(I've changed the name from "Rants" given that I can't really rant about many things that frustrate me here, at least not without getting into some sort of trouble. As such, you'll have to wait for the book.)

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Northern Uganda - Part 2

The next morning we were off. The weather had cleared up and the roads, with the exception of a couple of tricky spots, would be fine. Our initial destination would be Agoro, tucked into the base of the mountains that form the northern border with South Sudan.

In the early 1970s, Agoro was holiday resort for high profile visitors to Uganda and holiday home for President Idi Amin, who left an indelible mark on this land after constructing a huge prison farm. It’s an amazingly beautiful area and Amin’s attraction to it is no surprise in spite of its remote location.

Agoro, Uganda; the border with S. Sudan is the ridge of the mtns.
While driving to Agoro, I asked some staff how they viewed Amin and whether or not they had seen the movie the Last King of Scotland. They had all seen the movie and were all in agreement that it was a disappointment. They, like most Ugandans, have more of a complex view of Idi Amin and what he contributed to their country. While most agree that he did some horrible things, they feel he was also endearing in many ways. At different times during the trip staff would recount stories of interesting, funny and whimsical things that Amin did. For example one time he required government ministers to spend a few days working on the prison farm so that they could get a taste of what the common man has to go through on a daily basis. He also would often stop his vehicle and engage with locals in various sports. I think for those who were not directly affected by the brutal killings of his government, it’s probably easier to take a more nuanced view of his leadership.
Unfortunately after the time of Amin, the beautiful area of Agoro was submerged under a shadow of misery brought about by the insecurity and prolonged unrest perpetuated by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). I’ll try to be brief but I think it’s good to have an understanding of what happened in this area. The people seem to feel that in the wake of the LRA’s departure, the world is quickly forgetting them as they work to recover.
The LRA’s motives have always been heavily debated. Some believe that their naissance in the north of Uganda suggests independence as a driving factor in their terror. But their horrific treatment of their fellow northern citizens (children abducted as soldiers, rape, theft, etc.) makes that less plausible. Their rhetoric, limited as it was, seemed to point to more of a general anti-government sentiment. As their numbers have now declined and as they were pushed into the Congo and now into the Central African Republic, it seems they may now be more motivated by simple survival.
Connected to northern Uganda’s troubles with the LRA was the situation just to the north in Sudan. Prior to the recent separation between Sudan and South Sudan, the protracted conflict between the Muslim north and the Christian south was a constant thorn in the backside of the Islamic Sudanese government. With accusations that Christian Uganda was supporting the efforts in southern Sudan, the Sudanese government allowed the LRA to establish bases in their country along the Uganda border.
All hell broke loose when the Ugandan government launched operation “Iron Fist” to flush out the LRA from their bases in southern Sudan. The bad situation turned worse as northern Uganda subsequently came under brutal attack. Thousands of children were abducted and forced into becoming child soldiers. Rape was rampant. Thousands were killed. The entire population of was displaced for about a decade beginning in the late ‘90s. To protect the population, the citizens of northern Uganda were consolidated into dozens of concentrated “camps” or densely populated villages provided military support. 

While it did assist in providing security, it was only limited. Military postings were strangely placed in the middle of these camps which left the periphery open to attack. Several camp massacres took place. Anyone walking along a road, particularly women and children, were vulnerable. As we drove past people walking or riding bicycles, staff told us this was something that would never happen during the years of the war. With this displacement, the bulk of the population of Agoro was confined to the trading center in the middle of the village. From there they were provided relief food by the World Food Program. Houses were built only a couple meters from each other and life was a claustrophobic struggle in constant fear of attack.
The Long Road to Recovery
As the war went on and the LRA was eventually being driven out, fear began to subside and people gradually returned to their land and their lives. Little by little, people began to venture out and build a sense of normality. Much had changed due to the protracted war. The infrastructure was destroyed and is slowly being rebuilt. Land disputes are still being settled. Formerly abducted children are now adults and struggle to put the past behind them.
As we arrived in Agoro, it would be easy to believe that none of this had ever happened. At a glance it seems that it would be more of a holiday destination rather than a war zone. The bordering mountains are lush and green. People are out working the fields, some by hand, others with the aid of oxen. The market was full of bright colors as vendors were selling their goods – everything from vegetables to baskets to rubber boots to plastic ware from China.  
Agriculture Project
We made our way to a plot of land being farmed by a co-op and supported by our organization. The group, primarily women – seven of whom had small children in tow, sang and chanted as we arrived. They explained the improved farming techniques and the value of the co-op in improving their livelihood. We went from there to a village savings and loan group which has also been instrumental in improving their ability to grow their incomes. Testimonies revealed that families were able to pay school fees so that the next generation would lead better lives than their own.
The last stop in Agoro was a grain drying and storage facility. For relatively little investment from donors, this facility (and now cell phones) has been making a huge difference in the ability for farmers’ access to markets and move beyond subsistence farming.
Palabek Kal
After a farewell to the local administrator (mayor), we were off to Palabek Kal, southwest of Agoro. Recent rain had made the roads a bit precarious in places. However we were never in any danger of getting stuck.

There we visited an interesting project of combined livelihoods and parenting support. Under the shade of a mango tree we heard testimonies of people who had been assisted by the project. One woman in particular talked about having been formerly abducted as a child. After years of abuse she was released. Needless to say she had a hard time adjusting to her new life. She had difficulty relating to people and shut herself off from society. Little by little, including through support from this project, she is regaining confidence and learning how to associate with others. She is now married, has a small child and seems to be turning her life around. Can’t imagine what that must be like.
It was now late in the day and we needed to return to Kitgum before dark. We had succeeded in dodging storms throughout the day and the road was good. The low sun cast a beautiful light across the Ugandan countryside. I often look out the window on trips like this wishing I could just stop and hang out in one of the local villages. Not only does time not allow for it, it’s difficult for a Westerner to do such things in an unobtrusive manner. It’s hard to pop in for some quick roasted goat, chat about the day’s events and carry on. I suppose that is the appeal of Peace Corp or some missionary work where you are a part of these villages long enough that you don’t attract as much attention.
We arrived back at Kitgum, tired and crusted over with the reddish brown dirt. It was a very good day and I think we all agreed that the long drives were worth it. Nonetheless, we still had another 8 long hours back to Entebbe the next morning. For now, however, it was time for a quick shower in preparation for a dinner with the local staff. Throughout the visit they communicated that they don’t often get visits like this these days since the program has been reduced. Donor interest is waning in places like this with all of the other international crises, most notably Syria. Both they and the beneficiaries were encouraged by our interest in their activities. We all agree that it will be a challenging future for them to maintain their support for these communities and even their jobs. Regardless of what happens, the people in northern Uganda are in a better place. Let’s hope it stays that way.

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