April 16 2007
War and peace in Northern Uganda
16/04/2007 - Although the Ugandan government and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) have just agreed a new six week ceasefire, the long term prospects are still in doubt. Despite this, northern Uganda is experiencing normality for the first time in many years. After more than 20 years of LRA insurgency, during which time thousands of people have been murdered and an unknown number of children kidnapped, to be used as child soldiers and sex slaves, life in Gulu, a small town that became the centre of the insurgency, is at last returning to normal.
Only three years ago it was dangerous to live anywhere on the outskirts of Gulu as the LRA frequently attacked villages in these areas, killing, maiming and kidnapping as they went. The only secure place, it seemed, was the centre of town which became a safe haven for thousands of children as they commuted nightly into Gulu, sleeping on pavements, and in bus shelters, hospitals and churches, until NGOs, seeing the enormity of the exodus, began to provide tents, blankets and food to cater for these "night commuters". The children returned home in the relative safety of early daylight, to continue their normal lives, until darkness once again brought danger and they trekked back to the safety of Gulu town.
Town is full of NGOs
Today there are signs of peace everywhere in Gulu town and its surrounds. NGO workers fill every available hotel room, which are so sought after that ground floors are occupied while the first floor is still being constructed. While the official NGO employees drive around in "four by fours", young white volunteers working on rehabilitation projects, walk and cycle through the town as casually as if they were in going to college at home. Many are in Gulu on short term contracts, gaining as much experience as they are giving, and living in cheap rented accommodation. Like the Canadian Concordia University students working with SOS Children's Villages, they bring much needed energy to this small town. The women's football tournament organised by the Canadians and advertised enthusiastically on local Gulu radio, was attended by hundreds and showed that women's football can be just as entertaining as men's. More importantly, it sent the message to a population where it is customary for young girls to curtsey to their elders, that women are equal to men and do not have to take a back seat.
Most children now sleeping at home
Apart from full hotels and small businesses burgeoning on Gulu's streets, it's the tiny details that bring normality to this town - a father collecting his small child from school at lunchtime, women planting seeds in expectation of rain and music playing in homes and shops. But the most significant factor that illustrates clearly how Gulu has changed in the last three years is the number of night commuters. Official statistics show that in July 2004 over 22,000 children sought the safety of Gulu, while in December 2006 this had dropped to just 1,350. This means that most children are now sleeping at home every night, a real sign of confidence in the peace process.
But northern Uganda not yet at peace
Yet officially the peace process is in flux (with a new six week ceasefire just agreed) and the LRA remains in the bush threatening to recommence hostilities unless conditions are met. Currently they are said to be far from Gulu, which may bode well for Gulu now, but what about the long term?
Charles Kiyimba, village director of the SOS Children's Village Gulu, which is home to over 100 children, many of them victims of the insurgency and some born in captivity, believes that the only way to end the insecurity is by continuing the peace process. "It is widely believed by all people in northern Uganda that the only way of ending the war is through the peace talks," he said, adding that it was only with the beginning of peace talks last year that northern Uganda "started realising relative peace".
Kiyimba continued: "If the two warring parties do not reach any conclusions, then in my opinion there is a likelihood that the pockets of rebels scattered all over the northern region might again resort to fighting, abducting children, stealing food and killing people."
For SOS Children's Village Gulu, a resumption of fighting would inevitably lead to more children needing care. It would also affect the growing family strengthening programmes carried out by the SOS Social Centre as freedom to move around would be reduced (currently the SOS family strengthening programmes stretch to rural areas where young people are being taught how to grow vegetables and rear goats). and the volunteer partnership with Concordia University would necessarily have to cease. The population as a whole would once again live in constant fear.
No one wants to return to those dark days, but equally no one is sure, despite the growing international interventions, that peace will hold. Charles Kiyimba put it succinctly: "My only wish, and it is a big wish, is that the war ends and people return to normal life. That's my wish and that's everybody's wish."