Gulu landmine survivors find fresh spring in their step (Uganda)

Gulu -It is a little over two years since the guns fell silent in northern Uganda following the start of peace talks between the government and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels in the Southern Sudan capital, Juba. But the scars are still fresh for many victims of the 20-year war.


Mr John Bosco Obwana, who lost one leg to a land mine blast in March 2003 at Palabek Sub-county in Kitgum District, is one such person. Narrating his ordeal to Daily Monitor, Mr Obwana said, "I was riding a bicycle to a public auction to sell my merchandise when I rode over a mine. It burst and shattered my left leg."

Mr Obwana says the accident changed his life for the worse, beginning with splitting his family. "Immediately after the incident, my wife with whom I had had four children, ran away. It felt like the end of my life," he said. "From self-employment, I have also been reduced to a beggar," he added. "It is difficult to explain that I was at one time an able bodied person. Now I am one without one of my limbs." But landmine victims in northern Uganda like Mr Obwona did not let the tragedy break down their will for long. They came together under the Gulu/Amuru Landmines Survivors Association to help one another.

The association, which is based in Pece Division, Gulu District, has initiated a clay project that enables the landmine victims to earn a living. They make clay ventilators, flower pots and interlock bricks using a modern machine.

In addition, the survivors have, with the help of AVSI, an Italian NGO, been able to get assortments of free artificial limbs since 2005. "Before the project began, we were helpless and hopeless and the government has been silent about our plight," said the association Chairperson, Ms Monica Piloya, adding that they have since managed to raise awareness about their situation through the association.

Ms Piloya said the association was started in 2005 by 15 landmine victims but the number has since grown to 258 registered members.
Uganda has more than 2,000 survivors of cluster munitions like landmines, and a considerable number is from the war-ravaged northern region districts of Gulu, Kitgum, Pader, Oyam, Apac and Lira.

One of the major achievements of the association, according to Ms Piloya, has been to enable the survivors accept their fate and reconstruct their lives. "Some of them committed suicide; others resorted to alcoholism (before the association was started). There are many challenges when the community looks at you and makes all sorts of comments or laughs. You must be strong-hearted to live on," she said.

The mother of two said the clay project helps provide many members with a source of income to cater for their financial needs. "You see some of them don't have hands but they bring me relatives to work for them so that they earn something," explained Ms Piloya.

The Anglican Bishop for Northern Uganda Diocese, the Rev Nelson Onono Onweng, said before such associations came up, the biggest challenge facing leaders from the northern region was how to cater for the landmine victims. "It was hard for us because there are some of these survivors who lost both legs and cannot do anything to help themselves," he said.

During a two-day conference on cluster bombs early this month, the director of the Uganda landmine Survivors Association, Ms Margaret Arach Orech, said the government had not shown enough commitment towards helping landmine victims. "We [survivors] haven't experienced anything positive [from government], but I know that the government developed a five-year strategic plan to address the needs of land mine victims… but that is just on paper. There is nothing on the ground," she said.

The UPDF Spokesman for northern region, Capt Ronald Kakurungu, says the army is clearing the landmines from the region. He said that since the start of the year, they have removed at least 75 landmines.

Uganda is one of the 107 countries that are expected to gather in the Norwegian capital, Oslo, on December 3 to sign an international treaty outlawing the manufacture and sale of cluster munitions.

While landmine survivors complain that the government has not offered them much help in other aspects of their lives, those in Gulu and Amuru districts have at least been able to find a new spring in their step on their own.

Von: 28.10.2008, by JOSEPH MAZIGE,

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