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A Report from Northern Uganda

Excerpt from Traveling Fellowship Update

"We will not learn to live together in peace by killing each other's children." — Former US President Jimmy Carter

A Rescued Child Soldier in Uganda.
A rescued child soldier at the World Vision Rehabilitation Centre in Gulu, Uganda. The scar on her head is from a bullet grazing her skin when she was a soldier for the Lord's Resistance Army.

Now, after sleeping for 12 hours, I find myself with enough energy to begin processing the atrocities I saw firsthand in Northern Uganda. I have repeatedly looked at the photos and video interviews from the town of Gulu. I hope that the next time I view them, I will learn something to help me find answers. But there are no answers. Looking into the eyes of the women and children I met takes me back to Gulu and their pain and suffering. Looking deep into the children's eyes, I wonder what those eyes have seen. Undoubtedly, there are many things no human being should ever see. Their eyes tell their story; the children are empty, their bodies just shells filled with pain. The killings, the rapes, the emotional manipulation, and the starvation took their souls long ago.

Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, is perpetrating an atrocious war against his own people while pursuing the larger goal of overthrowing the Ugandan government. He is a member of the Acholi tribe. He targets the Acholi in his attacks, reportedly to punish them for their sins (the main sins being their lack of support for his movement, their poverty, and their supposed low status amongst the other Ugandan tribes). His strange tactic of annihilating his own people has left other tribes nearly unaffected. Because the ethnic groups of Uganda are geographically divided, the rest of the country continues to develop while Kony keeps the North paralyzed. How does he hope to achieve his ultimate goal of overthrowing Museveni and establishing a government based on the Ten Commandments if he only attacks the Acholi tribe in the North while the government is based in the southern capital city of Kampala? The strategy is incoherent, but it maintains Kony's power.

While in Gulu, I joined a group of women sitting in the World Vision Rehabilitation Center reception office. I asked one woman how long she had been in the bush. She responded, "Four days," and quickly added that four days in the bush was equivalent to four years. It was as if she had to justify her pain and sorrow because she was surrounded by women who had been in the bush for much longer, some even twelve years. Why did she feel that she needed to give this justification? Maybe four days of abduction wouldn't seem like it was legitimately traumatic when the government of Uganda and the rest of the world have allowed this war to rage and these abductions to continue for 20 years.

When I arrived in Gulu, I realized the road from Kampala to the North was the nicest I had traveled in Uganda, far nicer than the more frequently used road to the International Airport. The Bank of Uganda, which deals with all international donors, has built a new state-of-the-art building in the center of the city. The building is clearly out of place when contrasted with neighboring Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps or the field where 30,000 street children are forced to sleep each night.

Ugandan Children in Internally Displaced Person Camp.
A young boy from Bobi Internally Displaced Persons Camp in Gulu, Uganda.

And what about the Acholi Inn, a profitable hotel owned by a top Ugandan military general who fills his rooms with Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels who have defected and promised foreign visitors security his military can't promise the Ugandans? And why, as a visitor, can I sleep peacefully while only 12 kilometers away, twenty Ugandans are slaughtered in an IDP camp? To me, the pieces don't complete the puzzle. President Museveni has shown little resolve to win, or even fight, this war. As illustrated by the beautiful road to Gulu, Museveni and the Ugandan government aren't opposed to reaping the profits from international assistance.

I live in Uganda and have grown to love Ugandans. As a "local," I feel responsible for the well-being of the community in which I live, which includes not only the southern region that I inhabit but also the war-torn areas of the North. For native Ugandans, however, national pride doesn't necessarily translate into concern for another tribe's bloody conflict.

Author carrying a Ugandan infant.
The author carries Sisipho, an infant who lived at a home for abused women and children, the African way.

President Museveni is no different from other Ugandan nationalists, and his failure to act in Northern Uganda has perpetuated a horrific war on women and children within his own country. The Ugandan people are considering an amendment to the constitution that will eliminate presidential term limits, effectively paving the way for his ambition to hold the post into the foreseeable future. What will motivate Ugandans to demand peace and moral leadership?

Leaving the World Vision Rehabilitation Center for Child Soldiers in Gulu, I was greeted by a young boy. It became apparent that he was exceptional. Surprisingly, he spoke excellent English and told me how he had spent the past year. Phillip, who is twelve years old, was abducted when he was eleven years old and spent a year and a half in the bush with the rebels. After talking to him for 45 minutes, I asked him if I could videotape the rest of our conversation. He agreed, and I had a powerful 30-minute interview with him on camera. He answered every question I asked in English and in detail. Towards the end of the interview, I asked him if he had ever seen one of his friends killed. He misunderstood my question and thought I asked if he had ever killed one of his friends. He gave a detailed account of the night he was forced to stone to death a 16-year-old girl who was his best friend. I felt my skin begin to crawl as he described having an AK-47 shoved into the back of his head and stones put in his hands. One of the last questions I asked Phillip was, "If you could say anything to the people in America what would you say?" Phillip responded, "We, the children of Uganda, are created in the same vision of God as your children. Help us like we are your children." A day does not pass that I don't think about Phillip. I wonder where he is, what he is doing, if he is safe, and if his heart is beginning to heal.

Returning to Kampala from Gulu, my bus crossed the Nile River. I wondered how many southern Ugandans had recently crossed the Nile to experience what their fellow Ugandans in the North were facing. I looked at the awe-inspiring view out my window with mixed emotions. How could such a beautiful creation represent the suffering this country has faced? During Idi Amin's dictatorship, the bridge that we crossed was used to dispose of bodies by tossing them into the raging rapids, where the Nile crocodiles quickly eliminated all evidence. The exact location serves as a geographical separation between the thriving South and the dismal North. When will Ugandans and the international community use this bridge to connect the country rather than avoid the rough waters that divide it?

Kristin Fleshner wrote this as an excerpt from her story after participating in 2004-2005 with the Vanderbuilt Travel Fellowship.

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