Saturday, August 14, 2010

Abducted, raped and made to suffer by Ugandan rebel soldiers

By Ochieng’ Ogodo


[GULU] Her eyeballs rolled left and right in a dance of hopelessness with tears on the edges as she softly bit her dry cracked lower lip. Betty Ajok was certainly struggling with some terrifying deep inner feelings. She was in great pain.
And the harrowing three-year ordeal in the bush that snowballed into her phobic existence is what many a young girl in northern Uganda has had to endure because of the many years of senseless civil conflagration pitting the National Resistance Movement army presided over by President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni and the sadistic ragtag Lords Resistance Army [LRA] in the hands of Joseph Kony.
She is ex-girl child abductee of the brutal and barbaric lot that is the LRA that has terrorised northern Uganda for the past 26 years turning the once agricultural rich region into a huge camp of suffering and destitution.
Betty Ajok in their makeshift
at Anaka IDPs camp, Northern Uganda

“All that I underwent in the bush makes me feel like I am not a human being anymore. I deeply loathe all that I was forced to do but the experience has stuck and gives me a deep sense of misery each passing day. I feel hollow,” Ajok said.
On a sunny mid-morning in 2000, Ajok and three other unsuspecting little innocent life vessels-they were about 10 in age-walked a little distance from their Anaka Internally Displaced Persons camp in search of firewood. Anaka is about 50 kilometers north of Gulu town.
In a split of a second, as they gathered firewood in the forest, they found themselves surrounded by mean looking and blood thirsty men who ordered them to follow.
“It was about 10 AM on that fateful day when they ambushed and ordered us to follow them. Disregard to commands from rebel soldiers was not possible if you knew what had been going on in this part of our country,” she said with her eyes cast in a hollow distant look.
For three days they were on the move drooping under the heavy weight of looted property in the thick forest further to the north, the stronghold of the rebels that attack and run to hide in eastern Democratic Republic Congo and Southern Sudan.
On those three days they were on the move joining other rebels with abductees, men and children forcefully drafted, in the bush. Once they reached one of the rebels’ make shift camps in far northern Uganda they were declared wives. “I was only twelve and I absolutely knew nothing about having sex. I had never slept with a man but as soon as we reached one of the many make shift camps we were declared wives.”
Like animals in a market place the leaders paired them in jungle matrimony to bloodthirsty rebel soldiers. “The man I was given was about thirty years and I was only 12. Like a ravenous animal he pounced on me subjecting me to excruciating pain in my private part that l will never forget. It was not love making. I was being raped. After sometime I had to resign to this painful, dehumanizing life. What else could I do,” she posed resignedly.
“Any girl, who dared resist was shot dead as everybody watched,” she recollected, a choking pain of anger splitting her voice into a hoarse delivery.
Along the way, as they moved northern from one camp to the other, she got a first hand experience of human tragedy in the hands of bloodletting rebels that have incessantly tormented her ever since then.
“From the day of the abduction I was to stay in the bush for the next three years during which time I saw raw human rage consume many innocent lives.”
In the bush any person who grew weak was shot dead and left to rot there or for the body be consumed by wild animals like hyenas. Some of the areas they passed, Ajok remembered, had human bones strewn all over.
“It was crystal clear from such a spot that several people had been shot dead and just left to rot away. You reach such a place and get bones and skulls spread all over sending shivers down your spine,” she stated.
If you dropped down any of the looted property because you could bear the weight no more, the soldiers turned and snuffed life out of you instantly in a hail of bullets.
Barefoot, Ajok and many other captives soldiered on in places full of thorns, waded through the long dew filled grass and swampy regions.
“We walked barefoot sometimes on stony dry places at times in swamps or on thorns and if you got exhausted and could not proceed any more you were shot dead or tied to a tree trunk to wither off and die, and many died. Many died in places where they were abandoned tied to tree trunks or if you were lucky you were found by government soldiers in pursuit of rebels,” she said.
Many girls got pregnant and gave birth like animals in the bush. There were no hospitals, no midwives. After birth you healed naturally. “And quite often the so called husbands slept with you even before you healed, and there was no room for otherwise. It was cruel. It was the rule of the gun,” Ajok shuddered as she uttered the words.
It was a life of uncertainty and suspicion; you never stayed in one location for long and even immediately after birth you were forced to be on the move.
“We were forced to kill children in the bush. The soldiers could order us to kill some children for hampering our quick movement. We strangled many to death. I did things that I hardly would want to remember yet I did them and I no longer feel like I am a human being.”
Sometimes when people had been killed they were forced to place them in a row and walk over them in rounds. “We made forth and back movements on bodies with their fresh wounds oozing blood.”
Today she lives in a single mud walled grass thatched hovel, which belongs to her elder sister, at the Anaka IDPs center. The center sprung up in neighborhood and when she left there were not many people but on coming back she found it teeming with men, women and children displaced by a senseless war.
Anaka IDPs camp where Ajok lives

In the area they are suffering from many health problems due to the atrocious civil war; respiratory tract infections and water borne diseases like diaorrhea, malaria which has killed three members of their one room household that now houses six
“I have seen hunger, poverty, diseases kill people. I have seen people tortured and brutally murdered. I have seen children strangled to death. I know what this kind of insanity means to people, especially women and children. Yet the world is looking at us from a far,” she said with a blank stare on her face.
A total orphan-her father was shot dead before she was abducted by the rebel soldiers while the mother died when a landmine blew up a pubic vehicle they were traveling in-Ajok was impregnated while in the bush.
She was later released to go home. “As war intensified they did not like those with children because we were making their movements slow and this is how we regained our freedom.”
The father of her son born in the wilderness and is now ten years old was shot dead by government soldiers in hot pursuit.
After their release the three reunited on their way back and by stroke of luck they met government soldiers. The soldiers took them to a camp called Aler, a short distance from Gulu town, before word was sent out to other camps. Her elder sister got the news and went for her.
With no formal education or any skill she is now finding life extremely difficult with three children; two born after she returned back to care for. “Without parents, no job, three children to care for and not being registered with the World Food Programme for food rations life is turning unbearable,” she stated.
Although she is trying a bit of cultivation in sorghum, finger millet, maize, cassava and potatoes the total breakdown in the socio-economic structure of this area makes life exceedingly difficult for majority of the people in this camp.
Ajok hates war. “War is bad, it's destructive. There are many skeletons out there of people who would still be alive were it not for this madness. If I could talk to Kony I would ask him to surrender and bring this senseless maiming, killing and suffering to the people of northern Uganda to an end,” she wished.
Ajok is the personification of what a senseless war can do to the young. She symbolizes the devastation and poverty emanating from a murderous rebel outfit on the loose and what the destruction of socio-economic and political systems of an area can do and the urge to positively push on in life.
The writer is the winner of the English-Speaking Africa and the Middle East region for the 2008 REUTERS-IUCN Media Awards for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. He can be reached at or
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Monday, August 02, 2010

Appreciate ordinary protectors of ecosystems

By Ochieng’ Ogodo


[NAIROBI] No doubt, some of those who live and farm next to important ecosystems conserve and protect these natural systems that are endowed with multifunctional life supporting services.
According to Thomas Yatich of the Nairobi-based World Agroforestry Centre, ecosystems provide critical services but the communities who conserve and influence the quality and quantity of their life supporting products are hardly recognized.
“The services include provisionary ones such as timber, food and fibre, regulatory services such as microclimatic and carbon cycles, supportive ones such as soil fertility and those mediated by culture like the Kaya Bombo forest protected for its cultural values,” said Yatich.
However, the ecosystems, according to Yatich, have become degraded over time, as have the services associated with them. Evolutionary and political reasons as well as inadequate policy framework, among other factors, account for this.
In the pre-colonial period, said Yatich, most ecosystems remained intact because of traditional structures and values governing natural resources. “But in the colonial days people were translocated into lowlands, and forests were turned into farmland for products that were exported to Europe,” he said.
After independence, Africans who took leadership perfected the colonial regulations. Land use driven by policies, like those on food security, turned more forest areas into agricultural land. “Population increase led to high demand for food and, therefore, a move to convert more forested areas into to agricultural lands,” said Yatich, adding, “Innovations like the shamba system were aimed at addressing food security and forestation but farmers killed trees to prolong their stay on such lands.”
There has also been the failure of linkages between extension services and farmers’ land use methods in different agroecological zones. While there have been some multi-sectoral acts and policies, these have not only been inadequate but also done little to protect ecosystems.
But even bigger, according to Yatich, has been the lack of appreciation of the role of farmers in different ecological zones. Farmers have been reciprocating government demands, but their roles in influencing the quality and quantity of specific ecosystem services have not been recognized.
“For instance, do Nairobi residents appreciate farmers in upland areas that give them water” Yatich posed. The lack of appreciation can also be blamed on beneficiaries of those services like utility companies providing water, electricity, among others.
Poor linkages between policy and science manifest themselves in farmers upstream pursuing destructive land use practices that would not have happened had they been appreciated and rewarded.
Farmers’ activities upstream can cause water contamination and devastation of ecosystems, which in turn interferes with hydroelectric production.
The law might be clear in relation to protection of landscapes, but the enforcement is wanting and there is disconnect between law and practice.
Appreciate protectors of ecosystems
The World Agroforestry Centre, Yatich said, is now working on mechanisms to put acceptance and appreciation of farmers at the center of ecosystems protection. If implemented, this will result in less harmful land uses and make beneficiaries appreciate farmers’ roles.
The scheme, he said, was introduced in Southeast Asia to reward upland farmers for environmental services they produce.
The Centre is now pioneering this approach in Africa through seven sites including Sasumwa catchment and the upper Aberdares in Kenya where sedimentation and contamination are acute.
“If you reward farmers then you can save a lot,” observed Yatich who is now advocating for a structured appreciation of farmers by utility firms. In western Kenya in the Nyando and Yala river basins, the Centre has been carrying out scientific analysis since 1999. Similar activity is being conducted in Mount Kenya east, the main source of hydropower in the country.
In Tanzania, the Centre is working in the east and west Usambaras, Gulugurus Mountains, and in Uganda the Centre is active in the Albertine rift. West Africa has the Futajalon islands as a targeted area and in Malawi the project is located in Nchitsi district.
Site level enforcement establishes the state of the ecosystem, the existing ecosystem services and what can be done to reverse deterioration. Watershed delineation, land use mapping and other much needed activities are being carried out. “We identify the hotspots through land degradation assessment. We do hydrological analysis for changes caused by land use as well as water quality assessment and environmental acidity. We carry out socio-economic analyses as well,” stated Yatich.
“If you come up with scenarios on the impact to farmers, and the cost of transition and project money that utility companies will save, then you would draft a reward scheme for better land uses such as contour faming, agroforestry and planting trees. These will ultimately reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”
But solid scientific evidence is needed to design a work plan, incentive mechanisms for the reward scheme, and to create institutional means that bring producers of ecosystem services and beneficiaries together for the betterment of ecosystems, and their sustainable use.
“There is potential for changing farming methods through the provision of extension services, encouraging sustainable practices, and offering incentives for organic farming,” he said.
“This is a process that fosters collective action and collective learning, and social capital is required for increased cover and reduced runoff,” said Yatich.
It also entails monitoring the impact of trees planted, and can show beneficiaries the important role of farmers so that they “invest in recognition.”
Need for a policy framework
Bits and pieces of acts and policies exist, but there is need for a comprehensive policy framework that fosters the kind of work the Centre is active in. “We are being systematic and this is crucial for the kind of action we are piloting across Africa.”
“We started in 2008 and now we have site level implementing staff,” he said. The World Bank, European Union, International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the Government of Finland and national partners, including national governments, are implementing partners.
The Centre periodically engages with the private sector to increase awareness of the interplay between ecosystems and businesses. The World Agroforestry Centre coordinates and manages the programme and ensures quality science, provides capacity building, leveraging expertise and technical support (tools, approaches and methodologies), guarantees proper implementation of project activities in different sites, and is accountable to donors.

Agroforesty centre efforts to reverse African soil nutrients depletion

By Ochieng’ Ogodo

[NAIROBI] For a continent where millions of people depend on agriculture as a source of livelihood and economic gains, the prospect of depleted soil fertility is not something one wants to hear.

But African soils are fast becoming nutrient deficient with low yields spelling a bleak future for many. Keith Shepherd, soil scientist with the Nairobi-based World Agroforesty Centre or ICRAF, said many factors account for the worrying scenario. “The organic matter in the soil has been mined intensely but supply has been suppressed. There has been low level of nutrient input,” he said. Because of this there isn’t enough nutrient supply for crops. The decline in organic matter has led to soils becoming physically degraded and has accelerated water run-off, which erodes the richer part of soils into water bodies. “This has led to progressive decline in water quality and increased siltation, especially in lakes and dams.”

Another important soil capital, phosphorous, is inherently low and this basic problem has not been addressed in Africa as opposed to other regions such as Australia, the US and Europe.

Many soils in Africa are also sensitive, including old lake deposits, and if you do not apply good farming methods the soils will be swept away leaving large portions less productive.

“Agricultural development,” he said, “was critical for poverty alleviation in Africa but despite this, there has been a decline in investment in agriculture in the last 30 years.

Not all is lost

“Both policy makers and scientists are now waking up to this,” said Shepherd. The realization is that without reviving the agricultural sector, the majority of people in Africa will remain stuck in a whirlpool of poverty and with ever diminishing ability to adapt to modern technologies.

“A lot can be done by improving support for farmers, like making inputs widely available, creating credit and supplying higher value crops,” Shepherd pointed out.

One of the ways of addressing the problem, according to Shepherd, is through agroforestry where farmers grow trees on farms along with other crops, and can use or sell products from their trees such as timber or fruits.

There are also trees that fixing of nitrogen in the soil and act as natural fertilizers. Another example is leguminous fodder trees which are grown by farmers in many places, including around Mount Kenya, to feed to dairy cows and goats.

Trees, Shepherd explained, can also be important for stabilizing ecological systems, and farmers can benefit from woodlots and planting trees on boundaries.

The World Agroforestry Centre is now involved in many projects aimed at replenishing the diminishing African soil capital for better yields and improved livelihoods.
“One of our main projects is to contribute to the African Soil Information Service (AfSIS) to enable stakeholders to get better information on problems and opportunities relating to soils in Africa,” he said. Taking advantage of georeferencing, the scientists are now sampling and analysing soils from all over sub-Saharan Africa.

Through infra-red spectroscopy - whereby light is shone on the soil sample and the reflected light collected back as a spectral signature - together with new similar x-ray techniques, it is possible to get information on the amounts and types of minerals and chemical elements in the soil. From this, the type and quantities of nutrients in a particular area can be determined and the amount of water it can hold and thus helping to advise on optimal soil management.

Through AfSIS, the Centre and its partners are currently involved in soil survey across sub-Saharan Africa using randomly located sampling sites. Regional field crews in Tanzania, Mali, and Malawi study landforms, vegetation, and measure trees for biomass and water infiltration rates.

“This program started a year ago and is funded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), and is hosted by the Centre’s sister institute, the Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility Institute of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT-TSBF)” he explained. The project is also conducting crop testing trials to see how soils respond to fertilizers. “When we work in a particular country we train national teams from national programmes to contribute to the African Soil Information Service to help improve national services”

Advice to different stakeholders

A key goal of the World Agroforestry Centre says Shepherd, is to give advice to different stakeholders ranging from farmers to policy makers and development banks on constraints faced and appropriate land management interventions, like the right agroforestry and soil management techniques for different types of soils and locations. A key need in getting information to farmers, he said, is the building of national and private extension services for advising farmers on appropriate crops and trees, for example for acidic soils. There is also increasing opportunity, he pointed out, to get information to farmers through local internet services and mobile phone services.

At a national level, the Centre provides advice to governments in planning agricultural development programmes for different areas, in developing policies for protection of the environment, and on the role of agroforestry in these developments.

The Centre’s information is made available to the donor community and development banks to provide guidance on funding and support that they could be directed at agriculture. “Agriculture is vital for economic development, poverty alleviation and basic food security, and there will be a lot of spin-offs like processing of food and tree products for internal and external markets,” said Shepherd.

**Ochieng’ Ogodo, the Sub-Saharan Africa News Editor for ( is a Nairobi journalist whose works have been published in various parts of the world including Africa, the US and Europe. He is also English-speaking Africa and Middle East region winner for the 2008 Reuters-IUCN Media Awards for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. He can be reached at or