Friday, July 16, 2010

Gulu (Caution, this is not for the light hearted)

A few weekends ago some of the girls and I went up to Gulu in Northern Uganda to teach in some of the schools and to learn more about the war that had been going on there since the late 1980's and just ended a few years ago. I haven't had time to write about the whole experience because I have been so busy working on other projects. I want to write about it now though because visiting Gulu has been such an important part of my overall experience here in Uganda.

To give you some background, for the past two decades Northern Uganda has been terrorized by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) which is lead by Joseph Koney. At night the LRA would attack small villages, stealing all their food, kidnapping all their children, and killing most everyone else. The children they kidnapped were forced to carry the bags of food on their bags and walk long distances in an impossible amount of time. Then they were forced to either kill or be killed. Often the soldiers would use the children to get information about other members of the village. They would then force the children to go in and attack their own neighbors, killing some and kidnapping others.

Children were so afraid of being kidnapped that every night they would walk up to 10 miles just so that they could sleep within the safety of the Gulu city limits. Children crowded the train station and anywhere else they could find a safe place to sit. These children, known as night commuters, were packed into random buildings so tightly that there wasn't even anywhere for them to lay down.

It seems everyone we spoke with in Gulu had been kidnapped by the LRA at one point or another. Their only hope of escape was to wait for an air strike by the Ugandan government and to flee in the confusion. Some were to scared to ever escape though, LRA soldiers told them that if they were to ever run the LRA would hunt down their families and kill them all. One man told us of his friends that had been brave enough to attempt an escape. LRA soldiers later found them in their village and as their punishment put them in a pot of boiling water and then forced the other children soldiers to eat them. They were used as a lesson for everyone else who had ever thought of escaping.

We heard many stories like this all weekend from people who had experienced the worst of it. I can't describe to you how it made me feel. The acts committed again these children were so horrendous and yet as you walked through the streets of Gulu you would never guess at it's horrid past. I never cease to be amazed by the resilience of the African people. It seems no matter what happens to them the pick up and carry on with life, all while sing praises to God for the blessings they do have.

This painting was hanging on the wall of a rehabilitation center for children who have escaped from the LRA. Although the LRA has not been in Uganda for a few years now (they are now believed to be hiding somewhere in The Congo) there are still people escaping from their army and coming to the rehabilitation center.
This is one of the buildings where night commuters used to come to sleep at night. It has since been remodeled but at the time it wasn't nearly this nice. This place is now used for a center for women who were once victims of the LRA.
More buildings where night commuters used to go to sleep. These building were usually protected by guards at night so that the LRA could not attack the children.
This man was kidnapped by the LRA when he was a child but wasn't able to escape until recently. When he reached the rehabilitation center he had a gunshot wound do his head and fragments of his skull were missing.
This is one of the school's we went and taught at while we were in Gulu. The school had just recently been moved to it's original location after being held in an internal displaced persons camp (IDP camp) for the past several years. People are finally starting to leave the IDP camps to go to their native villages but most of them are being forced to start their lives from scratch. These children didn't even have a proper school house (the building behind them).
This is a mass grave in the place where the LRA attacked and killed a whole village in the summer of 2004.
An IDP camp. The Ugandan government forced people to move into IDP camps against their own will. The government promised to keep people safe but IDP camps were often attacked by the LRA. The guards were often the first ones to take off running.
This man was kidnapped by the LRA when he was 6. He survived as a soldier for 10 years until he got shot in the leg at which point the LRA just left him to fend for himself. He survived in the bush for a year trying to take care of his leg. Finally he gained favor in the eyes of Joseph Koney who agreed to let him be released to one of the IDP camps. In the end he lost his leg and spent years in rehabilitation.
This is the group that went to Gulu. Denis (the man) was so kind as to be our own personal guide the whole weekend and put us in contact with the schools we were able to visit.

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