Footnotes from the British Underground

This blog began as venue for my stories as I traveled in Africa. 18 months later, I return to it as I travel to study as a Marshall Scholar in the United Kingdom. My hope is that this blog can be a conduit for you - my family, friends and secret/strange admirers - to track my movements, see a photo or two and get a glimpse of my days in the UK. Apologies once again to Dostoevsky for the blog's name...

My Photo
Name:
Location: Bradford, United Kingdom

After graduating from Notre Dame, I'm off to England for graduate study. I'll be studying for a M.A. in International Politics and Security Studies. When not studying, I'm continuing to coordinate Uganda-CAN's efforts to end the 20-year war in northern Uganda!

29.4.05

Crying for Attention, Singing for Peace - Awareness is Not Enough Anymore.

I returned from the north on Wednesday and have been meaning to write since then. This trip was an intense one, which left me really tired and overwhelmed by the suffering that continues horrifically as I write. There is a gloom that hangs over northern Uganda, tarnishing what should be a land of beauty and production.

Perhaps the most intense experience of this trip was visiting Noah's Ark, a center for children who "commute" to the town at night from the rural villages and IDP camps to get security from LRA attacks. We traveled by bike across town in the dark to see this center, which is really a series of tents surrounded by barbed-wire fence, not unlike what I imagine concentration camps looked like on the outside during the Holocaust.

As we walked towards the gates, the kids came into focus. And the numbers were enormous. There were over 2000 kids in ripped, dirty clothes ranging in age from a few months old to seventeen. They all sat, huddled together wearing stares of fear. We visited the tents where these children sleep - they sleep on the dirt floor with blankets, gridlocked together like Africans on a slave ship across the Middle Passage.

Can you imagine? These children as young as one-year old have to walk miles in the late afternoon into town where they sleep inside barbed wired fences, overcrowded into tents. At the break of dawn, they march back to their villages. And they do this everyday. Every single day. Can you imagine living such a life dictated by fear and poverty? Can you imagine living such a life as a three-year old? It is abominable. And the numbers in these "night commuter" centers are increasing due to more attacks from the LRA and greater insecurity.

After we visited the tents, we started to walk back to the entrance. As we moved up the hill, the children rushed past us to secure their spots for sleep. It was an emotional moment - seemingly endless waves of little malnourished, fear-ridden, cute children walking past us. And then the kids choir in the camp, which had been practicising in the distance, started singing a song. We could only make out one word: peace.

My trips to the north have been overbearing, and the last one perhaps the most. Yet it is often more overbearing to leave the north because we then face the daunting task of trying to connect worlds that seem so distant, so disconnected. Returning to the busy, bustling streets of Kampala was overwhelming because I could not forget those children who walked past us to sleep in barbed-wired camps, the victims of the LRA without lips, eyes or ears, the escaped little children abducted into the LRA forced to kill and rape, or the cries of a people for peace.

We should not forget. I should not forget. And even more, we must act because this situation is so violent inhumane and brutal, destroying lives every single day. Destroying a whole culture, a society. It really is a subtle form of genocide. Every day that we settle for simple awareness more people die. The horrors demand action.

So that is what we are trying to do with our Uganda Conflict Action Network - push for awareness that is transformed into serious action to help the people who are on the brink of annihilation. Starting this summer, we are going to launch a campaign to raise awareness about the war, and then to mobilize people to pressure Washington to act seriously for a peaceful resolution to end the war in northern Uganda.

Everyone I have talked to here says that if Washington decided it wanted the conflict to end at breakfast, it would be over by dinner. The U.S. has a huge influence over the Museveni regime, and if the US, using its clout (military and economic aid) demands that he take peace talks seriously, he will. The U.S. needs to send a senior diplomat to Kampala soon to send this message to Museveni, and then the U.S., along with European countries, needs to send peace envoys to secure the safe zones of ceasefire, monitor the peace talks and help rebuild trust.

I had the honor while in the north of interviewing Betty Bigombe, the chief peace negotiator for the conflict. She is a passionate, determined woman whose efforts are frustrated by the military endeavors and lack of international support. I told her about our campaign. She told me, "Your campaign will be a major contribution to peace for our people here."

As I wrote before, the task of this campaign is daunting and difficult. Yet, the stakes could not be higher andthe cause more worthy. If you're interested in joining Uganda-CAN or helping with a much-needed donation, email me at peterquaranto@yahoo.com. Peace from Uganda to all of you across the seas.

24.4.05

From Beautiful Jinja to the War-Torn North

This weekend, I traveled to Jinja - the former industrial center of Uganda, a town about 100 kilometers east of Kampala. Jinja is a beautiful town, located right on the banks of both Lake Victoria and the Nile River. I went to visit the Holy Cross fathers there who run a few schools and have a center for up-and-coming east African seminarians. They were extremely hospitable, feeding me a great fish dinner and touring me around their different sites.

Now I am back up in northern Uganda for three day stint of interviews and research. As I got up here, I was struck by the massive numbers of street children here. More and more are now entering the city as the sun falls. They are pushed into the town for safety from the Lord's Resistance Army, which seeks to abduct and manipulate children for their use as soldiers. The Uganda military, UPDF, has failed to provide security in the rural areas, so these children are sent by their parents to spent the night in the town, where they will sleep on the streets under verandas.

I have heard that there is a powerful documentary called "Invisible Children" about the plight of these "night commuter" children in the Uganda war. Many people have praised it and said it is very accurate in regards to the tremendous suffering faced by children here.

I will write more about my findings and experiences here as the days go on. I am once again struck by the diversity of this country, highlighted by my quick journey from the beautiful, growing town of Jinja to the war-torn north of Uganda. The regional paradoxes and contradictions accentuate the crisis of national identity in modern Uganda. More on this in the days ahead.

22.4.05

Washington, Don't Forget Uganda

As I have written so many times before, the political climate in Uganda is explosive. On Wednesday, two MPs in the opposition were arrested and charged with murder in a dangerously political move by the government. The opposition is claiming this is just government intimidation, and they claim the government is ushering in a major "political crisis." The link to the article in today's Monitor is here: http://allafrica.com/stories/200504210799.html.

At the end of the article it talks about the power of the international community to affect positive change here in Uganda. As I wrote in my two articles this week, if the U.S. government wants something to happen in Uganda and acts for it, it will happen. The U.S. provides massive amounts of economic and military aid to Uganda, and has been a vital advocate of President Youweri Museveni. In recent days, the U.S. has become much more critical of Uganda's political affairs, but it must do more than just make statements.

Especially regarding the war in northern Uganda, the United States has an opportunity to use its clout for an end to a vicious war that has caused mass suffering and death. If the United States pushes serious peace negotiations and provides envoys to build trust for such talks, peace can be achieved. We are forming Uganda Conflict Action Network to raise awareness of this and push the U.S. government to utilize such an opportunity to do good.

I pray that the cries of Ugandans do not fall on deaf ears in Washington. I believe, though, that they will unless we demand action.

21.4.05

"Welcome to Hell on Earth" - Observer Column

The following is a basically smaller version of the article I wrote for the Catholic Worker newspaper, however it includes the new name of the campaign I am going to be working on this summer with Africa Faith and Justice Network. The name is Uganda Conflict Action Network (U-CAN or Uganda-CAN). The abbreviations are really cool. The credit goes to the witty, brilliant Michael Poffenberger, new associate director of AFJN.

In the madness of trying to get funds and support to launch the campaign, I haven't been able to write much, but know I am well and working a lot. I will hopefully write more about happenings here and our campaign in the coming days. Cheers across the seas.

"Welcome to Hell on Earth: Hear the Cries of Northern Uganda"
To be published in the Observer (Notre Dame newspaper) on Wednesday, April 27

The people of northern Uganda have no place to rest their head. "Since 1986, we have only had restless nights," an old woman at Ader camp told me. "We are starving to death. Our children have been abducted, our daughters raped and our entire villages destroyed. We have no future. By the time you return, we will probably all be dead."

The woman is right. Over the last 18 years, the people of northern Uganda have died and are continuing to die amidst silence from the international community. Since 1986, the north of Uganda has been ravaged by a war that has left tens of thousands dead, over 25,000 children abducted and more than 1.6 million people now living in internally-displaced peoples (IDP) camps of the most squalor conditions.

Images speak louder than statistics – viciously malnourished children lying naked on the dirt with flies all over their bodies, tents made of plastic bags housing more than ten people, elderly wasting away in their own feces, 12-year old girls forced into prostitution for as little as 500 shillings (30 cents), a people living in constant destabilizing fear.

As I walked through these camps, I was horrified by these images and the stories that followed them. I wanted to cry and vomit. The situation in northern Uganda really is hell on earth. And no one is even doing anything about it.

In most of the camps I visited, there is no government or international presence to provide food and relief to these people. In some cases, the government has not even recognized that camps – with thousands and thousands of people – exist. As one man told me, "We are forgotten. The government has successfully hidden this war. We will die and no one will ever know what happened here."

This horror is the result of a vicious 18-year old civil/proxy war that has pitted the government against the Lord’s Resistance Army, an apocalyptic-spiritual insurgency seeking to overthrow the current regime. The LRA has waged war on the civilian population, while the government has simply contained the conflict, lacking any commitment or will to end the war.

Since 1994, the war has become more complex and gruesome as the LRA has filled its ranks by abducting, brainwashing and manipulating children ranging from ages seven to seventeen. In some cases, the children are initially forced to kill their own family or burn down homes full of as many as twenty people. The LRA commanders violently instill fear into them, transforming children into the most vicious killers.

The accounts of the gruesome and horrific ways in which such children have then killed are immensely disturbing. When I interviewed one 17-year old escaped abductee, he told me sickening accounts of his abduction. Yet even more disturbing was watching the pain as this boy recalled the dark memories. He kept looking to the floor, his hand shaking and his neck twitching. The situation really is hell on earth.

Perhaps the most disturbing element is how the war has gone on for so long with no serious action from the Ugandan government or international community. Since 1986, President Museveni has insisted on a "military solution" to the war, though his approach has only further marginalized northerners, exacerbated mistrust and fueled more violence.

Since 2001 when the United States branded the LRA a "terrorist group," the Ugandan government has been able to abrogate its responsibility for the war. Receiving U.S. military aid, Museveni has sought to defeat Kony instead of engaging in serious peace talks. Yet, almost all independent observers believe such talks are the key to peace.

The people suffering in the north have completely lost faith in the government, so they are thus appealing to the international community for help as their last hope. "This government does not care about us. Our only hope is to the international community to come in and end this war." One young man told me, "When you go back to your country, tell the people that they are our last hope. If the international community does not act, we will all die."

Unfortunately, he is right. The government will only commit to negotiations if there is serious pressure from the international community, most especially the United States. One political analyst told me, "The United States is the only country Museveni cannot ignore. If the U.S. wants this war to end, it will end."

If the American people demanded the U.S. government utilize their clout in Uganda to save lives and end a war, it would happen. And it should happen.

This summer, I will work with the recently-formed Africa Faith and Justice Network to launch a campaign to expose the silence and complicity of the U.S. government in this subtle genocide, while pushing the government to act for the peaceful resolution of the war. With enough support and commitment, this campaign, called the Uganda Conflict Action Network (Uganda-CAN) can have a massive impact on the lives of Ugandans living on the brink of death.

The people of northern Uganda are crying out for your and my attention, for the world’s attention. For too long, this war has been hidden and ignored, resulting in a situation most appropriately described as hell on earth. I ask you to join the Uganda-CAN as we demand an end to this war. The stakes could not be higher and the cause more worthy.

20.4.05

"Hear the Cries of Northern Uganda" - Article for Catholic Worker Newspaper

I wrote the following for the Catholic Worker newspaper based in New York -

"Hear the Cries of Northern Uganda"
written 20 April 2005

The people of northern Uganda have no place to rest their head. “Since 1986, we have only had restless nights,” an old woman at Ader camp told me. “We are starving to death. Our children have been abducted, our daughters raped and our entire villages destroyed. We have no future. By the time you return, we will probably all be dead.”

The woman is right. Over the last 18 years, the people of northern Uganda have died and are continuing to die amidst silence from the international community. Since 1986, the north of Uganda has been ravaged by a civil war that has left tens of thousands dead, more than 25,000 children abducted and more than 1.6 million people now living in internally-displaced peoples (IDP) camps of the most squalor conditions.

Through the School for International Training, an academic global exchange program committed to building cross-cultural competencies, I find myself walking through IDP camps witnessing a crisis that can only be described as “hell on earth.” As part of an independent study project on the relationship between the war and the repressive political climate, I traveled north. What I found was sickening.

Throughout the northern regions of Uganda, more than 1.6 million people have been pushed into camps by the violence of the Lord’s Resistance Army against the Ugandan government. The government has proclaimed commitment to providing security in the camps, but violent raids by the LRA are still common in many camps. Beyond the daily reality of violence, the conditions in these camps are putrid and violently inhuman.

There are appalling statistics about starvation and infant mortality rates, but it is the images that speak louder than numbers – viciously malnourished children lying naked on the dirt with flies all over their bodies, tents made of plastic bags taped together housing more than ten people, elderly wasting away in their own feces, 12-year old girls forced into prostitution for as little as 500 shillings (30 cents), a people living in constant destabilizing fear.

In some of the camps I visited, there is no NGO, government or international presence to provide food and relief to these people on the brink of death. In some cases, the government has not even recognized that camps – with thousands and thousands of people – exist. It took nearly two decades for the government to declare the northern region a disaster area, thus qualifying it for international emergency relief. As one man told me, “We are forgotten. The government has successfully hidden this war. We will die and no one will ever know what happened here.”

To understand the horror of the situation, it is critical to understand the historical background in which the war arose. First, the harsh colonial rule of the British exploited and perpetuated a north-south divide in the early 20th century, after insensitively carving out the nation of Uganda – a lumping of over fifty tribes with numerous languages and cultures. The colonial masters left a dark legacy that continues to the present, mixed with forces of neo-colonialism in our modern internationalized economic order.

Uganda’s post-independence political history has been scorched by a culture of rebellion where the political norm has become utilizing violent means to gain political power. This culture has only further pervaded fear and divided Ugandans along lines of ethnicity, tribe, class and region. In this hostile political climate, the lack of adequate institutions for groups to address grievances has laid the seeds for violent rebellions.

The current war in northern Uganda began in 1986 when the current president Youweri Museveni and his National Resistance Army marched on Kampala staging a coup d’etat. The existing regime and army, dominated by northerners, fled north to the Sudanese border where they organized into the Uganda People’s Defense Army. Over the next five years, the UPDA negotiated with the government, but left a vacuum quickly filled by the Holy Spirit Movement, an apocalyptic religious army. The HSM also faltered to government military might, but was replaced by the Lord’s Resistance Army, the rebel group of today.

Little is known about the LRA, except for its leader Joseph Kony, a former UPDA commander who also supposedly believes himself to be divine. The government, and consequently the international community, has painted Kony as a crazed religious zealot driven by the Ten Commandments who kills for the sake of killing. Yet, the writings and recordings of Kony seem to suggest a less-than-crazed man who is driven by a hatred of and desire to overthrow the current Museveni government. It is clear that this uncertainty about the LRA has only further marginalized the group and hindered effective peace efforts.

The most complex and gruesome part of the war has been the child abductions carried out by the LRA since 1994. Since that time, the LRA has abducted, brainwashed and manipulated more than 25,000 children, ranging from ages seven to seventeen. In some cases, the children are forced to kill their own family or burn down homes with as many as twenty people at the beginning of their abduction. Entering into the bush, the children witness and sometimes have to participate in the killing and cutting up of failed escapees. In one account, the children were forced to throw around a severed head, which was then placed on a stick to remind the children of the consequences of attempting escape.

Instilled with fear and brainwashed to equate fighting with survival, these little children become the most vicious killers. People in IDP camps proclaim that they fear the abducted children the most because they kill with little remorse or discrimination. The accounts of the gruesome and horrific ways in which such children have killed and abducted are immensely disturbing, and raise thorny, complex questions about human nature.

Visiting the Rachele Rehabilitation Center, one of five centers for rehabilitating and reintegrating escaped abductees, I was able to speak with one 17-year old boy who spent a little more than one year in the “bush.” The story this boy, like all the escaped abductees, told was sickening, but even more disturbing was watching the pain as this boy recalled the dark memories. He kept looking to the floor, his hand shaking and his neck twitching. Watching this, I could only think about how the situation in northern Uganda really is hell on earth.

The suffering and destruction of the children of northern Uganda is probably the hardest element of the war to face. It is also one of the hardest to understand. How has it been possible for such evil to exist and continue for over a decade? Of course, the politico-economic context provides some answer to that query, but at some level, the horror forces us to face the nature of evil in our world and in our own hearts.

In recent years, especially with the LRA being branded a “terrorist group” by the United States post-9/11, the Ugandan government has attempted to claim that the LRA arose in a vacuum as a killing force with the sole aim of abusing innocent people. This way of thinking that those of us in the United States know so well these days allows the government to abrogate its responsibility for the origin of the LRA, the continuance of the war and the failure to protect its citizens. Through its control over the media, the government in Uganda has been able to spread such a narrow-minded view of the war throughout the international arena.

It is indisputable that the LRA is to blame, but it is also indisputable to any clear observer of the war’s history that the government of Uganda also shares that blame. Since its arrival to power, the Museveni regime has politically and subsequently economically marginalized the north. The government has failed to possess commitment or will to end the conflict, and some even blame the government for benefiting from the political capital presented by the war.

President Museveni has continually pushed for a military solution when it is clear that negotiations are the way to end the war. President Museveni’s blind desire for a military victory has developed massive mistrust among northerners, while he has neglected to provide will for peace talks. The vulnerable victims have suffered amidst this war politicking.

When I was interviewing people in the camps, they repeatedly told me, “Our priority is peace.” They do not care how or from whom it comes; these people yearn for peace and security. There are eighteen and seventeen-year old boys and girls who have grown up in IDP camps and never known a day of peace. The longevity of the conflict has left most people hopeless. One man told me, “We are a hopeless people. As it stands, we have no future. In many ways, we are already dead.”

The war has been complicated over time as it has become internationalized as a proxy war between Uganda and Sudan. In 1994, the government in Khartoum started funding the LRA after the Ugandan government provided support to the rebel SPLA in southern Sudan. The arms flow from the Sudanese government to LRA sustained and exacerbated the conflict. In response, the Ugandan government further militarized the north by arming more than 20,000 individuals in local militias. The deluge of arms into this region has created a hostile environment, making a sustainable peace more distant.

This proxy war invited the less-than-generous involvement of the West, especially the United States, which provided military support to the Ugandan government and SPLA against what it perceived as Arab-Sudan axis fostering a wave of Islamic fundamentalism. To this day, the U.S. government’s military aid to Uganda has perpetuated the military approach.

Even further, the United States and Britain have invested enormous sums of aid into the Ugandan society and have praised it as a “success story” in Africa. When the United Nations has sought to speak out against the atrocities in north Uganda, the U.S. has blocked such negative discussion related to the so-called “pearl of Africa.” In this, the United States remains passively complicit in the war.

The people suffering in the north have completely lost faith in the government, so they are appealing to the international community for help. “This government does not care about us. Our only hope is to the international community to come in and end this war.” One young man told me, “When you go back to your country, tell the people that they are our last hope. If the international community does not act, we will all die.”

Unfortunately, he is probably right. According to most objective observers of the LRA and war, it is clear that only negotiations, built on an elongated ceasefire and security mechanisms to rebuild trust will bring the LRA “out of the bush.” A recent report by the International Crisis Group titled “Shock Therapy for Northern Uganda’s Peace Process” gives more specific details on how the peace process can work.

Yet, government and military officials continue to proclaim their faith in the military approach. This government will only commit to negotiations if there is serious pressure from the international community, most especially the United States. One political analyst told me, “The United States is the only country Museveni cannot ignore. If the U.S. wants this war to end, it will end.”

The internationalization and globalization of the modern world definitely challenges us to broaden our understanding of values such as active love, solidarity, justice and the common good. How to practice solidarity and community in such a large, complex world? Today, it is undeniable that one’s actions in the United States can affect women in Iraq or children in Nepal. Such is the case in Uganda. If the American people demanded the U.S. government utilize their clout in Uganda to save lives and end a war, it would happen. And it should happen.

This summer, I will be working with the recently-formed Africa Faith and Justice Network to launch a campaign to expose the silence and complicity of the U.S. government in this subtle genocide, while pushing the U.S. government to act for the peaceful resolution of the war. The U.S. government can pressure the Ugandan government to commit to substantial peace talks. With enough support and commitment, this campaign can have a massive impact on the lives of Ugandans living on the brink of death in camps. It can set a new standard of how we utilize international networks and a globalized world to promote justice and humanity.

However, the war will not end simply when hostilities cease for the 18 years of conflict have created their deadly circumstances. The biggest problem is that HIV/AIDS has run rampant throughout the north, especially in the IDP camps. One man told me, “Almost everyone in these camps is infected. In five or ten years, people are going to be dying of disease in mass numbers.” Beyond HIV/AIDS, troubling questions of land distribution, economic institutions, medical access, education and psycho-social problems do and will abound. There will be need for massive amounts of development and relief aid.

The darkest and most complex question in a post-conflict Uganda is that of justice. Some international agents are prematurely attempting to bring in the International Criminal Court to litigate against Kony and his commanders. This is having negative implications on the prospects for peace talks, and it also raises the difficult query of achieving justice when some men have raped, abducted and brutally mutilated hundreds and even thousands of innocent individuals. Further, how do you impose justice on abducted children who have committed heinous crimes against humanity?

Interestingly, most of the people in northern Uganda are rejecting the foreign-imposed Western models for justice. The first ground for such rejection is simple – the people want peace and the ICC is hurting hopes for peace. The second ground is more interesting. In Acholi culture, there are traditional models of forgiveness and reintegration for even the worst of crimes. Even after 18 years of brutality, mass death and suffering, the Acholi people are willing to forgive at least for the sake of reintegration and peace.

In northern Uganda, perhaps the worst and the best of humanity are at play, but the worst is winning out every day in a complex, deadly situation. The war is a vicious example of how the darkest elements of the human heart can arise out of swamps of marginalization, repression and poverty. Yet, the answer to such darkness is not to simply alienate it or stomp it out; the challenge is to understand it and transform it into something good. True peace can only come from such loving transformation, not from brutal annihilation.

The people of northern Uganda are crying out for your and my attention, for the world’s attention. For too long, this war has been hidden and ignored, resulting in mass, hopeless suffering. It is time for the world to listen to the cries of northern Uganda, to move beyond simplified understandings of the war and to commit to true action for a peaceful future. I ask you to join the Africa Faith and Justice Network as we demand an end to this war. The stakes could not be higher and the cause more worthy.

15.4.05

The Real Nightmares of Children Abducted by the LRA - A Cry for Help

Yesterday I visited the Rachele Rehabilitation Center, a center in Lira started in late 2003 to help rehabilitate escaped abductees of the Lord's Resistance Army. The kids at the center range from age 7-17, but there are also some older girls with babies that were born in the "bush" with the commanders of the LRA. Walking through the center, the children and teenagers seem like your average people - kicking around soccer balls, laughing at a movie and waving at the foreign visitors. The reality, however, is that these children have experienced, witnessed and participated in some of the most gruesome and horrific of human action.

When these children are abducted, they are immediately brainwashed and violent manipulated to turn them into vicious killing machines. Some of the children are forced to kill their own families or burn homes with tens of people inside as a start. When they get to the camp, they are forced to witness attempted escapees cut into pieces as a way to instill fear into them. In some cases, they have to participate in the cutting and killing. If they show any signs of thinking about running away, they are killed immediately.

After entrenching complex fear in them, the LRA commanders teach the boys how to use guns and then send them out on missions to loot, abduct more children and kill people in villages. Most of the boys at the center have killed tens of people in a number of complex gruesome fashions. The girls become the "wives" of the LRA commanders, subjected to all and the worst forms of sexual abuse and torture. These children, some as young as 7, see and experience and participate in things that you or I can only fathom in our worst nightmares.

And in the course of this 18-year old conflict, more than 25,000 children have been abducted and subjected to this.

At the center, I got to interview Richard, a 17-year old escaped abductee. As he recalled his abduction and life in the "bush," the pain was intensely apparent in his eyes and face and his twitching hand. It was overwhelming to just watch this poor boy wrestle with the ghosts that will haunt him for the rest of his life. How is such terror possible? And how can such terror continue on for so long with no action from the international bodies?

One of the scariest things that is difficult to understand is that people in the camps describe the children soldiers are the most vicious, deadly killers. This is a testament to the extent of brainwashing, manipulation and fearmongering that they are subjected to by the LRA commanders. Yet, it is also testament to the human capacity for evil that can be awakened in swamps of poverty, marginalisation, abuse and fear.

The stories of abducted children are many and unbearable. However, we have to hear these stories and these voices, because they are a witness to the horrors of war. And they amass a collective cry for the urgency of peace in northern Uganda.

As I write and you read this, more and more children are being subjected to the violence and horror that I have introduced above. Every second that this war continues, more suffering ensues. We have to act for the children of northern Uganda.

14.4.05

Hell on Earth - Revisiting the Horror of Northern Uganda

I am writing from Lira town in northern Uganda, an area on the periphery of a warzone that is undisputably one of the worst humanitarian crises now facing our globe. As I write, the people here are dying of starvation, diarrhea, attacks by the Lord's Resistance Army and more. As one woman told me, "We have no future." The people of northern Uganda - more than 1.6 million living in internally-displaced peoples camps - will not have a future if we remain silent.

The last three days I have visited eight of the camps in Lira and Apac districts. The conditions are putrid and completely, violent inhuman. As my friend put it, it is "hell on earth." And it really is. The situation here is a subtle form of genocide perpetuated by the political and subsequent economic marginalisation of a people with the active and passive complicity of the government and international community.

The conditions in these camps are utterly horrifying - little kids and babies lying naked in the dirt, viciously malnourished with flies all over their bodies; elderly wasting away in puddles; more then ten people living in small tents made of plastic bags taped together; a mass of people crowded together in constant and real fear that the LRA will come to kill them and abduct their children; girls are young as 10 forced into prostitution for as little as 500 shillings a day (30 cents). The situation is truly hell on earth - a hell faced by more than 1.6 million people daily with no hope for peace or relief.

In some of the camps I visited, there is no NGO, government or international presence. In some cases, the government has not even recognized that these camps - with thousands and thousands of people - exist. One man told me, "We are starving to death. By the time you come back to see us, we will probably all be dead." There is no food, and when the people go out to the fields to cultivate, they are attacked. The government is providing no protection and possesses little commitment or will to end the war. It is truly a hopeless situation.

At the final camp I visited - Barr IDP camp in Lira - this one little boy of about 3 took my hand as we walked through what seemed to be an endless camps (home to 40,000+). It finally hit me at that moment that real people, innocent children like this boy will soon die and just become another number of the million casualties of the war. At that second, I wanted to cry and break down and vomit. How can we live in a world where such unjustifiable suffering abounds?

Or perhaps the more constructive query - how should we live? The 18-year old war and crisis in northern Uganda can end, but only if their is will from the Ugandan government and/or international community. Each of us can use our power as citizens to demand that our governments push for peace in Uganda. The capacity is undeniably there; the challenge is the will.

One old man in the camps told me, "Since 1985, we had just had sleepless nights...In some ways, we are already dead. We yearn for peace, but we have no hope anymore."

9.4.05

Leaping Across the Years in Uganda - a Birthday Update

Yesterday I made the monumental American benchmark leap from an existence of 20 years to one of 21. One year ago, I celebrated the advent of my twenties (roaring twenties I hope) by crossing the Indiana-Ohio state border. This year, I spent the day at the Ugandan Parliament, continuing my interviews of Ugandan MPs about the war in northern Uganda. I did have a mean spanish omelette in the morning, which kicked my day off well. At night, a bunch of us went to this sweet little Italian restaurant, following by a trip to the infamous Victoria's Tavern. So now I can drink alcohol wherever I am in the world. Cheers to that.

One of the MPs that I interviewed yesterday represents Gulu District, probably the area hit hardest by the 18-year old war in northern Uganda. He told me that the current government has taken the country from a state of nationalism to one of sectarianism and tribalism. In his view, and mine, the root of the conflict is the political and subsequent economic marginalisation of northerners, dating back to the harsh systems of colonialism.

This MP also criticized much of the international community, especially the United States and World Bank, for hailing Uganda as a success story when it really is a country at war, a nation home to one of the most brutal and deadly conflict across the whole globe. We can only hope that the new World Bank president, the less-than-globally-loved Paul Wolfowitz will change the World Bank's approach in such affairs. I am not holding my breath. Sad how misperceptions can feed policy prescriptions that only exacerbate problems.

Another interesting issue here in Uganda that I have given little coverage is the plight of homosexuals. In this society, the government claims there are no homosexuals, yet they have made numerous strong statements that anyone engaging in homosexual activity will be imprisoned. Homosexuals in this country have been imprisoned without trial, tortured, humiliated and even killed. The legal code considers homosexual activity the same as sex with animals. As a result, homophobic discrimination runs rampant.

One of my friends in this program is studying this issue, and the accounts from homosexuals he is getting are startling and horrifying. Many of the bigoted attitudes held by the majority of people here are pervaded by the Christian and Muslim churches, who equate homosexuality with the works of Satan. There are no protections under law to provide for the rights of such people, and many of the human rights organizations have lacked the courage to tackle this issue. The result is a gaping chasm where multitudes of homosexuals are persecuted. This is a big problem throughout much of the world, and one that I believe the world community is going to have to face in the decades ahead.

Speaking of the religious institutions in this country, it is clear that while they do much good, they are also breeding conflict and hindering development efforts. In terms of conflict, many of the rising evangelical churches (funded mainly by conservative American church groups) are preaching hatred of Muslims. One guy in the villages told me, "I have to hate Muslims. They are bad people." In terms of hindering development, many of the churches preach against the use of birth control and condoms, where those avenues are the most effective in keeping people safe from HIV/AIDS, not to mention controlling a rapidly increasing population that is no way sustainable. While churches can be on the forefront of work for peace, justice and the common good (i.e. Acholi Religious Leaders for Peace in northern Uganda), they can also perpetuate structures and attitudes of complacency that only cause more suffering and death.

Well, I am off to the north tomorrow, to Lira District to revisit IDP camps for interviews about the causes, effects and situation of the war. I will be there for about a week, probably without computer access. You can be sure, though, I will write a lot when I get back.

Peace across the continents and days.

6.4.05

"Study Linguistics or Die" - Latest Observer Piece from Kampala

My latest Observer column is below. The title is a bit rash, but I hope it gets people's attention. Things here in Kampala are good - lots of work interviewing different people and working on my report. The heat has lessened a bit, which is nice. Cheers.

"Study Linguistics of Die"
Column to be Published Wednesday, April 13 in Notre Dame Observer

This week as the rush to register ensues, you can choose from seventeen languages. Yet, while you can dabble in any number of these exotic tongues, you are restricted from studying the very root of it all: language itself. While anthropology might offer a novice linguistic anthropology survey course, Notre Dame, like almost all contemporary American universities, lacks a linguistics department. This absence is not only an academic void for all of us students, but it is symptomatic of a defective modern understanding of language.

It is redundant and stating the obvious to note that language is powerful, but it is the scope and nature of that power which has become cloudy in our times. As anyone who has seriously studied a foreign language knows, languages hold cultural, political, social, religious and traditional insights within their structures. Even further, the application of language holds tremendous power as selected syntax and diction have entrenched dictatorships, propelled social movements and instigated warfare. To study history, science or nearly any field without sensitivity for linguistics is to make a grave academic blunder.

Here in Uganda, study of the languages – Luganda in the central Buganda region – highlights a number of cultural realities. For example, there is no direction translation for hello in the Lugandan language. There really is not a one-word standard greeting. People always ask “oli otya?” (How are you?) or “ki kati?” (What’s up?) or “ogambaki?” (What do you say?). This simple linguistic difference accentuates profound cultural differences. In Uganda, people do not run by each other and throw out a one or two-word greeting; people stop and actually talk to each other about their welfare and days.

Another example is that when greeting people, Ugandans always say “gyebale,” which literally translates to ‘thank you for the work you do.’ No matter the nature of the work done, people believe it is important to thank each other for their work. This significant part of customary Ugandan life is visible only with a linguistic lens to understand the quotidian greetings.

Such linguistic insights raise a myriad of queries about how languages are constructed, how they evolve and how we learn them. The literature on linguistic study is actually rich and bountiful, ranging from scientific theories on linguistic cognition to studies on the intricacies of political semantic manipulation. Unfortunately, such critical literature and study are generally homeless in the modern American university.

The result of such a failed awareness of linguistics is dangerous because language is constantly being manipulated and controlled all around us, deeply impacting the politico-economic systems in which we operate. The language utilized (very selectively and consciously) by the leaders of such systems is meant to shape the way we perceive debates, issues, problems and even the whole of the world.

Here in Uganda, the president Youweri Museveni is a master of such careful semantic maneuvering. As the political system attempts to shift from a one-party state to one of multipartyism, Museveni refuses to admit that the Movement (the one party of the one-party state) is a party. He calls it an organization to give it an elevated status over the other political parties.

Further, Museveni constantly speaks of the weakness of the forming political parties, implying with his language that their victory will bring the country back to the dark chapters of its history under Milton Obote and Idi Amin. Museveni’s lingustic prowess allows him to subtly pervade fear amongst the population, which will most likely ensure his continued hegemony. Similarly, our own president has exhibited his own linguistic aptitude/exploitation, especially last year during the electoral season.

It is not only an academic oversight to miss the linguistic dimensions of each field, but it also quite dangerous. Without awareness and sensitization, we can easily be coerced and misguided by the linguistic scheming of individuals and groups. The way that the majority of the American population blindly accepted the Bush Administration’s pre-Iraq war justification is a key example.

Yet along with guarding against such abuse, consciousness of linguistics is empowering and emboldening. Linguistic awareness and proficiency can help us to challenge systems of injustice, exploitation and violence.

Writers with the power of pen (or computer keyboard in recent decades) can change the hearts and minds of millions simply with the right assortment of words. Speechwriters and performers can dazzle the emotions of masses with their phrases and appeals. Movements, selecting the right language, can challenge even the mightiest structures of oppression. Most of all, recipients of such writings, media and speeches can become more informed, critical individuals.

Notre Dame may not get a linguistics department any time soon, but that does not mean professors and students alike cannot work to enhance our attentiveness to the evident linguistic dynamics at work all around us. Study of language will empower us to build a healthier, more participatory democracy in our own country and throughout the world. With the conglomeration of power by the political and economic elite throughout the globe, the demand for such informed citizenry could not be greater.

2.4.05

This is What a Police State Looks Like - A Watershed for the Pearl of Africa

The madness of the Ugandan political climate continues on. As I alluded to in my last posting, there was an opposition protest completely repressed by the police this week. I was not at the protest, so I cannot give first-hand accounts, but according to the newspapers, a few hundred people gathered at Constitutional Square Thursday late morning to protest against the repeal of the term limits that would allow President Youweri Museveni to stay in power (he has already been in power for 19 years). The government had made a dubious statement that Tuesday that there would be no more demonstrations, so there was fear that Thursday's demonstration would be violently repressed by the police. And it was.

The police used tear gas to clear the entire area, and riot police with large guns and masks patrolled the area for about four hours on big army trucks. They told people in that area (the center of town) to close their shops and return home. There were also gunshots, and luckily it is reported that no one was shot. They sprayed tear gas in powder form from large trucks, and the tear gas could be felt within a mile radius of the square.

Last week, there was such hope as police allowed anti-government groups to demonstrate and march peacefully for the first time in 20 years. That hope was shattered on Thursday as the government resorted to its old tactics of oppression and intimidation. With elections one year away, this is a bad sign for what lies ahead in the coming year. Hopefully, the international community and press will be able to monitor intensely and pressure for fairness and openness surrounding the elections.

As I wrote in an earlier posting, Uganda faces a watershed moment where it could either step toward democracy and economic growth or plunge into an abyss of internal conflict and violence. This week, I interviewed a number of MPs from opposition group about the coming elections and the political shift towards multipartyism. Many of them were hopeful and passionate, but they all spoke of doom if Museveni manipulates the process and wins a third term with violent coercion.

Yesterday, one woman parliamentarian, when I asked her about what happens if Museveni gets his wish and manipulates the process, did not blink an eye and told me, "bloodshed." She continued, "Personally I don't believe in using violence for politics, but I will not attempt to persuade anyone who thinks differently. We (the opposition) have waited and struggled peacefully and democratically for 20 years, but at some point, the waiting must stop. If this president defies the very constitution he made, the time for democratic change will have run out." This seems to be the dominant perception.

It is definitely an interesting time to be in Uganda, and an important time to be following the news about Uganda. The international community, which contributes 48-52% of the revenue of the national budget holds a great deal of power that it can use to influence the direction of the east African nation as it approaches the watershed. Let's hope and act that it will use that power positively for the good of the people of Uganda.