The World is on Fire - Update of my last 25 days in Uganda
The task of synthesizing my last 25 days in Uganda into some 400-600 words is quite daunting. Not only has a great deal happened, but I find myself still trying to process and make sense of it all. Therefore, this will simply be a brief run through the highlights (and low-lights); if you want to read more, I have been trying to keep updating my weblog.
In the beginning of the month, I traveled to Lira District in northern Uganda, a part of the country that has been ravaged by the 18-year old conflict. Over nearly the last two decades, the Lord's Resistance Army, an apocalyptic-spiritual rebel group made up primarily of abducted children (20,000-25,000 over the course of the conflict) has terrorized the northern regions of Uganda, leaving hundreds of thousands dead and more than 1.4 million people living in internally-displaced peoples camps. The stories of abduction, rape and terror of the conflict are unbearable. I will put one such grotesque story at the end of the email if you want to read it.*
I visited two of the camps in Lira town, and the situation is heartwrenching and abominable. At one of the camps, people are sprawled inside and outside an old factory; living amongst rusty, dirty machinery. Children, viciously malnourished and without education, run around in the dirt and rust. Mothers breast-feed their babies in broken-down cars and sleep in the dirt. The lucky families sleep in small huts or tents, most which lack roofs, thereby the ground on which they sleep becomes wet and muddy when it rains. The people are starving, without clean water and living in destabilizing fear. One old woman with tears in her eyes told me, "We have no food. People are starving everywhere...We are hopeless people. In many ways, we are already dead." When I was leaving, I promised the people I would return (which I will be in one week) to conduct interviews and document their stories. One man told me, "I hope we are alive when you return."
As I walked around the camp, I wanted to cry, vomit, to break down. The camps were by far the most horrifying site I have ever seen in my life. Never in my life have I imagined that people can live in such brutal, dehuman conditions. When I returned to my hotel, I did break down. I had trouble breathing and controlling my thoughts. How is it possible for such horrific mass suffering to be happening while the world stands by in complete silence and inaction? If you want to do something, please send money to a relief organization like the Red Cross or especially contact your representatives and tell them you want them to work for peace in northern Uganda.
With my independent study project, which I am starting work on this week and will be working on for the next six weeks, I am looking at the political issues surrounding the war in northern Uganda. One of the main causes of the war is a massive north-south divide perpetuated by an oppressive one-party government that has fomented regional inequalities dating back to the colonial days of Uganda. Uganda is undergoing critical political transition/crisis these days (read about it in my blog if you're interested), which will have substantial impact on the policy debate regarding peace in the north. I am interviewing parliamentarians, opposition party leaders, IDPs in the north, civil society leaders and others to study the relationship between this political crisis and prospects for peace in the north.
A week after visiting the north, I traveled with my group to eastern Uganda, where we lived in a rural homestay and studied the intricacies of rural life in Uganda. This was quite a fascinating week and a big challenge for this not-so-rural guy. I lived in a mud hut with big spiders and a whole assortment of unidentifed large insects. Thank God for mosquito nets. The week had its comical moments - drinking millet beer with the village men with wooden stick straws out of a communal bowl and racing Ugandans barefoot across a field as hundreds of school children looked on - but it was also difficult to live so simply. And the rural life really is so simple in the sense that the people have to think about and attain things that you and I take granted everyday, such as water. Considering that most of the world lives in such village conditions, it was definitely an educating week.
Returning to Kampala, we had a formal academic week of Luganda exams and papers. The week found excitement, however, in a handful of protests that happened in the center of the city concerning the constitutional amendment bill currently being debated in Parliament. The bill is attempting to take away two-term limits currently placed on the president. I followed the protests, interviewing participators and organizers of the demonstrations. If you're interested, I posted information and findings on my blog. The opposition protest was pretty phenomenal because it was the first opposition protest in 20 years that was not repressed by government. That was a hopeful day, but unfortunately today a second opposition protest was completely repressed by police who use massive amounts of tear gas to clear the center of the city. As a man on the streets told me, "See, there is no democracy in Uganda."
I know that some people complain that these updates are so political and not so personal, but it is impossible to be apolitical in Uganda these days. The country is really approaching a watershed moment where it could plunge into massive conflict and turmoil or move towards a more hopeful, democratic future of national reconciliation. I spoke about the future of Uganda with one of the heads of the opposition parties here, the Forum for Democratic Change. I wrote a bit about that on my blog too if you're interested.
But as for me, I am fascinated, horrified and most of all, provoked. There is always something new to think about, learn or realize here in Uganda. I find myself amazed and overwhelmed by the contradictions and paradoxes so apparent here and all over the world. Sometimes, I become so enraged at the war, the suffering, the poverty. And yet I love so many things here - the godly fruits, the crazy taxi park, the friendly people, the beautiful countryside, the newspapers, chapati (this salty bread food that is common here) and more. Most of all, I have been so lucky to have a great homestay family that has taught me so much. They are great people and I hope I will stay in touch with them even after I have left this place in just six weeks.
Well as usual, I have written far too much. Please send me updates from your ends of the world. Thanks for everyone who has thrown me a line here or there; it means a lot.
And gyebale. In English, that means "thank you for the work you do." When greeting someone in Uganda, people always thank each other for the work they do. The more I become accustomed to it, the more I like it. It is important that we recognize the work of each other, no matter what we do with our days and lives. I wanted to end this email thanking all of you for the work you do. Gyebale wherever this email finds you and whatever it finds you doing.
I once read somewhere that the world is on fire. I have never been more convinced that it is. Yet, when we stand together and embrace one another across borders and oceans and divides, I have never been more convinced that we can calm the fire. Maybe never end it, but calm it. Tame it even.
*From a nine-year old escaped abductee -
CAUTION: this account is difficult to read and very graphic.
"There is nothing that I liked there. They collect all the children together and make you beat someone to death. Once there were about seven who tried to escape, including two girls. The commander decided not to kill the girls. He picked one boy to be killed. He placed his head on a piece of wood. He told one of the girls to come and chop this boy to small pieces. She started trying to cut his head off, but was not doing a good job. The other boys were told to help. When they had almost taken the head off, they had to chop the body into small pieces. Then they were told to play with the dead person's head. The boys had to throw it in the air four times, and the girls three times. The girls were bare-chested. After that, they commanded the girls to smear blood of the dead boy on their chest. After that, they put the head of the boy in a central place, put clubs all over it covering the head, and informed us that anyone who tries to escape will have the same thing."