Religious leaders in war-torn northern Uganda have condemned President Yoweri Museveni for forcing people to settle in "protected" villages or camps in order to shield them from armed rebels who are trying to overthrow the Government.
In a letter circulated to all government and military leaders in the Northern region, 10 church leaders, Protestant and Roman Catholic, said the policy had failed to bring security to the region and had brought suffering to northern Ugandans.
The letter was released at the end of a three-day seminar on justice and peace organised by the Anglican Church in the northern town of Kitgum. "Recalling the painful experience of the so-called protected villages in Gulu district [in northern Uganda] started last year, we strongly oppose the idea of herding our rural population into camps," the letter, dated 12 October, stated.
Among the signatories was Macleord Baker Ochola II, Bishop of the Diocese of Kitgum in the (Anglican) Church of the Province of Uganda. The bishop's wife was killed in an ambush by the rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which is led by a former Catholic catechist, Joseph Kony.
The Church leaders accused the Ugandan Army of using the prospect of food relief to force people out of their own homes in the districts of Gulu and Kitgum and into protected camps. "This is real blackmail of our people who only wish to live in peace and dignity in their own villages," they said.
The religious leaders claimed that Gulu and Kitgum districts had been omitted from the official list of districts qualifying for relief food, although the districts were faced with a severe drought, with people dying from starvation and related diseases. "We would like our authorities to clarify whether our two districts have been left out of the official list for relief food," they said.
The two districts have suffered badly from intermittent conflict with the LRA which is reportedly getting support from the Sudanese government of President Omar Hassan Ahmad al Bashir.
The LRA employs a mixture of religion and witchcraft in its fight against government forces. LRA members claim to have an oil which, if smeared on the legs and chest, stops bullets from entering the body. They also claim they have white stones which explode like bombs when thrown at the enemy. The LRA says it wants to establish a government based on the Ten Commandments, but the rebel soldiers have killed thousands of civilians in their eight-year struggle. The rebels frequently cut off the ears, lips and noses of villagers suspected of collaboration with government military forces.
Church heads and other leaders from northern Uganda have repeatedly urged President Museveni to start talks with the rebels. But he has rejected their appeals, saying the relatives of the victims killed by the rebels would never forgive his government for talking peace with the LRA.
Addressing the 35th Independence Anniversary parade and rally on 9 October at Kololo Airstrip, in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, President Museveni said the army was taking a long time to end the rebellion in the north because soldiers did not want to harm the local citizens.
He blamed the Sudanese Government for the conflict, saying Sudan was responsible for the death of Ugandans at the hands of the LRA. "All these killings of innocent civilians are the responsibility of Bashir and Hassan Turabi [the Islamist leader, who last year became president of Sudan's parliament] who are sending and arming Kony," President Museveni said.