During the period of the LRA insurgency in northern Uganda, there was a nightly migration of over 30,000 children from their villages to the relative safety of nearby towns. Just so they could sleep without fearing abduction, they left their parents for the night and walked miles as the sun set to sleep in bus stops, churches, parks, and anywhere they could find. As it got darker during the migration, they began to run faster and faster to reach town before nightfall. In the morning, they made the trek back home to their fields and communities to work, and if they were lucky, make it to school.
But even worse were the conditions of internally displaced person camps, when families were forced to leave their residences within 48 hours and move to little crowded huts, away from their fields and source of livelihood. A professor from Gulu University, Dr. Kitara Lagoro, told us that by 9 am, the men with no work were all drunk. By noon, the women became drunk. And by 3 pm, most of the children were drunk too. The camps were intended for the protection of northern Ugandans against the LRA, but in reality, the national soldiers would flee when they saw the LRA coming. Civilians were encouraged to sound alarms when they saw LRA, but unfortunately, so many people who did so had their hands or lips cut off by soldiers in a grotesque interpretation of the Bible verse describing how a part of the body that sins should be metaphorically cut off. The IDP camps, in reality, made the work of the LRA easier. When people were congregated together and living in poverty, looting and abductions were much easier. One and a half million people lived in these camp conditions, which have been called a “breeding ground for hopelessness.”
We also met with Martin Ojara, a district chairperson in Gulu who met with Kony and the LRA during the 2006-2008 peace talks in the DRC. He told us that Kony was very defensive when told about the suffering in Acholiland, and he tried to say he had not done it. But, the actions of the LRA were well-known and felt in northern Uganda. Ojara said, “you see two faces. You see Kony the killer and Kony the nice guy. When you are talking to him, he is very nice and very persuasive. But his words and his actions are not the same. He is very unpredictable.” This is a man who believes he is sent by God to liberate his northern Ugandan people from the oppressive regime of Museveni. However, he has abducted and raped and murdered and looted from his own people.
During the insurgency, there were over 300 NGOs in Gulu town. However, most of the NGOs were designed for emergency response, and when the conflict quieted down, hardly one tenth of the organizations remained. As Dr. Kitara said, “when the guns fell silent, the NGOs ran away. But then was their greatest duty to help settle down the population that has been displaced.” During resettlement, most of the aid came from international funds and NGO initiatives. A young adult returning from the LRA would have typically been given amnesty, two weeks at a reception center with first aid and basic counseling, assistance with family training, and a returnee package containing a few household items, some seeds, and $100. How is a traumatized child supposed to start a life for him or herself with such little support? Even today, there is no specific re-entry program, and the offer of amnesty has expired. This leaves the most pressing needs of northern Ugandan communities unaddressed:
– education and livelihood support, particularly secondary school scholarships and accelerated adult education
– child care for the children of mothers seeking education or vocational training
– microfinancing and support for the creation of small businesses
– specialized health services and psychosocial support, especially alcohol and drug addiction support and care for war injuries
– targeted mental health services beyond traditional/religious ceremonies (According to Dr. Kitara, there are only two qualified psychiatrists in northern Uganda.) (One traditional Acholi reconciliation ceremony involves two communities drinking out of the same calabash full of a bitter brew to symbolize the difficulty of forgiveness and acceptance after the loss of loved ones and to help victims and those involved with violence live together again.)
However, though there is so much work to be done, there is also such hope for progress. Dr. Kitara said, “all is not finished. Something can be done. The impossible is often untried.” Recovery in this region, he said, is like a snail. It is small, and moving from one place to another is difficult. But the snail knows himself, and readjusts, and stretches across the gaps. Eventually he finds himself in his new place. Northern Uganda is moving towards recovery. But progress is slow without a unified national initiative. This makes the work of community reintegration efforts all the more critical.