Crying for Attention, Singing for Peace - Awareness is Not Enough Anymore.
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 email@example.com. Peace from Uganda to all of you across the seas.