Gulu, IDP Camps and the Lord's Resistance Army
Trip Start Jul 25, 2006
165Trip End Ongoing
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Many of you, especially those who I befriended on this trip, especially in Africa, know who Kony is. For those of you who do not, an introduction is order.
After the overthrow of Tito Okello by the NRM forces led by Yoweri Moseveni in 1986, Uganda was thrown into chaos. Okello had been an ethnic Acholi from northern Uganda, and the Acholi dominated military had been harsh in their treatment of the insurgency and the areas associated with it
After the demise of the Holy Spirit Movement, any number of groups attempted to step into the void of northern resistance. One group and leader soon dominated - the Lord's Resistance Army (the LRA) and Joseph Kony. Kony, a relative of Alice Lakwena, claimed to have inherited the same spiritual gifts as Lakwena including the guiding voices that motivated the other. He promised to resist the south-dominated government, and to purify the Alcholi people. His guiding principles were a strange blend of spiritualism, a fundamentalist version of Christianity (especially a bizarre interpretation of the 10 Commandments), traditional Alcholi beliefs, and increasingly Islam.
The LRA soon established a reputation for brutality, with most of their attacks targeting civilian, not military targets. The LRA has generally not been an army that recruits. Instead they have kidnapped thousands of civilians, almost exclusively Alcholi and most frequently children, pressing them into service as servants, wives, and soldiers. The experiences of these children are staggeringly brutal and cruel. Beatings, killings, and other forms of torture are commonplace. Some have been forced to kill other abductees as object lessons, sometime using only their teeth or clubs. Reports of children having to watch, or even kill, their own families have been reported, in some instances, the children being forced to eat the boiled flesh of their own parents. These stories are horrible and heart rending. I encourage you to read more to educate yourself. I have a Danish friend, Theo, who has been interviewing former child soldiers and abductees in northern Uganda. Follow this link to read the story of one child soldier "Norman" - http://filmforchange.vox.com/library/post/monkey-adventures. html. Sadly, this is one of thousands of similar stories. I also encourage you to read "Scars of Death", a report on child abductees' stories by Human Rights Watch written in 1997. It can be found at http://www.hrw.org/reports97/uganda/.
Despite the targeting of civilians and the terrible atrocities wrought by the LRA, there has been a reluctance to resist the LRA or cooperate with the Ugandan government by many Alcholi in the north
As a result of this conflict, now approaching 20 years, hundreds of thousands of people have fled their villages and towns in fear of their lives. For years now, these people have been living in IDP camps (Internally Displaced People). These camps can have tens of thousands of inhabitants, living in crowded, dirty, desperately poor circumstances. While initially set up for increased security, there have been hundreds of reports of LRA attacks, crime, even incidents where it is claimed the UDF, the ones charged with protecting the inhabitants, have been the perpetrators
While living in Kampala, I had met many people working or volunteering for various NGO's operating in Uganda. Many of these were centred in the north, with Gulu being the most common place. As I lived in Uganda, I had been learning more and more about the LRA, the conflicts in the north, and the general situation facing many of the common people. I had met people who worked in the IDP camps trying to alleviate some of the worst conditions. I knew people who worked with former abductees and child soldiers, trying to counsel them and aid them in transitioning back into society. This was particularly difficult because often these child soldiers had seen their families killed and had no one to go home to. They were often wracked with guilt over the atrocities they had seen or committed themselves, and often were viewed with distrust or animosity by people back in the towns.
Since coming to Africa, my opinions on NGO's has been challenged. While I feel there are undoubtedly many NGO's that are doing good work in Africa, I feel many are causing more problems in the long run than they are solving. I am not alone in this, as an increasing number of books and studies have found many NGO's to be participating in something amounting to humanitarian colonialism
I believe it is important to think for yourself. I have always tried to reinforce in my students the need for critical thinking, awareness of bias, checking of sources, et cetera when forming opinions. As such, I felt it important to go to Gulu myself and see some of what I could. I wanted to meet with some NGO's, see Gulu, and try to understand more of the situation. I will say this up front - I am an ignorant child compared to most of the African and foreign people who have dedicated their lives to the situation in northern Uganda, but I still feel the need, whenever possible, to see and understand for myself.
On the way to Gulu, I was reminded once again, that many parts of Africa are not "tame" by Canadian standards. On the bus, about an hour from Gulu, I received a text message from a friend asking if I was ok and had made it to Gulu yet. I jokingly replied "Not there yet. But so far no one has shot at us yet." It was about twenty minutes later when the man next to me opened his newspaper and the headline "Passengers Survive Bus Shooting in Gulu" popped out at me. With the exception of a few near accidents (the norm, not the exception in Uganda) I arrived without incident.
Over the next few days, I had a chance to renew some old acquaintances, and make some new ones. I managed to connect with James, an American working with an NGO called Invisible Children that I had met in Kampala. He invited me to meet him and some others for dinner that night. Invisible Children is an NGO that was started after the popularity of a documentary of the same name was filmed in northern Uganda and released in America to significant attention. Some had accused the documentary of being sensationalistic; stylish but lacking substance and hard facts. Regardless, it was instrumental in bringing attention to the plight of northern Uganda, and soon after Invisible Children the NGO was founded. I had met a number of people who either worked for, or volunteered for Invisible Children
That night at dinner, I met up again with an American named Peter. Spare me a moment to speak about Peter. Peter was formerly a soldier who served in the original Gulf War. His experiences there and personal convictions, have led him to become a conscientious objector. Shortly after 9/11 he became an air marshal in the U.S., flying undercover on domestic flights to prevent any other acts of hijacking. He had come to Uganda looking to volunteer. Once there, he found himself also wanting to learn more about the country and its issues. Peter had arranged to go to one of the IDP camps the next day where Invisible Children had a project running. I was kindly asked to come along.
The next morning Peter and I met and went out to the headquarters of Invisible Children. We spent a bit of time there, meeting staff and learning more about the scope of IC's projects. I asked James what he knew and thought about the reason for the poor localized reputation that Invisible Children had
The trip to the IDP camp was interesting. The camp we went to was very close to Gulu town, and to my understanding, one of the best maintained and well off
The next day, Peter and I went to an orphanage out of town run by a catholic group. We met two young American volunteers, Nick and Haley, who showed us around. We went over to the baby house where the youngest orphans lived. It was feeding time when we arrived, and as a result of their creative and energetic methods of transferring food to their mouths, it was bath time after. I was able to take some photos, and was quite moved by the little ones. Most of these children had been orphaned due to the fighting that had scourged the countryside, although some had been abandoned due to desperate economic conditions and the inability of their parents to care for them.
Some people have pointed to the issue of tribalism as one of the major issues facing Africa
In December 2003, the UN Secretary General for Human Affairs, Jan Egeland described the humanitarian situation in Northern Uganda as the "worst forgotten and neglected in the whole world". There is some hope. Currently incidents of violence with the LRA have been very quiet
I only spent a few days in Gulu. I did not have enough time to fully grasp the scope of what is happening here. This has been a long entry, but it doesn't remotely scratch the surface of the issues in this beautiful country of wonderful people with a heart rending past and present. I will say this, I will keep trying to learn more. You should too.