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.

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