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We would like to say a big thank you to everyone who’s put in so much effort into our Lent campaign in the last six weeks – for all your donations and all the time spent organising events and spreading the word about our work – thank you!
And while we’re thanking people, we’d like to thank Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin for writing this article about her trip to see Trócaire’s work in Uganda and thank Jeannie O’Brien for the beautiful photographs that accompany it.
by Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin.
If you’ve seen Blood Diamond, Hotel Rwanda or The Last King of Scotland you may have an image of what the people of northern Uganda have been through. Between 1985 and 2005 the north and northeast regions of the country endured persistent conflict when the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony, waged a violent war against central government authorities, targeting civilians and children. Entire communities were forced to flee to refugee camps, where even then their safety was not guaranteed, and during that time 30,000 children were kidnapped, tortured and forced to be part of the militia. Reading a UN booklet on the dirt-track journey from Kalongo to Barlonyo my stomach churned reading stories from children who were captured or left for dead by the LRA and struggled to survive. On this visit to northern Uganda with Trócaire, we are visiting communities and families that have survived the war and are trying to rebuild their lives. There has been a lot of controversy about the ‘Kony 2012’ video of late and it is a fortunate coincidence that I can meet first-hand those that suffered at the hands of Joseph Kony’s army.
It’s a 16 hour journey from Dublin to Uganda’s capital, Kampala, and after a fitful three hours sleep under my mosquito net, myself and the four others of our group started our journey to Kalongo in the north. At 6:30am, it was a wonder to see hundreds of children walking proudly to school in their pristine uniforms. Children leaving slums on the side of the road wearing freshly washed shirts walked purposefully to their classroom. It is evident that education is the route for developing countries to improving their society and economy and thankfully Ugandan parents are realising the importance of education for their children. It was beautiful to fly over the vast countryside in a small ten-seater plane that runs three times a week between the capital city and the unreachable parts of northern Uganda. Touching down on an ochre coloured, tarmac-less runway outside a village school was surreal. Kids flocked from all directions to see the aircraft and the pale foreigners landing in their village. It is this rural environment that Trócaire focuses on in northern Uganda, developing communities and assisting families to establish agricultural practices and generate income.
We visited Wilhelmina who was widowed in the war and, as I later found out, lost two sons to the LRA, never seeing them again. At her home, an hour from the village, she was joined by other widows who have formed a group that works together and assists each other in farming the land. These groups are incredibly important because of the initial psychological support they offered for women who lost children, husbands and everything they had previously owned. Now they are important for the sense of community provided as they all attempt to farm the arid land. The group greeted us with traditional tribal singing and was happy to share their stories with us. With Trócaire’s assistance in providing seeds many families were able to build homes and rebuild their lives. Some families have even been able to start saving and sending their children to school. Trócaire has also provided them with facilitators to counsel and guide them through better farming practices. Unfortunately, the livestock given to them to plough the land died of foot and mouth disease and later their crops were destroyed by a freak hail storm. You would wonder who deserves such incredible bad luck but these inspirational women have kept striving to better their lives. Wilhelmina was the first woman brave enough to leave the refugee camp in 2008 and came home to an empty landscape where everything she had owned had been destroyed. She is an incredibly strong woman, a role model to those around her and an example of the successes that women working together can achieve.
The following day we travelled to Bar Kawach and while I thought our previous visit was rural, this area is the most isolated part of the world I will probably ever visit. Our location was jokingly described as “an hour and a half from the nearest can of coke”, but at 3:30pm in 34 degrees heat I would have given my left arm for that can. In this day and age it’s unusual to be un-contactable anywhere in the globe but we didn’t even have phone coverage. It was here we met Daniel, the shy and charming boy whose face you may recognize from this year’s Trócaire box. Arriving at his school I had great fun joining in on their class singing and dancing and I’m sure the students thought I was the most ridiculous thing they had ever seen. Daniel, like most 9 year old boys, wasn’t very keen on getting his picture taken but was happy to show off his impeccable school work. The classroom, divided into two classes, reminded me of Ireland in the 1960s and I have immense respect for the 10 teachers working in such a rural environment with these beautiful, joyful children. We made the short journey to Daniel’s home where his family welcomed us and we spent the afternoon talking with them. Daniel’s mother Betty is ill from malaria but was kind enough to tell us her horrific experience of the war, having to leave her home and later flee a refugee camp. Her husband Joel was kidnapped twice by the LRA and forced to labour, but thankfully escaped. The family is poor and works hard harvesting a crop that will hopefully last them through the year. The nearest bore-hole for water is about 2km away and each day someone must make the journey to fill a container to carry home. Life is about survival but is improved by the support offered by participating in an active agricultural community. Our Trócaire representative Meabh Smith brought a copy of the box, posters and photos of this year’s Lenten campaign and the family was delighted with the novelty of these gifts.
I met with Milton, a father of eight whose wife was killed in 2004 during an LRA raid on a refugee camp, leaving him to look after their children. The camp was left undefended by government troops. Milton is a tall, striking man who has undoubtedly aged beyond his years due to the stresses and strains of his life. He is reserved and proud in stature and were you to replace the sandals and dusty clothes, could be a respected leader in any country. I was fortunate to meet his son Samuel towards the end of our visit, an interview I was a little nervous about. Samuel was kidnapped by the LRA in 2003 and was forced to fight as a child soldier. He was 15 when he was captured and while talking to him his steely eyes belied the reticence he held in discussing his time as a soldier. In the 1 ½ years he spent with the LRA he slept outdoors in the bush with many more boys who were also kidnapped. The stories from returned child soldiers would make your blood run cold. Many were forced to kill younger abductees by LRA soldiers who told them they had tried to escape; some were ordered to kill a sibling or have their entire family slaughtered and more were forced to afflict unspeakable atrocities on their own family and neighbours. Samuel was forced to take part in attacks in the Kitgum region of northern Uganda. When we asked him what would have happened to him had he not participated in those attacks, he simply replied, “I would have been killed”. That was the choice offered to these children from nine to 18 years old – kill or be killed.
Samuel escaped during an attack from government forces and slowly made his way home. I can only imagine the fear, disorientation and confusion in wanting to find your family after such experiences. In the north, a group of Italian priests built a solar-powered cross on Kalongo Mountain that was visible for miles and was used as a guiding light by lost and escaped child soldiers to find their way home. Unfortunately, Samuel did not have such a guide and after spending some time in a rehabilitation facility he returned home but his family were not to be found. He was eventually reunited with his father in Lira and it was then he found out that his mother had died without her ever knowing he was still alive. It’s a gut-wrenching story that has been repeated thousands of times across the region and adjusting to life back in the community has not been easy. Samuel’s eyes finally light up when I ask him about his life now and he tells me about his wife and two young daughters. He is readjusting to life on a farm and his family will also benefit from the support provided through Trócaire.
Young girls suffered terribly during the war. Many were kidnapped as sex-slaves during LRA raids on villages. Having escaped that danger, many more were raped in camps by government forces. In this war, like all others, it was innocent civilians who endured the worst but who are now rebuilding their lives. Many grandmothers have been left to raise their grandchildren since their parents have died. On my trip here I have seen the vital roles that women play in keeping families together and in finding compromises to build communities. After a traditional meal of millet, pigeon peas and chicken I unsuccessfully attempted the work of grinding sesame and failed miserably. These women, as is the international norm, are phenomenal.
Small huts are dotted along the roadside in groups of two or three where families live and every few miles there is a village. There are signs of development in regions where no-one has lived since the war, new homes are being built and the land is being cleared of scrub in preparation for planting crops. As we drive for hours we pass hundreds of people travelling by bike but mostly walking. The loads that women carry on their heads is unfathomable and seeing twenty chickens hanging from the handlebars of a bicycle heading to the market is becoming familiar. Children travelling to or from school wave to us in the passing truck and we see women and men working in the searing heat out in the unsheltered fields. People are readying the land that they have recently returned to for the forthcoming rains in a few weeks. It has not rained here since December. Once it rains people will plough the land by hand or, if they are lucky, with a cow. If the land is not ready, there will be no food and for those who rarely see cash, it is vital they provide for themselves.
After spending a few days in the most rural parts of northern Uganda on poor quality, dirt-track “main roads” it was a welcome surprise to reach tarmacadam on our route to the town of Lira. In the truck we laughed about the state of the roads at home and it reaffirmed for me how lucky I am to have been born and raised in Ireland. Arriving at our accommodation, basic at best, I laughed at my changed perspective of creature comforts.
While the south of Uganda has a lush countryside and a developed economy, 64% of northern Uganda lives on under $1 a day, the UN definition of poverty. Trócaire’s work is all about development. It is about empowering people to play a part in their future, provide for themselves and their families and to actively participate in their own governance. Their objectives are long term and scaffold the communities to build their own opportunities. It has been an education speaking with Sean Farrell, Trócaire’s country representative in Uganda, whose stories have entertained us for the past few days but have also enlightened me on the complex issues of the history and politics behind the war in Uganda. While the ‘Kony 2012’ video has shown us the potential positive uses of social networking and has directed attention towards northern Uganda, it is attempting to provide an over-simplified solution to a very complex issue. This has been a truly amazing trip for me to visit the projects and people supported by Trócaire in Uganda and although this is my third trip to Africa, it is the first where I feel I understand more about its history and society. The money generously donated by Irish people during the Lenten campaign has direct effects on lives that are less fortunate than our own and I am immensely grateful for this experience.
All photos by Jeannie O’Brien.
This article was originally published in the Sunday Independent on April 1, 2012.