by Matthew Davies
In an effort to raise awareness of the shocking realities of child abduction and the 17-year war in northern Uganda, the Church Mission Society (CMS) launched a campaign today (21 August) by delivering a petition to Downing Street. The petition asked Tony Blair to "help break what local churchmen have dubbed an 'international conspiracy of silence' over the Lord's Resistance Army's (LRA) brutal reign".
The Bishop of Kitgum diocese, the Rt Revd Benjamin Ojwang, accompanied an Acholi refugee child to Downing Street and two children from the first CMS church [Holy Trinity, Clapham Common] to symbolise the charity's 100 years of solidarity with the Acholi people.
The current conflict in northern Uganda began soon after the National Resistance Army (NRA) of President Museveni took power in 1986. Remnants of the previous government's forces fled into northern Uganda and southern Sudan and formed the Ugandan People's Democratic Army (UPDA). Several splinter groups began emerging out of the UPDA and the story of the LRA began: originally named the Lord's Salvation Army; then the United Christian Democratic Army; and finally the Lord's Resistance Army.
The worst victims of the situation are the youth, who are the most productive age group and the hope of the region. The LRA are responsible for the abduction of thousands of children and more than 20,000, some as young as seven, are being used as soldiers, labourers and sex slaves.
According to Human Rights Watch, an organisation dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world, Ugandan government forces also recruit children who are intended to provide security for local villages or camps. Unfortunately, many do not return to their home areas and are reportedly used to fight against the LRA.
Bishop Ojwang, who begins a six-week national tour today , will visit Acholi refugees in Britain , as well as Bristol and Lancashire dioceses linked with his homeland. He will also visit officials at DfID, the Foreign Office and Lambeth Palace . Speaking of his strength as coming from God, he said, "We cannot give up because that means throwing the bible away....We have to struggle even up to the end."
At a press conference this morning Bishop Ojwang, whose own six children were abducted last year, explained how he has come to echo the children's cry. "We are in a dilemma now," he said. "The international community has not been actively involved in finding a peaceful solution. That's why I'm here. We need to bring the two sides together and we can only do that through dialogue; not with guns."
Actor David Oyelowo, who plays Danny in the hit BBC spy series 'Spooks', also helped to launch the campaign. He told a story about six children being dragged out of their beds by the LRA at night. They were then shot and left in the street for all to witness the following morning. "The LRA claim that they are doing this for some kind of godly purpose," he said. "The children - the helpless - are caught between a rock and a hard place."
CMS, which has been working with the Kitgumi people since 1904, announced that there are 800,000 people - 75% of the population of northern Uganda - who now face starvation in so-called 'protected camps'.
Jenny Taylor, Head of Media for the ChurchMission Society, said, "We now want people to get behind us in prayer and understanding for the people of Uganda ."
The Press Conference was followed by a visit to Westminster Abbey to pay homage at the statue of Acholi Archbishop Janani Luwum, an Anglican martyr who was murdered by Idi Amin, and whose body is buried in Kitgum.