by: Fr. Carlos Rodriguez, in northern Uganda
A great good deal of what is being published in Uganda about the conflict in the North is written by people who sit either in Kampala or abroad. Aggressive scribes who censor, prescribe remedies, advocate, condemn, and proclaim quasi-dogmatic statements from their air-conditioned offices. Little judges more familiar with the Sheraton or Munyonyo Speke ballrooms, or with the London universities than with the mud and wattle huts of the displaced camps.
As for your poor columnist, the day I go away from the North, I shall stop writing about this tragedy because I’ll have nothing to say. Whatever I say, I state it from inside; from what I see and hear from the victims.
One of the temptations I have always resisted is to accept invitations to speak abroad about northern Uganda. I speak from here, with nothing to hide.
So, today I wanted to tell you that a couple of weeks ago I spent some few hours visiting a most peculiar village in Gulu district. It is six kilometres inside the bush.
Some years ago people in this village used to have a normal life, digging their fields and sleeping in their homes; then they vacated the place and went to live in the nearby displaced people’s camps. But for some months now, a few hundred have voluntarily returned and they have a semblance of a normal life. During daytime they stay at their homes –which they have rebuilt – and work at their gardens. At night, everybody moves close to the nearby military detach and sleep safely in small huts. Everybody told me that relations with the soldiers are very good, a key element in ensuring stability. I also talked to some of the soldiers and they really looked motivated. A company that does commercial farming has opened a good road and those who wish to join their scheme can cultivate one or two acres – from their own land, whose property they retain – sell the produce and get some cash.
My only objection (or is it undue suspicion?) is to wonder whether that security arrangement that has resettled hundreds has been made for the sake of the people or for the sake of that American-sponsored company. But that is another story.
Of course, some fear still remains, but most people told me: “You see, before we returned here to our villages, it was a miserable life in the displaced people’s camps; the whole day redundant doing nothing, but now at least we are producing our own food, we are recovering our traditions and we feel free”.
Two boreholes provide enough water for the community. The only inconvenience is that the nearby school cannot yet operate and children have to walk six kilometres, the same distance to reach the nearest dispensary, but that is not unusual in rural Uganda, anyway.
On the whole, it was one of the rare occasions where I have visited a community of folks in Acholi made up of happy and hopeful families with a future to look to.
As soon as I left, I started thinking why it would not be possible to see that happening in many more places. The genuine sign that peace is closer is not the number of rebels supposedly killed, but the number of people who can go back to their homes and rebuild their shattered lives. I used to keep detailed records of the official briefings – mirrors of truth and fairness admired worldwide – about how many LRA were killed monthly (only rebels, of course, abducted children are never killed, they are only rescued), until I noticed a most peculiar pattern: every few months it was announced that only 300 remained, only to hear six months later that after that previous date 900 had been either killed or surrendered.
I couldn’t make sense of the additions and subtractions, but ever since I was a child I was never good at Maths, anyway.I, and many others, will understand better the statistics of dwindling figures of displaced people and growing figures of people who go back to their homes.
As the government continues to pursue a strategy of maintaining security through military means, attracting rebels out of the bush through the Amnesty and leaving the door open for a negotiated end, it may also find it wise to pursue a fourth element: to work towards organising a gradual normalisation of people’s lives by helping them move closer to their homes.
It is not impossible. I saw a hopeful sample two weeks ago. Those who are ready to leave their comfort in the Kampala offices or the universities abroad and come right here can see it with their own eyes too.
Contact Fr. Carlos at firstname.lastname@example.org. The author is a Catholic missionary working in northern Uganda since 1985.