Sunday, November 26, 2006

Thanksgiving with the Lord's Resistance Army

One of the perks of this job is that I find myself in the strangest places while the rest of my friends and family are enjoying normal, wholesome activities. I've spent Thanksgivings in Ghana, en route to Darfur, and finally now - in the capitol of South Sudan, Juba!

If you remember my previous descriptions of Juba, you'll be amazed to know that in the past 8 months - a lot of things have changed. No, there still aren't roads, the soldiers still haven't been disarmed, the refugees and internally displaced people are still on their own to try to make things work. BUT - there is an ongoing peace process being hosted by the Government of South Sudan (Riek Machar - better known as Mr. Emma's War to some) who is trying to get the Lord's Resistance Army and the Ugandan People's Defense forces to sit down and stop terrorizing people in Uganda and south Sudan. And there are now MANY MANY restaurants and tented camps to chase down potential interviewees in Sudan. The development economy strikes again - gotta feed and get those humanitarian workers drunk!

Much to my chagrin, we only learned that the peace talks had gone into recess the evening before we left for Juba. We had to go anyway because we had spent two whole days plus several hours trying to make it work - get the South Sudan visa, get a place to stay, get a ride to the airport, get the name of the guy in charge. All of that would have been for naught and we had made a promise to our boss that we would do our best.

So we arrived in South Sudan with heavy hearts and visions of the previous visits collapsing tents, mudslides, and strandings vivid in our mind. My friend Melissa, that I met last time, picked us up from the airport and drove us back to the OCHA compound. So far so good - everyhting looked the same except that there were a lot of road construction vehicles around. Got to the OCHA compound and everyone was the same! I saw all the same people. Drove to Mango camp - slightly different but still very familiar. Next day - our car never showed up to pick us up. Same as last time! Went to the OCHA compound and sat around trying to make appointments - same as last time!

So what's different? Well - after wandering around and being told that everyone we had come there to see had gone to Kampala for the weekend (where we had been), we randomly ran into a man looking for directions to UNICEF on thanksgiving day. We gave him a lift over there and when we got there, we asked him what he was doing there. He said - "I'm part of the LRA peace delegation!" Exactly the people we had come to see. We hurriedly made an appointment to meet him back at 5pm at their camp "Juba Bridge".

Kavita and I arrived early to our appoinment and all fo the LRA delegates got up out of their sleep to come sit in plastic chairs near the river Nile to talk to us. Ugandans, particularly Acholi Ugandans, tend to be very soft spoken. Sudan is a loud place. As the first man began to speak, someone walked over to the large television that was perched in a tree (so if you didn't want to gaze at the Nile, you could watch satellite television in front of the nile instead) and switched it on. The familiar opening notes to the intro from "Six Feet Under" banged out. Behind me, a construction worker began to weld something. The flies made a beeline for my eyes and we began the familiar greetings and courtesies for our interview.

Two hours later, we were still talking and trying to get them to admit that the International criminal court wasn't pursuing Joseph Kony (famed abductor of children and mutilator of victims) fo no reason. They insisted over and over again that he was a freedom fighter. What about the children who were abducted from schools and forced to kill their class mates? What about the mutilations of people and the accusations of cannibalism? What about Kony's 'rule by the ten commandments' and previously apolitical stance? All of those abuses? Commited by the UPDF. All those children we interviewed? Brainwashed by the UPDF. But the sad thing was, these guys were the intellectuals, the prized sons of the Acholi people who had been exiled from their land and sent away to the US, to Nairobi, to the UK to make money and send it home to help their brothers and sisters. "We're the ones that pay the school fees." they told us. And they were intelligent. They were well spoken and proud. But I think they made a deal with the devil to represent him while they try to bring peace to Acholiland to let their brothers and sisters leave the horrible displacement camps and go home in peace. I don't think they believed what they were saying to us about Kony. I think they are just desperate for peace.

Kavita and I went back to our little tented camp on the banks of the river Nile - just a few blocks up and sat down to analyze our Thanksgiving. Peace seems possible but noone knows what will happen. The ICC indictments are a stumbling block. I was dying to ask the LRA delegation that why, if Kony was so innocent, he was afraid to face trial in the Hague? If he loved his people so much, wouldn't that be a small price to pay to bring them peace? But we had listened to every conspiracy theory under the sun from them. We had heard all about the agricultural land grab going on (not that I don't believe it) and our throats were parched from the dusty night in Sudan and we didn't feel like we were making any progress. So instead, we went back to Mango camp. Sat under the mango trees looking at the Nile work its way up to Khartoum, and toasted to peace in Uganda and Sudan with a cold Bell lager.

Happy Thanksgiving

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Juba Jubilee

Greetings from Juba, South Sudan! It’s so hot and humid here after cool temperate Uganda. I’m sweating like a pig.

I’ve returned to the same tented camp as I stayed in before, “the Mango camp”. However, its 8 months later and things have changed.

I’ve got my own tent here – which is nice – and they also have internet connections now so I was able to Skype/chat my fellow advocate Sean in Brussels and Camilla in the US simultaneously. The line of army green tents (1-10) is still the same but for privacy reasons, I guess, they have put these ugly rattan screens in front of the ‘porch area’ on the front. They look ramshackle and like they are about to collapse in front of the tent. There are also a lot of bugs in my tent and the front flap won’t zip up correctly. As some of you may know, I do not like bugs. I’m afraid to kill them and I don’t want them to jump on me. I’d rather handle a lizard, a snake, and a mouse than some bugs. There are some HUMONGOUS grasshoppers in here. When I pulled down the mosquito net over my cot, one was inside! Yikes – I scooped him off the bed but I don’t know where he is now. Hopefully not in my suitcase amongst my underwear, waiting to jump out on me tomorrow morning. I also have a ‘head lamp’ style flashlight. It attaches to the top of my head on an elastic band like a coal miners lamp. I used it to go into the bathroom this evening and since it was the only light there, all the bugs swarmed in front of my eyes and face. Not ideal.

There’s been other changes too. Where in April, they had small wooden tables and chairs arrayed under the mango trees along the bank of the Nile, now they have white plastic tables and chairs under tents with electric lights and fans in them. Helps with the heat but the ambience is not the same. There’s a separate bar from the dining table and they play cheesy 80s music. There are a lot of white railings put up along the Nile bank and ‘car port’ type covers guiding the entrance. I liked it better when it seemed super rustic but I suppose that is the nostalgia talking. It’s easy to remember the mango trees and the moonlight and the nile and to forget the rivulets of sweat streaming down my back and the sticky heat.

A friend of mine in Uganda asked me if I would like to take a position there in her UN agency yesterday. While I’m tempted, I’m not sure if that is what I want to do. And I’m a lot not sure if I want to move to Africa. Today in the Kampala/Entebbe airport was a perfect example of why. We got to the “Royal Daisy Air” check in counter 2 hours in advance of our 1 hour flight, as requested. There was one person in front of us. So we lined up behind him. The sullen Ugandan woman at the counter next to “Royal Daisy Air” said something so softly, I could not hear her. I walked closer to hear what she said and she said “you have to stand in that line” (which was where I was before I walked over to hear what she had to say). Then we got to the front and handed over our passports, tickets, and South Sudan passes (a special type of Visa that the Southern Sudanese issue in lieu of the Northern Sudan’s visa). They wanted to charge us extra for our baggage weight (which was 15 pounds over the 30 pound limit for two people) – but instead of just telling us that, they made a whole song and dance about how we knew that there was a weight limit and pointed to a small box on the airplane ticket which we could not read which was supposed to have told us that. We got into a discussion about how noone had told us that and we couldn’t leave anything behind. Finally it became clear that we could just pay $20 and it would all be fine. Then they wanted to reject the $20 bill we gave them to pay for the overage because it wasn’t printed after 2004. Supposedly there was a huge counterfeiting scheme that took place with pre-2004 US bills so noone will take them anymore. But not actually – they will take them but for a lower exchange rate. Does that make sense? Not at all. So as to make sure we could move around southern Sudan, we had to pay $50 to exchange our 1996 and 2001 US currency $100 bills for 2004 US currency $100 bills. Nothing is simple here. NOTHING! And this is the most advanced country in Africa after South Africa! What in the hell would it be like to live in South Sudan?

In Uganda– there are paved roads and newspapers and radio stations and taxis and high rises. In southern Sudan, there are unpaved rutted flooded clay paths and you have to use satellite phones and our taxi forgot to pick us up from our meeting tonight so we had to hitch a ride from some Canadian guy. Oh – and I also wanted to tell you my favorite Ugandan news story from the paper this morning. It appears that there was a Canadian fellow with the last name of Hornsleth who moved to Uganda. He wanted to help Ugandans so he started buying pigs and would distribute them to poor Ugandans but only if they changed their name to Hornsleth. Now there are about 1000 people with that last name. And last week, many of them applied for visas to go to Canada and meet this guy (who was thrown out of the country, I think). So the government doesn’t want to give them visas because they all changed their names. So none with the last name of Hornsleth is now allowed to get a visa. Hurray for Africa!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Pader and Small Luxuries

After two days in Kitgum, I was apprehensive about arriving in Pader. According to my colleague, when she was here in 2004, conditions were dire and the lodging choices were extremely primitive. The hotel she stayed in was the kind where a drunk Ugandan soldier wearing sunglasses at night with three women on his lap sits and drinks beer all night and shouts at you on your way to avoid the outdoor latrine. She warned me that we might not be able to bathe the whole time we were here.

Imagine our joy and surprise to find that GOAL, an Irish NGO working on water and sanitation here has a guest house. While there is no running water, there are abundant jerry cans filled with water and electricity for three hours a day. Today, I got to take a bucket bath with a giant spider in a concrete stall lit with a kerosene lamp. But I was thrilled that I could get water and wash the dust off of me.

But the most amazing thing is that there is a restaurant in town and internet access! In our room even! The 21st century is an amazing thing. The reason the restaurant is so exciting is that I just spent three days in Kitgum where there was only one place to eat in town - and it was terrible. The BOMAH hotel has the worst service I've ever seen in my life. You must literally chase the waiters around the courtyard that is littered with abandoned plastic water bottles to get them to take your order. And you should do this several times as they forget to put it in. And all they served was beef stew on rice. There don't appear to be any vegetables in Kitgum so the beef stew as gristly hard to chew beef floating in a greasy gravy. Luckily in Uganda, they have abundant bottles of chili garlic sauce on all the tables so you can also flavor your rice with that.

The restaurant in Pader though is my favorite thing here. It is run by young child mothers who have been released from the Lord’s Resistance Army. Many of them arrive from the bush, malnourished and pregnant with small children and they are very young themselves. It is difficult for them to go to school and many of them face stigmatization and rejection by their families. Another mouth or three to feed puts a strain on families in these overcrowded camps.

This amazing woman, Alice Acca, runs a group called CCF: Christian Counseling Fellowship, that has a reintegration center where the young mothers as well as other returning LRA abductees can stay for a few weeks while they get used to being free. They provide counseling, safety, and a secure environment for the young mothers as well as counseling their families and the community that they will be reintegrating into. In addition to these services, Alice is also launching vocational training and sells the bead necklaces that the girls make. I will be returning with some examples. But one of the most innovative ideas is the bakery and small restaurant that these girls run. The food there is delicious and its clean and neat. The residents of Pader are happy to have a bakery. It’s small steps like these that may help these girls and their children start a new life.

And they make a delicious vegetable dish that is basically spinach in a peanut sauce. So I can now check email and eat vegetables and hopefully help out some of these young child mothers at the same time. Life is good in pader.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Good Times in Gulu

I went out to the most beautiful place today –a site where some Acholi were rebuilding their village. Since the peace talks between the LRA and the government of Uganda, there has been a virtual peace in Gulu – the heart of Acholi land in Uganda. The roads are full of people moving between the ‘mother camps’ where they were forcibly interned by the government of Uganda and areas that are quite close to the people’s areas of origin but have not been formally declared accessible by the government of Uganda.

The weather here is perfect- today we had a clear blue sky with fluffy white clouds, seventy degree weather without humidity, a fresh breeze blowing through the trees and grasses bringing the faint smell of wood smoke to our noses, and the faint sound of a goat crying and the sound of birds and insects in the trees.

When we got to the site, on our left was a new Ugandan army deployment where soldiers dug ditches and women washed clothes. A soldier was dancing to the sounds of a radio as we pulled up to the road block (a stick placed across the way with the words STOP written in white chalk next to it). I was a little nervous about them because we’ve heard terrible stories about the way they’ve treated the Acholis. From the road we could see the outlines of a few huts but as we got closer, we noticed that there were many men building bricks, hoeing the ground, and working to clear some of the tall grass around the area. After the customary greetings to the elders of the site, we pulled up some wooden benches to interview the men. “We are happy to be here, the men told us. “Before we came here, before the peace, we were in the ‘mother camps.” The mother camps are the immense government-controlled camps where the displaced Acholis live. While the conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army here has lasted for over 20 years, it wasn’t until about 1996 when the government of Uganda mandated that the bulk of the population had to move into these camps where they could be ‘protected’ by the UPDF(Ugandan Army). In order to ‘protect’ the population from the LRA, the UPDF enforced a very strict curfew, beating or killing anyone found outside the camps for suspected collaboration with the LRA. Ironically, the decision to put everyone in one location, allowed the LRA to attack the population with ease. Many times the camps would be attacked at night and children abducted to be used as child soldiers and huts which were built on top of each other were burned down.

“We are very free here.” They told us.” More so than in the mother camps. We can move around and work our land. We feel safe because the army is here but we have not seen any rebels for a long time. We want a better life for ourselves, we have suffered for over 20 years.” Because the place was so beautiful and the people so humble and sweet, I was almost moved to tears. Later on, as we drove back, we came upon a traffic jam in downtown Gulu. Our driver told us “It is the women with the peace march!”. As we got closer, we could hear the music blaring and the beating of the drums. Everyone was turned out on both sides of the road and we maneuvered to get a good view. Soon the women came into view – some wearing UNIFEM tee shirts, many with small babies tied to their backs, some in colorful green dresses. In the front were the older ladies dressed in their finery. They strutted and danced and chanted. Many were carrying banners that said “No peace without women.” They were marching to Juba Sudan to protest the fact that there are very few women involved in the peace talks. When they saw me taking photos, they began to cheer and clap. “We want peace now. Now is the time for peace. No peace without women.” As they went by me, I applauded them – I felt a bit the fool but I was so happy that they were out there doing this. It’s such a joyous time to be in a return. I felt that way in South Sudan when I saw the trucks frull of Sudanese pull into Aweil Town. I felt that way when we got caught in a traffic jam full of old Mercedes and buses as the Lebanese poured back into the south. And I feel that way now. It reminds you of just how much these people have suffered.

Tomorrow we are off to Kitgum, which is closer to the Sudan border and therefore less developed. I feel like I’m leaving a little piece of paradise behind.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Uganda, Baby!

Here I am in Kampala - the capitol of Uganda. I was excited to come here because Alec had told me that it was the party capitol of Central Africa - great food, wonderful wildlife, calm, nice people, nightclubs, bungee jumping in the source of the Nile. Woohoo! After some of the African places I've been, I couldn't wait.

Michelle, my colleague who knows Uganda the best, had told us the best place to stay with this hotel called the Mosa Court Hotel. I immediately needed to know if they had internet (as you know I'm addicted to writing to you people) and was told that they had in the room internet. The rooms were pretty bare - but that's not a problem - as long as the linens are fairly clean and the toilet flushes, then we're talking luxury. I was suprised that we were paying about $100 a night for this place but the 'development' economy is always expensive. Well - we didn't arrive til 1:30am the first night and our first meeting was at 8am so I expected to be tired. However, it turns out we checked into the LAND WHERE NOONE IS ALLOWED TO SLEEP.

Let's start with the fact that the drunk night guard just loitered around my door all night - shuffling back and forth, occasionally leaning on my door, sometimes shouting at people - so I didn't really fall deeply asleep. They also put me next to the restaurant so at 5am when the waiters started clinking and singing and chatting as they set up. So I basically got about 3 hours of sleep the first night. That's okay- I thought - I'll go to bed early on Friday night and sleep in on Saturday. Well, there was more shuffling and the like the next night but I turned on the a/c to provide ambient noise. At 7:30am the next morning the maid just burst into my door. There was no 'do not distrub' sign and no chain on the door. I got up to take a shower and the water pressure was barely strong enough to rinse the conditioner from my hair. When I returned at 4:30 after meetings all day, they left the patio doors to my room wide open after cleaning the room. Luckily I had taken all my electronics with me but I was on the ground floor next to the patio so anyone could have walked in. The screens were wide open and so all the mosquitos came streaming in. Kavita kept getting phone calls at midnight and also had two people taking a smoke break outside her bedroom door, so we were exhausted.

Yesterday, we came over to the Sheraton to use the wireless internet in the lobby and to have a meeting(because of course the internet and the electricity were not working at our hotel) but then found out the rates were almost the same when I lied and said we were with the UN. Today we checked in to the bliss of the Sheraton for only $120 a night. I have the day off but will spend it typing up notes and preparing to head to the North. The flight we intended to take is sold out so we will have to drive up north. I actually like that because I get to see more of the country - but it also means fording a river and dealing with a LRA road block so we'll have to get on the road early. Also, everyone and their brother is in the North right now because there is a lot of excitement over the potential peace agreement so we're not sure if we have a hotel to sleep in when we arrive in Kitgum. We certainly won't have access to the nice ones since the real UN will be staying there. So I will revel in the luxury of the Sheraton for two nights and steel myself for the border with Sudan. It still looks like we'll be going to Juba - land of collapsing tents and sweltering swamps so I had better get my luxury where I can.

Ta Ta for Now!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Uganda Bound

I'm in Amsterdam on my way to Northern Uganda. The government of Sudan is being extremely annoying about issuing visas to Americans so I will probably not be going to South Sudan on this trip (unless we drive over) but there is a good chance that I will get to go to the Kenya-Somalia border to talk to the new refugees that are flooding in. I would actually prefer to do that as I feel like RI adds more to the mix when we go someplace where there are few others.