “It was the love of my people that made me resist the temptation to go away, and I feel I should give back to the Church.”
Sister Grace Candiru filed this report from Karamoja, Uganda.