Karimojong cattle raids

The vast, arid area in the far north-east of Uganda is inhabited by the Karimojong, a mainly nomadic, warrior cattle people. They have traditionally moved south with their herds into Teso each year during the long dry season, to find pasture and water. Part of their tradition is also to raid cattle from neighbouring clans and tribes, particularly the Iteso.

The Iteso are also traditionally cattle people, but they settled on the land and developed new methods of agriculture, including growing cash crops. Before the mid-1980s, it was common for Iteso families to own about 100 cattle each and their whole economy was based on cattle.

As a result of the coup in 1979, the Karimojong obtained hundreds of guns, including machine guns, and their social structure began to break down. Their cattle raiding expeditions into Teso became devastating. In the late 1980s, not only did they steal every cow in Teso (about 5 million), but they destroyed homes and crops and killed many people.


Insurgency: 1986-1992

The President, Yoweri Museveni, in an attempt to solve the serious cattle raiding, sent the army in. It seems that instead of controlling the border, many took advantage of the situation and joined in the general looting and killing. Amnesty International documented many horrendous instances of innocent families and villages being brutally murdered by soldiers. Rebel groups sprang up which then led to “insurgency”. The ordinary people of Teso were caught in the middle – they were being killed and their homes destroyed by the Karimojong, soldiers and the rebels. Hospitals and schools were looted. In 1990, hundreds of thousands of people were forcibly moved into ‘camps’ by the army, who were then instructed to operate a scorched earth policy, killing hundreds who went to look for food. [The term used for people in camps within their own region is IDPs – Internally Displaced Persons.] Initially, no provision was made in these so-called camps for shelter, food, water, sanitation, health or schooling. Thousands died in a few weeks (for instance, in the camp near Ngora, 7,000 out of 40,000 died). The population of Teso fell from one million in 1980 to just over half a million eleven years later, due to massacres, disease and refugees fleeing. The rest of the world was unaware of what was going on.


Rehabilitation: 1993-2003

Things started to improve in the late 90s. In much of Teso, away from the Karamoja border, thousands were able to move out of the camps and back to their land. However, they had to start from scratch, with little or no help or even basic equipment, because their grass-thatched houses had collapsed or been destroyed and the land was completely overgrown.


The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA): 2003-2004

A rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) started in 1986 in northern Uganda (Acholi). Their methods were brutal and included using thousands of abducted children, sometimes as young as five, as sex slaves, porters and ‘soldiers’ whom they forced to kill even their own families. They continued their reign of terror in Acholi and Lango (which borders Teso) for nearly twenty years. However, in June 2003, the LRA invaded Teso, destroying homes, killing, mutilating, raping and abducting children. Although thousands were still living in camps since the insurgency, thousands more who had returned home to start rebuilding their lives once again had to flee back to the camps and further south.

Although the LRA left Teso in 2004 (and moved out of Uganda in 2006 where they continued their brutal activities in Chad, CAR and DRC), all the progress of the past few years was destroyed and the region was once again thrown back into the conditions of the early 1990s. At the peak of the LRA activity, in 2004, there were an estimated 1.8 million IDPs in Teso and northern Uganda.


Present times

Northern and eastern regions of Uganda have been settled and peaceful for ten years now. All IDPs have returned home, apart from a few who are trapped in extreme poverty and unable to start again after so long in camps. Development is taking place, land is being cultivated and many are even able to build permanent houses with corrugated iron roofs now.

However, during the past ten years or so, Teso has increasingly suffered from climate change which frequently results in food shortages and fluctuating prices. In 2007, when much of sub-Saharan Africa was affected by terrible floods, Teso was one of the worst affected areas throughout Africa, with many of the BBC TV news reports coming from Teso. These floods were followed by three years of drought and erratic rains leading to famine and starvation. This has been happening again in the last few years.

Perhaps the only positive consequence of being forced to spend years in camps with nothing to do was the resurgence of traditional music, dancing and storytelling which, twenty years later, is once again in danger of dying out.

Written by Margaret Stevens