I met this young man at the Concerned Parent’s Association (CPA) rehabilitation center in Kitgum town. He was a rebel just 7 days before we met. He was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) 5 years earlier and was forced into its ranks. I was shocked by his malnourished state and was explained that food can be very hard to come by in the bush. The stories I heard at the rehabilitation center gave me nightmares. These boys say that the number of people that they have killed and abducted in their time with the LRA is so great that they cannot count. In addition to performing the extreme brutality of the LRA’s killings, they were also forced to other horrific acts such as eating the brains of their victims and the killing of their own family members.
How does a military fight this war, when they are fighting formerly abducted children? Each military victory is very often the death of someone's abducted child. It is very often said by the Ugandan military (UPDF) that if they capture a rebel, then they have rescued an abducted child. And if they kill a rebel, than they have killed a terrorist.
The day we were traveling with the RDC in Kitgum district, our military convoy came across a fresh ambush. That’s when I saw Emmanuel, age 25. He had been in the cab of the truck that was ambushed. I dropped to my knees and tried to remember to take pictures. “…God rest his soul…” repeated in my head like a mantra and for the first time in my life I felt like making the sign of the cross for him. This woman, a stranger from a nearby camp, came out of nowhere and took it upon herself to re-arrange the body and to close his eyes. I had never seen a murdered body before. Somehow I was able to look into people’s eyes for longer after that. I don’t know why or what it means, but everything seemed different. 2 days later, the military tried to confiscate my film.
Emmanuel was buried in the ground of his mother and father's homestead within Kitgum town. Neighbours mobilized within hours of learning of this young man’s murder to console the family, ready the food and beverages, erect tents to shade mourners, build the coffin and bury the body. Hundreds attended, wept, held hands and prayed. The communities are so accustomed to death, that funerals such as this are a frequent part of their lives.
Emmanuel was on his way to try to sell goods at a market only 50 kilometers away. The trip taken was one he did knowing the odds that an ambush could happen, and that his life could be taken. It was, however, the only means to support his parents, his one sister still in school, his wife and children and his other sister’s family. An entire extended family no longer have a father, brother, uncle, son and perhaps more important in terms of life and death, a source of income.
There are also numerous reports of torture and rape by the Ugandan People’s Defense Forces (UPDF).
Most of the soldiers deployed in this conflict are also from the region. It makes the circle of war even more incomprehensible as you have Acholi in the Ugandan Military fighting and killing Acholi in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who are in turn killing Acholi civilians.
I joined the World Food Program’s distribution at Palaro IDP Camp. All food distribution travels in heavily armed military convoys. The people here, as in all camps, are denied access to their farming lands for “security” purposes and are thus completely dependant on this aid for their survival. They are supposed to receive rations once a month, but several people in line told me that they hadn’t received food for over two months. Upon inquiry, I found out that sometimes shipments cannot travel if the military requires the use of the convoys for other military purposes. On this day, it started pouring rain partway through distribution. Their ration cards became wet, confusion ensued and the WFP shut down the distribution with 1/4 of the food remaining in the trucks because they feared chaos. 1/4 of the camp did not receive their rations and would not receive more until the next scheduled distribution. I couldn’t get over the paradox that people were starving on some of the most fertile land in the world.
Northern Uganda was once the breadbasket of the country. The military has not been able to thwart LRA attacks on camps, which frequently occur right after WFP distribution when children and adults are abducted to carry off the loot and replenish LRA ranks. Camps are referred to locally as a "one-stop shopping centers” for the LRA.
Imagine your daughter having to rise at 5am each morning from the cold ground she slept on, perhaps still wet from the night rain. She collects her meager belongings, ties her younger brother (your son) to her back and trudges through dawn in the wave of other children also returning home. She arrives in time to do small chores and change into her school uniform. She leaves her brother with an elderly neighbour. She does not eat breakfast. She walks miles to school to spend the long day learning on an empty stomach and tired from lack of sleep. She is distracted. Her little brother has a cough that hasn’t gone away in some weeks, and some of the older men in town have been giving her a hard time. They want her to have sex with them. They told her that they’d give her some blankets. She returns home from school nervous and exhausted. Still, she completes her chores – finds firewood, draws water from a nearby river and cooks cassava and beans. With great care, she writes her homework by the light of the fire. She sweeps the grounds, washes the dishes and her uniform, bathes her younger brother and then she bathes herself. It is getting dark. The other children are already streaming past her. She hurriedly collects her belongings and baby brother to make the trip to the relative safety of town. But first she slips on an extra pair of underpants to feel safe from those older men.