Residents worry over backlash as UPDF hunt LRA

Source: TABU BUTAGIRA, http://www.monitor.co.ug

Border residents worry over backlash as UPDF hunt LRA

Border residents mainly generate cash by smuggling. But not during war!

At times of cross-frontier unease, concern shifts to basic survival through modest ways.

In the searing afternoon heat of the dry season, Mzee Gad Galaba defies age to summon

an equivalent youthful energy to hammer in a bicycle cotter pin at Odramacaku trading centre.

Like many penniless residents, Mr Galaba is working as a bicycle repairer, to raise at least

Shs1,000 to buy food and other necessities for his family.

This is the humbling life of a Ugandan family bread winner in this locality separated from

the restive DR Congo only by a graveled road, serving as the official borderline

between Uganda and its vast western neighbour.

But hundreds of kilometres away, inside the thickly forested Garamba parkland,

it is a military jinx. The UPDF, perhaps encouraged by non-combat support from Kinshasa

and Juba, went in there mid-last month, ostensibly to hunt down the LRA rebels.

But the insurgents, bombed out from their camp Swahili lair, are reported to be on the loose;

abducting and killing hundreds of hapless Congolese and Sudanese civilians.

The fear this boundless violence could spill over to Uganda has raised tension among

some border residents with struggling people in the fold of Mzee Galaba, worried about losing

their not-so-fancy livelihood in the event the LRA rebels strike and displace them as anticipated.

Mr Yosia Bada, the LC I secretary for security at Odramacaku trading centre,

said the people of West Nile region, many of whom were exiled in DRC and Sudan

after late President Idi Amin, have suffered and now require uninterrupted

peace to concentrate on education and development.

"We do not want to go back to war situation," said Mr Bada, "Since UPDF attacked

the LRA, my people feel more secure since they had been worried and

thinking that the rebels could attack anytime."

The Ugandan army has massed troops at strategic locations along the border,

straddling from Koboko via Maracha-Terego and Arua Districts.

Security surveillance by on-ground state spies and regular army has significantly increased.

Day and night patrols by armed soldiers in towns and around the suburbs are up.

Mr Bada, with a sneaky look at the Congolese side, said:

"The thieves and armed robbers from Congo used to disturb us but now they don't;

they fear the UPDF will arrest them. Even the Congolese army used to rob and

extort money from our traders. All these have stopped.

The arrival of the UPDF has made the border area safer."

But nobody in the region, like in most parts of the country, is certain about what is

really happening inside Congo. They only see truckloads of UPDF soldiers, food,

military hardware and other supplies being hauled aboard semi-trailers and

Tata trucks – a fearsome travel – to the DRC.

When in the town centre, the soldiers, apparently acting to show morale,

start blowing whistles and shouting randomly. They are not anymore singing patriotic

military songs synonymous with such errands.

Little of any humorous reciprocation is forthcoming from the jaded urban dwellers.

They just look on, unsure if the soldiers, navigating the thickets of Garamba

for the first time, will win over the LRA rebels in a difficult terrain inside Congo

when they could not do so over the past two decades in northern Uganda

whose geography they were familiar with.

Matters are not helped that officially, only very scanty information is forthcoming

about Operation Lightning Thunder, now entering a month. West Nile residents,

some of whose relatives live or do business across in DRC towns of Butembo,

Faradje and the nearby Ariwara call home, conveying worrisome stories about the mission.

The army on the other side says their operation is successful.

Many doubt this pronouncement. For instance, they did not talk about the

December 14 bomb explosion on a UPDF truck at Poki,

inside Sudan that killed and injured soldiers on the maiden trip to attack the LRA.

It was not until this newspaper, on January 5, exposed the story and published

the picture of one of the accident victims admitted at

St. Joseph's Hospital Maracha that the public got to know

the unspoken ugly side of the operation.

Health workers at the medical facility were initially told that the casualties were involved

in an ordinary motor crash. But the Daily Monitor account exposed the truth,

which shocked the medics, raising concern that the army could be

hiding losses in the latest encounter.

"People are worried about what is happening with our troops in the DRC,"

says Mr Stanley Yiacia, a resident of Yivu SS village in the new Maracha-Terego District.

He adds, "They do not have the confidence that the UPDF will withstand the pressure

if the LRA decides to strike back. And should this happen,

West Nile because of its border location will be the first point of entry for the rebels.

This is what is worrying our people."

The army says they are in full control. Capt. Robert Kamara, the UPDF spokesman

in the region, is visiting different local FM radio stations, assuring residents

not to panic but remain vigilant and report any suspicious characters or movements

to Local Council officials or security organs.

"We are aware of the [LRA] threats and have taken necessary precautionary measures,

" the military spokesman said, "We have deployed our troops and intelligence officers

to secure our borders and they are cooperating well with our Congolese counterparts."

Indeed, all appears normal, at least for the moment. Cross border business is still brisk

and lucrative as ever. Shops and all markets open as usual, and touts at the Juba stage

along Rhino Camp Road in Arua town and those in Koboko town shout their voices horse,

beckoning passengers for the strenuous journey to South Sudan.

At the DRC border, dusty passengers can be seen aboard old pickup trucks,

winding into wilderness.

The bars are full. Merrymakers jam nightclubs and dance till dawn and prostitutes

still command night posts in secluded backyards - such as California Street in

Arua town's central business district - known to be a hotbed for the call girls.

In Churches and Mosques, clerics are telling concerned worshippers to pray for

peace and prosperity in the New Year. On the silver side, the heavy security deployments

have scared soap, salt, beer and fuel smugglers, fearing certain arrest by myriad

security networks. In the army operations, the Uganda Revenue Authority's

anti-smuggling unit has, for now, got an unsolicited ally.

For seasoned cross border motorcycle and vehicle thieves,

the honeymoon is over because there are too many people, moreover

armed security personnel, watching over their mischievous dealings at night.

Some elected leaders say crime prevalence is declining.

The heavy army deployment has turned Koboko to some sort of a garrison town.

Mr William Dada, the chairman of Koboko District said,

"The beefing up of security has made people more comfortable.

Prior to the Garamba [invasion], we were getting reports that

the LRA was trying to penetrate Uganda and this was making people restless."

Opposition politician Bernard Atiku, the district councillor for Adumi sub-county

that borders the DRC, wants new military detaches to be established in his constituency.

This is after mineral dealers; Yosam Ezati and his unnamed colleague,

both hailing from Etori in the neighbouring Pajulu sub-county got mired in

the crisis in Faradge, the Congolese town where the LRA rebels are on apparent revenge killing spree.

With scarce information coming through official channels,

the progress and lapses of Operations Lightning Thunder has become

a subject of speculation and, as expected, the "inside Garamba" stories

churned by the rumour mills contain both the good and the ugly.

The army has down-played reports that some soldiers, frightened at

the prospect of confronting the vicious LRA rebels, are deserting.

Capt. Robert Kamara, the military spokesman in West Nile, said soldiers have

always abandoned duty and there is no evidence that desertion, which is

a serious offense in the army, is on the rise due to the pressure of Garamba commitments.

West Nile's two million people, whose livelihood bonds with the restive

Oriental province through common heritage and cross border business,

want nothing less than an annihilation of the rebels. Otherwise,

they fear for the worst especially that the army is now understood

to be less friendly and more intolerant of any critics of the war.

It is also feared some soldiers could pick and bring home the deadly

Ebola hemorrhagic fever, ravaging Kasai Occidental province within

northeastern DRC where the UPDF is hounding Joseph Kony's fighters.

Arua district security committee is reportedly mulling closing the controversial

weekly Agbatara talk show on Arua 1 FM radio after some guests on the programme

allegedly made incendiary statements on the LRA war during an edition a fortnight ago.

And the military is publicly likening and maligning critics of Operation Lightning

Thunder to LRA collaborators, effectively muzzling dissenters.
The media houses in West Nile appear timid to objectively report on the fighting

after police detectives arrested and grilled three senior journalists of this newspaper

for allegedly publishing information deemed prejudicial to national security,

which could aid the enemy!

Nearly a month after a dozen military choppers suddenly lifted up in the skies of

Koboko border District, attention has now shifted to whether the war,

launched partly from West Nile, would not boomerang.

With the current unpredictable mood swing of military commanders and political

executives scaring the country, the media's lack of unfettered access

to independently verify information in the remote Garamba,

means the truth of fatalities and losses on either side of the attack,

will, if at all, be told several months or years when the war ends.

That is if vital evidence does not get interred in the dense tropical forests

and fertile soils of Congo without trace.

Source: TABU BUTAGIRA, http://www.monitor.co.ug

             J-L K.
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