The Ugandan curriculum for the sophomore year of high school (which very few northern Ugandans can afford to attend), includes a course called "Studies in Development". A large component of this course requires learning the layout and grid of New York City. I could have used the information these hut-dwelling war-weary students have learned upon my return trip to the US. With Joshua and Anisa's help I found my way between Newark and La Guardia Airports. Hey, I just came from Uganda, but it's hot in NYC!
I returned last night. If you're interested, below is a message that didn't get out before this.
Thank you for your interest.
28 July, 2006
I’ve nearly completed the month I’ll spend here in northern Uganda. When I arrived the rains had held off. The rain was poor last year, perhaps it will skip this year all together, they said. Pessimism was in the air. Even if rain came, do they have seeds and can it possibly be safe enough to head to the fields? A month ago the peace talks between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan Government had just begun in Juba, Sudan. The war weary inhabitants of northern Uganda did not see much hope in the government’s gestures toward peace with Kony and the LRA * (see below).
However, in the month I have been here optimism has grown. My visits to different small towns (trading centers turned IDP - Internally Displaced Persons -camps) seem to coincide with the coming of rain. So much so, I have earned the Acholi name “La Kot” which means “rain”. It doesn’t sound that great to me, but I’m told it is an honor to have such a name.
Acholi are rural people. They would like to be living in their villages. From their villages they could travel by foot to trading centers – small towns where crops can be traded or sold for Ugandan Shillings. The trading centers are found every 10 kilometers or so along the dusty main roads of this area. A trading center has a primary school and a Catholic Church (or, once in a while, the Church of Uganda). Most trading centers and villages are abandoned today. Traveling the rural roads of the north we pass empty churches riddled with mortar holes and damaged overgrown schools housing drunken Ugandan soldiers. Fr. Marvin tells me to look for mango trees. Where there is a mango tree there used to be a home. In some places, there are hundreds of mango trees. Every one of them shaded a family with a story.
The trading centers and villages were abandoned in early 2004 when the LRA attacks escalated beyond the threshold of human capacity to live. The Ugandan government assigned certain trading centers as safe IDP Camp where the people will be guarded by the national army. The national army isn’t much to speak of. Still, they are armed; the LRA is armed (by Sudan, they say); but the villagers aren’t.
I have been visiting the mission of Fr. Marvin Fuentes Murillo, a Camboni Missionary from Costa Rica who has been in Uganda for 10 years. When Marvin begins to talk of what he has seen and experienced in the past 5 years his words are like water from a well that has ached to be released. Once he begins details come forth in a disorganized flow of memory and horror. He'll describe the candy filled pockets of the 75 year old Italian priest who was gunned down in his car then set on fire. He’ll tell of guns in his own face, the shoes he was wearing and children shot dead. We stop on the road as he remembers the trading center here three years ago… the bodies, the injured, his prayers. He’ll describe what goes through your mind (and what doesn’t) the moment a wall is all that is between yourself and those who wish to kill you. In his own sitting room he shows me where he threw the lock, which is still on the door, when the boys with machine guns demanded entrance. He shows holes in the walls from gunfire and points out paths impassable due to landmines. He doesn’t tell of being beaten with the blunt side of an axe; others, who have also suffered, share that detail. He knows he is still in shock.
My visits have been to camps in Kitgum, Padipe, Mari-Opei, Agoro and Namokora. At the IDP camps, villagers live in huts of mud and grass which are too close together and prone to bad fires. There is limited food or room for roaming animals and children. If you ask an IDP where they are from they will tell you their home is a village there… gesturing with their hand and making an “e-e” sound. The higher the pitch of the “e-e” the further away they feel from their village home. The village is home, where the water source is a river, the mud is in abundance to make the huts, and there is land for crops of staples (peanuts and sesame). There is plenty of room for cows, goats, chickens and children to safely roam. Their village is where they were born, therefore the place they believe they must be buried – like their ancestors - in order that their spirits not haunt the world scared and homeless. The village is the beginning and the end of the journey.
The last attack was in October. Could it be over? Perhaps the LRA is finished. In the two years of living in camps the food has dwindled. The trading centers carry only leafy green okra and tomatoes the size of a baby’s fist. No peanuts or sesame to grind into wholesome paste to serve with wet millet bread. (This is like going to the supermarket for your hungry family and only finding spices). Now, with the light of possible peace and the incoming rain villagers begin to venture to the vast abandoned land. They are tentative as they till the soil, now holding out for seeds. In the past two years they have had no crop so no seeds to carry each person into the next year. Their hope is the UN and non-governmental organizations** to supply seeds to get them started. If there is peace, and rain continues, perhaps seeds will come…
Peace and love,
*Fr. Carlos Rodriguez, one of the regular commentators in The Weekly Observer, a Ugandan newspaper, summarized the frustration with peace talks well when he wrote:
Anybody who has been involved in any past attempts to bring an end to LRA’s terrorism through dialogue is aware of the complications and dilemmas involved in it: Ceasefires can reduce violence and save lives, but can also give rebels opportunities to rearm and reorganize. Talks can be an opportunity for bringing peace at hand, but could also give unfair legitimacy to armed groups who have committed unspeakable crimes against humanity. There is also, of course, the question of sacrificing justice in the interest of peace or putting justice first, as the ICC (International Criminal Court) is keen to do, while at the same time leaving a crucial question unanswered: who shall enforce justice by, for instance, carrying out arrests? (The Weekly Observer, July 13-19, 2006, p.9)
**The most active international organizations I’ve seen here – this is only by my limited experience, there are probably others – are: UNICEF, AVSI (Association of Volunteers in International Service), Doctors without Boarders and, of course, the Camboni Missionaries.