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Living with fear

By Mubatsi Asinja Abati

Karimajong rustlers send Teso cattle herders back to IDP camps

As thefts increase, cattle herders in the Teso sub-region of north east Uganda have since January been bringing their stout, short-horned cattle to community kraals every evening instead of keeping them at home.

They hope to thwart renewed armed Karimajong cattle rustling incursions in the region which had by late June left four residents and nine warriors killed and hundreds of cattle stolen.

The renewed attacks compelled the Inspector General of Police Maj. Gen. Kale Kayihura, to personally travel to Katakwi district in late June to morale boost his forces in the Field Force Unit (previously the Anti Stock Theft Unit), which is a combined force of UPDF soldiers and police personnel combating the rustlers.

The herders feel safer around the community kraals because they are in most cases around internally displaced persons (IDP) camps and are guarded by the police. Experience has taught them that the Karimojong cattle rustlers rarely attack such places.

The herders, out of fear of Karimajong attacks, also pass the night in the IDP camps and commute to their homes in the morning. They work in the fields up to 3pm before heading back to the camps. Schools in hard-hit sub-counties of Ongongoja, Ngariam, Magoro and Palam also close early to allow school children join their parents in the commute to the camps. Katakwi’s sub-counties neighbouring Karamoja districts of Napak, Moroto and Nakapiripit are the most hit. Over 500 head of cattle have been stolen.

Capt. John Odongo, the District Internal Security Officer of Katwiki, says up to 92 head of cattle were stolen in January in 15 incidences, 37 were stolen in February in 17 incidences, 139 stolen in March in 17 incidences, 164 in April in 35 incidences, 98 were stolen in May in 45 incidences, and as of June 25 at least 69 head of cattle had been stolen in 19 incidences.

Teso’s border areas with Karamoja have for the last 50 years borne the brunt of cattle rustling and residents have lived in squalid IDP camps protected by police and the army, UPDF. A few who could afford to buy land elsewhere have evacuated to safer places. The insecurity has disrupted agricultural activities, and led to food insecurity and poverty.

Since 2009, however, the cattle raids had subsided and people who had been in IDP camps had just begun settling back in their homes. The new attacks are scuttling their attempt to rebuild.

The attacks began early this year on an almost daily basis in spite of the police presence.

Sometimes people have been attacked while in the fields. James Okiror, a resident of Apuuton village in Ngariam Sub-county, escaped from five Karimajong raiders who had abducted him on June 27 in his garden as he was weeding groundnuts. When Okiror escaped he went to the Antistock Theft Unit of the police detach nearby but they could not pursue the warriors citing limited manpower issues. Stories akin to Okiror’s abound in Katakwi.

“The theft of cattle by Karimajong opens scars we have lived with for 40 years which has created insecurity and halted our development,” says Okiror, “When there is insecurity farming and other activities are disrupted.”

The police claim to be short of staff despite a redeployed force in the area late June. The police had been withdrawn to provide election security and quell high food and fuel prices riots that broke out soon after the February elections.

“There was a gap in security deployment during the walk-to-work protests as most of the police personnel were taken back to Kampala and other hot spot towns,” says Mark Elobat, LC III chairman Palam sub-county.

The renewed Karimojong raids are partially a result of the successful government and donor funded disarmament process in Karamoja region which has pushed the rustlers to the less secured Teso region.

George Okitoi, the LC III chairman of Ongongoja sub-county Katakwi district, says the new wave of cattle rustling is characterised by small bands of Karimajong warriors who sneak in and steal a few animals.

“If there are ten animals in the kraal they can choose four best ones and leave the rest,” he says.

Silver Emoluit, chairman Katakwi District Development Actors Network, says the police are not doing enough to protect the people. “Soldiers and police are always patrolling during the day but at night you find ten cows stolen.”

However, the commander of Field Force Unit in this sub-county, Inspector of Police Joseph Oguti, says as the war-ravaged Republic of South Sudan, which has been a major source of illicit guns used by the raiders, becomes peaceful the warriors now come with fewer. He says the region will eventually attain peace. “You can find five warriors with two guns”.

Capt. Odongo also downplays the renewed incursions arguing they are cattle theft and not raids. He says whereas there are infiltrations by Karimajong rustlers especially from Kotido district, they come in small numbers and at worst steal ten animals.

“We no longer have IDP camps in this region,” he says, “The areas that used to be camps have been turned into trading centres.”

Although the incidents of cattle thefts show an escalating problem, Odongo says commercial reasons are behind the cattle thefts as some of the animals have been recovered in markets as far as Juba in South Sudan.  According to Odongo of the 499 animals that have been stolen, 292 had been recovered.

Despite Odongo’s success figures, the residents are clamouring for the security for their lives and animals and the right to live in their homes and attend to their fields.

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