The entire reason I applied for the Uganda/Rwanda program was to study in Rwanda. To me, the Uganda unit was incidental, just a month detour before the real program would begin. While not an expert in post-conflict issues in Rwanda by any means, my knowledge of the situation in Uganda was even more limited.
It’s difficult to quantify what I’ve learned in the last month. I feel like I’ve learned as much about myself as I have about post-conflict transformation, which is nice for me but does absolutely nothing to benefit anyone else. While in Gulu, I saw the devastating effects of 23 years of war up-close on an intimate level and it is impossible not to leave slightly different than when you arrived, even if I have yet to realize exactly I have changed.
During my three weeks in Gulu I saw people still living in the IDP camps, forcefully removed from their homes years ago and placed in cramped and squalid living conditions. During the height of LRA attacks, as much as 85% of the Acholi population was uprooted and displaced from their homes. As many, if not more people died in the camps from disease and malnutrition as from the direct violence of the war. While many people have left the camps since the violence has ended, many are still stuck in the same terrible environment, without the means to leave and start over. Empty packets of alcohol littered the ground of all the IDP camps we visited, leaving me feeling deeply conflicted. On one hand, I was angry that what little money available was going towards alcohol rather than feeding starving people or sending children to school. Yet, at the same time, it is impossible to ignore the fallout of deep psychological trauma as the result of years of violence, trauma that is hardly being addressed or treated. The saying was that during the conflict the men would be drunk by 10 am, the women drunk by 2 pm, and the children drunk by 6 pm. I doubt that the saying was much of an exaggeration.
At the same time as seeing the stagnant despair still permeating the IDP camps, I also I saw people trying to go back to their villages, but facing new problems living on their own after years of dependency on foreign aid. Agoro was just one if many viliages that don’t have the resources to combat years lost to the camps. With the violence over, many NGO’s are pulling out of the area, taking aid with them. After years of surviving on handouts, people now have no idea how to provide for themselves. And as people begin to leave the camps, many violent land disputes are springing up. While we were in Gulu, news reached us of three deaths related to a land issue, when one member of a family locked his grandmother and two young cousins in a hut and burned it to the ground. I’ve met adults who had been abducted as children, met teenage mothers recently returned from the bush, seen massacre sites, and met survivors. I’ve gained an Acholi family and now know the ghosting shadow of what it means to hold that identity.
Even with the LRA gone from Northern Uganda, they are still not gone from East Africa. It is estimated that over 25,00 children were abducted during the war and that many still remain in the bush. Gulu is treated as a ‘post-conflict’ area, which I disagree with, and not just because Kony has yet to sign the final peace agreement. It’s like Gulu exists in it’s own little bubble of deep denial. People want so desperately for the conflict to be over. Even if the LRA never comes back and the violent conflict really has left Gulu, Northern Uganda is still very much in conflict. It is in conflict because it is in transition, and that isn’t going to change any time soon. Northern Uganda is in a critical moment, the decisions being made now will determine if this area recovers or if the LRA won the war. The LRA might have physically gone, but they left unimaginable damage in their wake.