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Hut ablaze
Sunday, Sep. 03, 2006

Open quoteThe camp is burning in slow motion. While scant food supplies are a big problem at this hastily-built settlement at Anaka, a 2-km-square mess of tightly packed huts protected by government soldiers in the north of Uganda, a bigger one is spontaneous combustion. Here, 404 Not Found

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nginx/1.14.0 (Ubuntu)
explains a leader in the camp, where some 23,000 people displaced by the region's civil war make their homes, at least one thatched hut ignites every day. So many are burning, in fact, that most residents remove their belongings when they leave each morning for school or to cultivate crops. Their homes may be gone by the time they return and, as they have no other explanation for their hardship, they have turned to religion for answers. They believe the fires to be the work of evil spirits.

In northern Uganda, well over 1 million of the Acholi people live in camps like the one at Anaka. But a truce last week between the Ugandan government and the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (lra) offers real hope that the gruesome, almost 20-year-long power struggle is finally over. The government may finally make good on its promises to resettle camp residents.

The Acholi will do everything they can to make sure evil spirits don't follow. Northern Uganda has seen a lot of evil, at least since the (lra) began its infamous terror campaign — shortly after current President Yoweri Museveni took power in 1986 — cutting off the lips and noses of civilians to breed fear, and abducting tens of thousands of children and teens to populate the fighting forces.

Today residents at Anaka, although predominantly Christian, are skeptical that the cause of their roof fires could be anything but tangu — supernatural. While scientists might look for an explanation in the heat build-up from oxidation in the huts' thick straw thatch, camp residents claim other things have caught fire, too: articles of clothing, for example, and in some cases even children.

"A group of Norwegians came to investigate what was causing fires," says David Okot, a camp official. "As they were leaving, a new fire erupted. They went to look at it and one of their cameras burst into flames." Rumors have begun to circulate in the camp that the only way to appease the spirits is to find the most beautiful girl in Anaka and sacrifice her.

Joseph Kony, the (lra) leader, who was indicted last year by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity, has himself secured loyalty from troops by claiming the ability to channel spirits. Former rebels describe him as performing feats of magic: causing stones dipped in oil to explode when he throws them or daubing a special oil on the feet of young soldiers to help them march dozens of miles on empty stomachs.

And now that peace is slowly returning to the region, traditional Acholi beliefs may prove the best method to mop up after the brutal conflict. The struggle in northern Uganda has hopelessly blurred lines between victims and perpetrators; many of the atrocities were performed by abducted children forced to become soldiers.

Partly for that reason, the communities value reconciliation over punishment, say local leaders, aid workers and even parents whose children were abducted. When soldiers from both the (lra) and the national army, the updf, return from the bush to their homes or the defended camps, they are asked to perform a simple ceremony, stepping over branches of local trees and crushing an egg placed next to the wood. The procedure, the people claim, cleanses the soul, banishing spirits that enter the body when a person kills. Water poured in front of fighters' homes signifies that they are being welcomed back by their families. Even those northern Ugandans who don't believe in spirits can recognize the power of banishing a community's demons if it means a chance to share in the rest of Uganda's peace and relative prosperity.

At Anaka, the rumored plans for human sacrifice may be averted if peace improves conditions quickly enough. Among the Acholi, even those who found sense in their struggle through spirituality or politics, few will miss the camps. "We are ready to go," says Janani Okello, 59, a former teacher who arrived at Anaka in 1990. The fear of fires in the camp now outweighs the fear of the world outside. That's progress, of a kind. Close quote

  • What's causing the unexplained fires in one camp of refugees from Uganda's brutal, long-running civil war?
Photo: JONATHAN WOODWARD | Source: It took decades to get a cease-fire in Uganda's brutal civil war. Now refugees are hoping the fires will cease