Monday, August 13, 2007
The Kids of Northern Uganda
When it comes to the Critical Thinking Across Cultures project, there are a lot of things I could write about -- the trip to Mabira rainforest, Jinja Community Day, the peace theater and mock parliament sessions... but I’m not going to. Instead, I’m going to wite about something that wasn’t on the planned schedule of events, something that happened when I sat down one afternoon to talk with a few of the Ugandan students about the situation in the northern regions of their country.
First, some background: underlying all the natural beauty of Uganda is a tragic reality, especially for kids who grow up in places like Gulu, Lira, Teso, Soroti -- in the northern and eastern regions of the country, some two to three-hundred kilometers away from the capital. Many of these districts remain in disarray, still ravaged by war with the Lord’s Resistance Army, a strange and ragged collection of child soldiers and militiamen led by Joseph Kony. Kony, a self-declared prophet of God, justifies his mass slaughter and rape of civilians, his abduction of children into his army, and his twenty-year campaign of torture and terror as divinely inspired. As a result of the war, much of the population of northern Uganda has been herded into Internally Displaced Persons or IDP camps, where educational opportunities are limited, and the threat of war hangs like an omnipresent cloud.
Several of the Ugandan CTAC students come from areas like Gulu and Lira. When I sat down to discuss their experiences I was shocked -- not only by the stories they had to tell, but also by the way in which they seemed to have emerged, in spite of it all, resilient and hopeful about their future as well as the future of their country. A brief word of warning: James, Genavive and Godfrey don’t hold anything back when describing the situation in the North, and some of their accounts of LRA tactics are a bit disturbing and graphic... Having said that, I believe their stories are also necessary -- in their unvarnished form -- if one is to understand not only the tragic situation in the North, but also just how special these kids are.
RB: James, we were talking earlier about the LRA and the northern regions of Uganda, and you were telling us some stories. Could you tell the stories some more?
James: What happened in 2003, the LRA came to Lira in June. At first, they started and collected all the people, and they picked some elders, slaughtered them, and gave people to eat.
RB: What does that mean, "they gave people to eat?"
Godfrey: They slaughtered people --
Genavive: They slaughter people. Then, sometimes, they boil them and then, when they are in a group, they make the live ones eat the dead ones.
RB: They do this to frighten and intimidate people?
James: Then, (the LRA) continued their journey up to Teso region.... They continued up to someplace called Obalanga. What they did from there, they threatened the people seriously, the people took off, and they burned everything that was there.... and they entered into some shops where they poured acid into the salt, and the people who ate that salt died.
Genavive: They used to write letters to drop in villages... "Tomorrow, we are visiting --" And it is true, when they say, "tomorrow, we will visit the YMCA," truly they will come.
RB: And when you are in a place where the LRA says, "we will come," what do you do?
Genavive: You take off. You try to run ahead where there is some security.... By then , I was also in [the Northeast District of] Soroti. It so happened that they wrote a letter to the college -- the Arapai Agricultual College -- and they wrote a letter that they dropped there. But the people [at the college] didn't bother so much, because Obalanga was still far from them, so they thought "Oh, those people can't reach us." But it so happened that [the LRA] arrived in the night, and they started shooting the boys. There was a boy whose leg was shot, and they had to cut it off. People took off....They were abducting boys from Teso college -- there's a school in Teso there called Teso College -- and those boys had to run. You even leave your property, you leave your books -- actually the intention was to disorganize education....
RB: Where do you go? Where do you go if you have to run?
James: Where you think there is security.
RB: But where is security, I guess? Do you go to a camp?
Genavive: Yes, you go to a camp. Of course, the army men guard the camp.... You know, these army men also fear the LRA rebels. When they see them coming, they also take off, because they know it's dangerous.... Sometimes we suffer out of the negligence of the military force, because they're supposed to provide security, but they also take off.
RB: So the rebels are very strong, in other words?
James: Yes, very strong. But I want to state everything that happened, step by step. These people came in four steps. The first step when they came, they were very simple, and they came and joined the community.... and they were asking for food, and if they joined a family, they were asking for cows they wanted to slaughter; they were asking for goats, hens.... They eat and then they go; they eat and then they go.... I think they were studying how the region is.... The second step, they followed up... They started abducting the youth. Abducting every youth. And if they get a girl, they rape her. If you don't want to be raped, they will shoot you dead.... And if your parent or dad or mom starts crying "Leave my child, leave my daughter," they will shoot you together with your dad or your mom, because you want to be together.... And then the third step is they start to kill everyone they get. Every one. Each and every one. They get, they kill. They get, they kill. If they get a baby, a young baby, they just throw it into a tree (gestures toward tree). That one dies there....
RB: They just kill everything.
James: They just kill everything they get. Everything.
RB: Godfrey, you were abducted. Is that correct?
RB: Can you explain what it was like to be abducted? What happened?
Godfrey: One year I remember very well. It was 1996, I was six years old, and the rebels came and broke into the camp. They came at night, and they started abducting people, and they also abducted me, along with the other people. And when we were moving back -- the people were many.... For me, I managed to escape, because I found there was a little pit over there (gestures toward a spot) and I tried to get into it, and they passed and left me. And then I went back home. The second time they came, they started abducting people, killing everyone they would get. They came up to the camp, they killed many people along the roadside. Up till now, the Gulu people are still remembering that day they killed a lot of people. Some were slaughterd, some were boiled.... Some were -- If they ask you, "Do you want a padlock?" If you say yes, they will lock your mouth --
RB: They will say what?
Godfrey: They ask you "Do you want a padlock? Do you want a padlock --"
James: They will give you options. "Do you want us to lock your mouth with a padlock?" And they will pierce it here. Or they will say, "Do you want to be silent or do you want to laugh?" If you say you want to laugh, they will cut all around like this (points to his lips).
RB: So they cut your lips off....
RB: But Godfrey, tell me more about the time you were abducted. How did you get away? How did you escape?
Godfrey: When I was abducted... Because we were many by then -- many of us were just children and some elder people. Me, I was just sleeping with my older brother. My brother escaped, leaving me just asleep. He didn't inform me that the rebels were coming.... But when we were moving -- because when they abduct you they will take you to where they can train you to become their soldiers, and you will become their soldier. By all means you will become their soldier....
For me, I was given some heavy salt to carry. They will give you anything they have, and you have to carry it. Even if you are small, you must carry it.... There were very many people, and some of the children were crying, because some of the mothers were also abducted.... But for me, I got a chance... of finding a pit, a hole, a small hole, and I entered inside. I dropped myself together with that thing I was carrying, the salt. By the time they all went, I got up, left all the salt inside the hole, and went back home. And I was lucky.... Up till now, I'm still studying. I'm still in school, in senior 4. (pauses).
In 2003, there was a fire that dropped onto the houses, and it started burning. In 2003, in December, it started burning around midday, and around 5pm the whole place was burned. You could just see -- you could stand from here and just see what was over there (indicates a long distance). Then, the NGOs came, the Red Cross.... They gave us a blanket, some clothes.... And then a tarpaulin to cover the tops [of the houses].... And some of the people were left without anything, because they couldn't manage to get what was inside, because the fire was so serious... and it was in the dry season. You couldn't get anything.
RB: So do you guys have bad dreams about this? Do you think about these things?
Genavive: Yeah, we do --
James: Sometimes when you are remembering, someone will start crying. If you go back to the history, about how you lost your brother, your sisters, daddies, parents....you will start crying.... And even if you dream about it in your bed, you will find that you are in the middle of your house, and you were trying to run --
Godfrey: When I came back, I dreamed one day.... I started crying, and my father just pushed me down.... Because I thought that those people had come... that they were there for the second time, and I started crying.... And my father just cooled me down.... Those dreams are many....
James: [When you are dreaming] someone will say "Where are you running?" And you will say "Leave me,they are coming! Leave me, they are coming!" They will tell you that story in the morning, that you were like this....
RB: So do you have anyone you can talk to? Or... don't people talk about it?
Genavive: You know, in Uganda -- Those village people, the people who suffer.... The high officials, the people who are supposed to help, are based here in the city. So the leaders who are in the village there, you tell them that this and this is happening, but I don't know what they do. I don't know what step they take. They take long to react, and even.... (pauses). Let me say this: if the Northerners and Easterners had not united themselves, those people [the LRA] could have crossed to somewhere over here. The real army of the government was fearing [them].... But the people got strong hearts to fight with the LRA rebels. That's why they were pushed back. Otherwise, we wouldn't be here. But this thing about telling the government to help.... Okay, we do tell, but the action takes so long....
James: Now, what happened, the people -- the boys, the youth -- they formed a group and went to the government to say "give us guns." Because [the government] didn't want to bring security to our region, boys went for a training -- they don't train even! They just get guns and go... These boys -- I don't know how to say it -- gave themselves to secure their own people.... We are tired of running....
RB: James, if you could tell people in the United States one thing, what would it be? What would you tell an American student about your experience?
James: What would I tell? This has been a very sorrowful experience. Very sorrowful experience. I think -- what I could tell them is that people really suffer in the northern regions of Uganda. People suffer really. And I pray that God has tried to solve this, but peace talks have not gone -- [the LRA] have refused peace talks.... They tried to go for peace talks, and [Joseph Kony] says that, until the case is dropped out of the International Criminal Court, he will never come out.
RB: We only have a couple of minutes left, so let me ask you this: what do you want to do with your future, when you become an adult?
Genavive: For me, okay.... It's only the education, which I may not get fully because of fees; but otherwise, if I attend (school)... I want to become a leader, a strong leader... who can see to help those poor people suffering in the villages. When there is a problem I see that is going to affect my people, and I see a solution to it.... I have to see to it that the government sees what the village people are undergoing, and take an action. Do it. Not let people continue suffering....
RB: And you want to go to university?
Genavive: Very much.
RB: In Kampala?
Genavive: Anywhere. As long as I'm in a university.... I believe that when I'm graduated and working, I can be in a position to help my people....
Post script: I later sat down with Genavive and several other of the Ugandan girls of CTAC to discuss the hurdles facing the youth of Northern Uganda -- especially those who want to attend university. That interview, which heightened the sense of awe I had, and continue to have, toward these kids, will be published in a future edition of Idebate.