Articles and thoughts by Peter Holslin

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I’m back, and I’ve got some chutney to share!

[Note, 11/21/09: I wrote the entry pasted below over a year ago, a month or so after I returned from the reporting trip to Uganda I took with my good friend Hannah Rappleye. For some reason, I took it down. I found it again while going through my blog today, and decided to put it back up online. Here it can be in its rightful place, among the rest of the East Africa Journal entries.]

Please, Leave This Place

At lunch time, kids play at the schoolhouse in Olwal IDP Camp, by Hannah Rappleye.

Amuru District, Uganda. Late June, the dry season:

Tall walls of grass flank the battered, ruddy road that cuts through several IDP camps in Amuru District. Years ago, this is what made rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army invisible.

“We lost many people here,” says Aciro Agnes, a counselor for the Psychosocial Support Program of Caritas, the Archdiocese of Gulu. Joseph, the voluble driver of Caritas’ white 4X4 pickup truck, weaves left and right, dodging craters and searching for the smooth grooves of previous tire tracks. Some dozen kilometers down the road, the six of us – Hannah and I, three psychosocial support counselors, and Joseph – reach Olwal Camp.

Olwal used to be a place of lush green crops, but now it is flat and dry, like a desert. All of the crops were torn up a decade ago. They were replaced by rows of circular mud-brick huts with thatched roofs and makeshift doors bearing USAID logos, where several thousand people from villages miles around live to this day. There is a clinic and a crude schoolhouse for young children. Shacks on the side of the main road sell salt, soap and airtime for cellular phones. All in all, Olwal is like any other IDP camp: simple and squalid.

When the camp opened, there was no hospital. Children did not go to school. Human waste festered in the open air. People had no land to cultivate, which meant they had no food, money, or prospects. LRA rebels attacked anybody who dared leave. “If you move ten meters away from the camp,” says Geoffrey Lakwonyero, another counselor for Caritas’ Psychosocial Support Program, “you will be shot.”

Lakwonyero estimates that 19,000 people lived in Olwal before the peace talks began in 2006. Ever since, the population has dwindled. Today, residents head up and down the road in peace, making the daily pilgrimage to their gardens a few kilometers away, where they cultivate beans, corn, cassava, nuts and vegetables.

But life is still exceedingly difficult. Just ask Lamek Kilama, an 11 year old boy who sits beneath a mango tree among a dozen or so other residents and talks with Hannah and I, while the Caritas counselors translate. He wears a t-shirt decorated with Bugs Bunny and the Tazmanian Devil. His eyes are soft, his expression is vulnerable, and his skinny arms hang between his knees. He lost his mother to HIV/AIDS in 2006 and his father is a drunk. He works as a beekeeper to feed his father and two siblings, but sometimes he goes without eating for one or two days.

More and more people are moving out and returning to their villages, but some have returned to Olwal out of fear. Fear is ever-present in Northern Uganda. One thing that residents fear is cen, the evil spirits of the dead. When a woman from Olwal returned to her village recently, a victim of the war approached her in the night. “Please, leave this place,” it told her. “Don’t come here to disturb us.”

Caritas, which has been operating in Northern Uganda since the war began, has evidently not taken care of that yet in Amuru. Cleansing is one of its specialties. For the peace talks, Caritas launched the Psychosocial Support Program; produced a small ethnographic book called Traditional Ways of Coping in Acholi: Cultural provisions for reconciliation and healing from war; and began to offer sacrificial goats for traditional ceremonies to welcome child soldiers and mothers back from the bush, and to cleanse the villages of their restive souls.

He Would Take Them

On the way back from Olwal Camp, we visit Father Akenna Richard at the Lacor Parish diocese, a structure bearing walls topped with shards of glass, which sits in a breezy clearing next to a boarding school. Father Richard invites us to sit in plastic chairs beneath some mango trees. He is a thin man with a round, expressive face, an easy manner and wide glasses that shade in sunlight. He attended Washington State University at Spokane for six years, and worked in Arua for two. In 2002, Father Richard returned to Acholiland, his home, to serve as priest of the local diocese. He found his people enduring incredible suffering.

Shortly after he got here, rebels attacked the Pagak camp six miles down the road. Residents escaped to the local diocese, where they had no food and very limited access to sanitation and clean water. Back at the camp, in the heat of the ambush, a handful of toddlers had been abandoned. He retrieved them, took care of them, and ultimately decided to set up a day care center.

The government offers no psychosocial support or medical treatment programs to people who have returned from captivity. World Vision runs a rehabilitation center in Gulu. Numerous other organizations, big and small, offer similar services. Father Richard doesn’t have experience in psychology or counseling, but he also works with former child soldiers – he talks with them about their experiences and tries to figure out ways to reverse the indoctrination abductees experienced in the bush.

“Why is it that somebody abducted by Kony, even for three days or four days, comes back different?” he says. “They still feel and act as if they’re in the bush.”

Joseph Kony, the leader of the LRA, knows that children can be molded and taught to do anything, Richard says. Give a five year old a machete, and you can teach him to love the machete: “Someone can tell a child, ‘This is your means of survival. Live by it.’ And they believe it.” In a big field nearby, children are playing soccer, screaming with laughter. When a crowd of toddlers walk by us, Richard gestures at them. “If [Kony] came, he would kill all of us,” he says. “But he would take them.”

Freedom of Movement

The next day, Hannah and I visit the World Food Programme compound to interview Bai Mankay Sankoh, head of WFP’s Gulu office. We go there because Santa Ajok, an old woman suffering from tuberculosis, who lives in Olwal and takes care of six orphans, told us that the WFP plans to stop providing food aid.

“No, that is not happening,” Sankoh says. He tells us that politicians have been pressuring aid organizations to stop delivering food, and spreading rumors to camp residents that aid organizations would cut aid in December, to pressure people to return to their villages. “The government is saying, ‘The war is over,’” he says.

“We believe in freedom of movement,” he adds. “You can’t use food aid to drive people out of the camps or to keep them in the camps.”

The World Food Programme delivers seeds and tools to 117 locations in Northern Uganda, including 45 return sites, which they evaluate every 3 months for need. The amount it delivers to each Parish depends on the number of people who are registered as Extremely Vulnerable People, and the expected year’s harvest. Aid workers have seen an upsurge in cultivation lately. But the WFP has suffered severe budget cuts – currently its annual budget for Uganda has only received half of its funding from international donors. “A lot more needs to be done,” Sankoh says.

The most pervasive fear in Northern Uganda, by all accounts, is the return of the LRA. Last April, Joseph Kony failed to emerge from his hideout to sign a final peace agreement. One attack by the LRA – now holed up in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo – could cause widespread panic and destroy the peace process, Sankoh says.

As it is, it could take another decade before the IDP camps close down for good and the people of Northern Uganda return to their villages, Sankoh says. The peace agreement, he adds, is the key to their return.

A signed peace agreement is the only thing that will convince Olwal residents that the war is finally over, they say. “We are praying for the end of war,” said Philipo Ojuc, who has lived in Olwal since 1996. “So we can go home.”


Written by Peter Holslin

August 2, 2008 at 12:09 am

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