Gulu, IDP Camps and the Lord's Resistance Army

Trip Start Jul 25, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Uganda  ,
Sunday, March 25, 2007

I'm a peaceful man. Talk to most people and I think they will say I'm generally a laid back, easy going guy. With few exceptions, I don't believe violence is an answer to anything. I've never been in a physical fight in my life, but have broken up one or two. Despite this, I truly believe if you put Joseph Kony next to me and gave me a pistol, I could put a bullet in his head and sleep peacefully that night.

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 rebellion, many from this region began to fear (and at times with good reason), a backlash against the north and the Acholi people. A number of groups were formed to resist this new government in Kampala. The most successful, making it all the way to Jinja before being defeated, was the Holy Spirit Movement headed by Alice Lakwena. Lakwena (the name of her advising spirit - a dead Italian army officer) anointed her troops with shea butter, telling them it would cause bullets to bounce off them. This group did remarkably well against the new government, coming within 60 miles of Kampala before the army decisively showed that shea butter was not match against artillery and machine guns.

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" - 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

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. Many Alcholi see a massacre of LRA by government forces to be a massacre of victims, as most of their soldiers are (or were) children abducted from villages and towns in the north. The moral complexity of this is agonizing, as it is clear that many of these victimized children are the ones now doing much of the atrocities the LRA are accused of committing. There is still a strong resentment towards the Kampala government of Museveni as well, which is seen as very anti-Alcholi, and is yet another complication in resisting the LRA. The LRA, for their part, has been very good at avoiding being drawn into direct confrontations with the brunt of Uganda's forces. Kony and his forces have migrated between Southern Sudan (where they have reportedly been supported by the government of Khartoum because they engaged in conflict with the Southern Sudanese rebel group the SPLA), northern Ugandan, the Congo, and even some reports of being in the Central African Republic.

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. Food is scarce, with much of the population of these camps relying on meagre government handouts and assistance from the World Food Programme. It is painfully clear that without the assistance of the World Food Programme, there would be massive malnutrition and deaths. The WFP announced this past winter that it was running out of money and unless it received an injection from outside sources, it would have to cut back on already dangerously low levels of calories per person.

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. Those agencies, I believe, who come to Africa, maintain huge expatriate staffs, and have massive, expensive, and ultimately, unsustainable projects are doing more damage than good. While undoubtedly well intentioned, I believe there is occasionally a lingering, vaguely racist, belief that the natives can't help themselves, therefore we will come in and do it for them. Nine months in Africa has shown me clearly that there is nothing inherently stupid, incapable, or lazy about the people I have encountered. What is needed is education and opportunity, and a level playing field. Sustainable, African driven development is needed. To put it another way - they need shoes, but they don't need us to tie their laces.

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. I had also met a number of people who worked with other organizations in the north, and Invisible Children was not held in high regard. The enthusiasm of those volunteering and working with Invisible Children combined with the generally negative opinion of those outside the organization, made me curious to know more about them.

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. His honesty and his answers impressed me. He said, frankly, that mistakes had been made. In the heady atmosphere of the documentary's success, a general invitation had been made to Americans -"Come to Africa, see Uganda, help!" The call was answered, and many Americans came to northern Ugandan hoping to do good. Unfortunately, many of these came with a profound lack of political and cultural understanding, and with a sense of behaviour that was a source of upset to many of the Alcholi in the north as well as the NGO community. Accusations of disaster tourism were bandied about as large groups of Americans with clicking cameras traipsed through IDP camps. James said they realized their mistakes, and were working hard to repair relationships and improve the practices of the NGO. People could no longer simply pay money and show up to volunteer. Volunteers were screened and went through a six week education and training process. Their bracelet campaign (people from the camps made bracelets that were sold in America to fundraise) had been expanded, and they had some excellent initiatives centred around education they were developing. I was impressed, both with the candidness of James, and with the organization's willingness to accept criticism and make changes. More organizations need this willingness to learn and change.

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. We were taken to a large hut where about 30-40 people were making bracelets that would be sent to the States to be sold to fund projects and development in the camps. The atmosphere was friendly, with banter and laughter rippling around the room. The bracelet makers were predominately women, but men and children also sat around weaving away. We were introduced and James thanked everyone for their work. I asked if I could take a few photos (my on going issues with people photography kept me from snapping away like a lunatic), and was given permission. After about 30 minutes, we returned to Gulu.

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. There is undoubtedly a feeling of mistrust by people of the north concerning people from the south and especially the west (which not coincidentally Museveni comes from). I have heard people in the south make disparaging remarks about the Alcholi in the north, ranging from their violent natures to the women being somehow less beautiful. While in Gulu I had the opportunity to meet (again, thanks to Peter) an Alcholi man who worked for OCHA (the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs). Over dinner, he told us about the challenges faced by those in the north. He had lost brothers and sisters to the LRA. He was passionate about the need for change and peace in the north. He said the biggest problems were other Ugandans. He said the people in the south were stupid, but the people from the west were the worst. I gently made the observation that many people believed that tribalism, and a mistrust of other tribes in Uganda was one of the major issues facing the country. "You are absolutely correct. But people from the west are still bad people, and you can not trust them." This type of sentiment is rife, and hard to argue against.

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. The LRA recently agreed to extend a truce with the Ugandan government to the end of June, and resume peace talks. In the past, these talks have often been an opportunity for Kony and LRA to regroup and re-arm. One hopes this time can possibly give real results. Surprisingly, the people in northern Uganda are the ones least interested in seeing Kony be brought to justice (a few years ago, at the request of the Ugandan government, Kony was indicated as for Crimes against Humanity by the International Criminal Court in the Hague). They are more interested in peace first, then justice.

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.
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