This article was written by Peter Holslin and Hannah Rappleye.
Eveline Alobo, a weary, rail-thin 50-year-old mother of five, turned in her chair to look at the man waving his arms in the air. In one hand, he clutched a cane; in the other, a bottle of home-brewed beer. Through the hot, hazy air of the dry season, the babbling man, in his torn shirt and hat, resembled a marionette.
“He is drunk,” Alobo said, frowning. An Association of Volunteers for International Service (AVSI) staff member hopped up and ran towards the man, clapping his hands in the air to scare him off.
Alobo, an ethnic Acholi, lives in the Acet Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp, about 75 miles from the border of Sudan, one of hundreds of camps that dot Uganda's northern region. Acet looks like most of the other camps: The fertile undergrowth typical of neighboring villages has been cleared away, making room for a few simple structures that serve as schoolhouses and a clinic, plus row after row of mud-brick huts with thatched-grass roofs, many of them furnished with little more than a pot for cooking. Every few yards, a latrine shaped like a porta-potty juts out of the ground. Using the latrines makes the camp more sanitary, but children fear them, so small rivers of human waste run down the mud pathways.
“The sanitation is just shit,” said Louisa Seferis, program director for AVSI's Northern Uganda office, which monitors and manages camps in three of Uganda's northern districts.
Alobo moved to Acet 20 years ago. She fled her home after the Lord's Resistance Army—a rebel outfit that's been terrorizing the region for more than two decades in an attempt to overthrow the government—raided her village in the middle of the night. She watched as rebels pulled her husband and daughter from their hut and hacked them to death with machetes, then made off with her son.
Now, like most of the displaced, she faces the filth and widespread alcoholism of the IDP camps.
As many of the estimated 5,000 Acholi left in Acet do, Alobo ekes out a living cultivating sorghum and beans on a small plot of land in order to support her five remaining children and six grandchildren. This once war-torn region has been relatively peaceful for two years, and she wants to leave, she said, to find a better place to raise her family.
But she has neither the strength nor the resources to construct a hut in her old village.
It was just 2 p.m. as she discussed her woes one day last summer, yet many of the men in the camp were drunk already, or napping. Alobo, like most of the women returning from the fields, was exhausted. Despite the pain in her feet, infected and swollen to more than twice their size, she would have to return to her garden a few kilometers away—only to walk back to camp before the sun came down to make dinner for her family.
She didn't expect any help. Not from the drunks who laze about the camp. Not from her government. Not from anybody.
“No one will help resettle us,” Alobo said in the Acholi language of Luo, speaking through a translator. “I have no hope.”
There once was a glimmer of hope here. When peace talks between Uganda's government and the Lord's Resistance Army began in 2006, it appeared that this savage war, in which more than 60,000 children have been abducted and used as mules, sex slaves and child soldiers, would finally come to an end. As the opposing delegations hashed out a final deal in Juba, South Sudan, thousands of camp residents started to rebuild their lives. By then, they could sleep through the night without hearing gunshots and walk their roads without fear of ambush. They could tend their gardens. Although most chose to remain in the camps and commute during the day, many were able to make a successful transition from the camps back to their home villages.
But for two years, the talks stagnated. Joseph Kony, the LRA's elusive leader, demanded that the International Criminal Court rescind its war-crimes indictment against him. Last April, Kony refused to sign a final peace agreement. Lately, Kony has expressed interest in continuing peace talks, but he snubs negotiators.
Last summer, many experts thought the peace talks had come to an inconclusive end. Apparently, once the news broke, few bothered to tell many of Northern Uganda's displaced. Or maybe someone told them and they couldn't believe their ears. In July, weeks after aid workers and journalists concluded that the peace talks were a failure, residents of some camps said that they were still praying for them to succeed. In more than a month of reporting in Northern Uganda, dozens of aid workers, journalists and camp residents said that only a clear signal that the war is over, such as a signed peace agreement, would close down the camps for good, bringing stability back to Northern Uganda. By all accounts, though, today's peace could snap at any moment, and camp residents might find themselves back where they started more than 20 years ago—in the thick of a terrifying war.
“It's still a war zone,” said Laren Poole, one of the San Diego filmmakers who created the movie Invisible Children and the non-governmental organization of the same name, which runs numerous economic and education-focused aid organizations in Northern Uganda. “People are dying. People are still living in the camps.”
Many are unsure about what's in store for the future. One thing is clear: Hope is dying.
The forgotten war
Uganda, an East African nation of 31 million, is saturated with elephant grass and ruddy mud and spread with swaths of corn and cassava fields. Dozens of tribes with unique languages have peacefully coexisted here, inside an area slightly smaller than the state of Oregon, for hundreds of years.
In Kampala, the exhaust-choked capital, most residents know little about the war going on in the districts north of Lake Kyogo. Despite the countless child abductions and atrocities that characterize the war, in the rest of country, life goes on.
Visitors to the north sometimes say it feels like a completely different country.
The war between the LRA and the Ugandan government is one of Africa's longest-running conflicts and, like the war in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, which is estimated to have claimed more than 5 million lives, one of its most ignored. In 2003, Jan Egeland, U.N. under secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, told reporters: “The conflict in Northern Uganda is the biggest forgotten, neglected humanitarian emergency in the world today.”
And like the Congo war, the war in Northern Uganda is difficult to understand.
Ask them about the history of the war, and Ugandans will usually point back to colonial rule. British missionaries and settlers first colonized Uganda in the late 19th century. They admired the centralized monarchy of the legendary Buganda kingdom, which ruled the region that surrounded Kampala and curved against the banks of Lake Victoria.
They saw the ethnic Baganda people as natural-born rulers. But to the British, the Acholi—predominantly farmers who have a rich tradition and an intricate hierarchy of chiefs, and who live among other Nilotic and Central Sudanic peoples in the north—seemed to be able-bodied and simpleminded savages. In effect, they were seen as natural-born laborers. In the ensuing years, the British groomed the Baganda as members of a privileged ruling class and employed the Acholi as the poorly paid and uneducated grunts of the army.
Uganda's independence from the British in 1962 marked the beginning of a long period of authoritarian rule, led by dictators entirely from the North. In 1966, the reign of Buganda's kabaka, or king, came to an end. Prime Minister Apollo Milton Obote, an ethnic Lango from the north, dissolved parliament and anointed himself president. Facing aggression from the army, Kabaka Mutesa II fell out of power and escaped to Britain.
During the next two decades, the dictators killed thousands of real and imagined dissidents in nationwide purges. Human-rights groups estimate that the infamous Idi Amin, an ethnic Lugbara from the West Nile region, killed as many as 500,000 citizens during his eight-year reign.
But in the early 1980s, there was a drastic shift on Uganda's political map.
In 1981, Yoweri Museveni, an ethnic Nyankole from Western Uganda, led a Buganda-based rebel movement called the National Resistance Army into a five-year guerrilla war against the government of Milton Obote, who regained power after Amin's fall. In 1986, Museveni became president of Uganda, restoring the former political supremacy of the south.
Yet despite Museveni's initial message of reform, Uganda remains an authoritarian regime hiding behind a democratic façade. Twenty-two years into his presidency, Museveni and his National Resistance Movement party have maintained a tight grip on power. Political dissidents, opposition members of parliament and journalists are constantly intimidated, harassed and imprisoned. It is common to hear Ugandans complain that Museveni is trying to be “president for life.”
During the civil war, scores of armed militias emerged across the country. Government forces and the NRA both allegedly targeted civilians, and Uganda spiraled into a seemingly endless cycle of violence. Then, in 1985, the story goes, a spirit called Lakwena—which translates to “messenger” in Luo—possessed a clairvoyant young Acholi woman named Alice Auma and instructed her to finally cleanse Northern Uganda of its sins.
Channeling the animist spirituality of Acholi culture, Auma united Acholi fighters under the banner of a rebel army called the Holy Spirit Movement. Taking on the Ugandan government, the HSM rebels stripped naked and slathered themselves in palm oil, believing that bullets and explosions could not penetrate their skin. They would die, they believed, only if they were impure of spirit.
The movement didn't last long. The NRA crushed the fighters and forced Auma into exile in 1987. Auma's father, Severino Lukwoya, led the HSM forces for a short while after Auma left. But Joseph Kony, a young Acholi who led a small militia, usurped Lukwoya's power by claiming he was Alice's cousin and that he had inherited her visionary powers.
Lukwoya spent the next decade gathering a modest following for his New Jerusalem Temple, a born-again church. He built a simple concrete church that, today, sits amidst a cluster of modest houses near a used-clothes market in Gulu, the dusty commercial center of the north, where most local and international aid organizations are headquartered.
Kony concentrated on building a rebel force that, in 1994, he dubbed the Lord's Resistance Army. He claimed that his goal was to set up a Ugandan government guided by the Ten Commandments. But the LRA soon turned against the very people it claimed to fight for.
Locked in political rivalry, Uganda funded a rebel group based in the predominantly animist-Christian Southern Sudan, and the LRA grew on funding from Sudan's Khartoum-based government.
Ever since, the LRA has relied on three main methods to wage its war: pillaging, torturing and killing innocent civilians and abducting children en masse.
‘They really are prisons'
Michael Ojok, a 24-year-old farmer with thick arms and wide, intense eyes, was 10 when the rebels started attacking his small village of Dino in Odek Subcounty, not far from where Alice Auma grew up. Invisible at night, the rebels prowled the thick forest, plundered the fields of corn and other vegetables and murdered Ojok's neighbors and friends.
Ambushes on government troops could happen at any moment. Ojok took immense risks just to tend his garden. “The stray bullets, they can just eat you and you die,” he said.
Every time the rebels ambushed, they kidnapped women and children to swell the army's ranks. Accurate statistics on the war are difficult to obtain. Caritas, the Archdiocese of Gulu, an aid organization that's operated in Northern Uganda since the war began, estimated in 2006 that as many as 66,000 people have been abducted by rebels and turned into mules, commanders' “wives” and fighters.
President Museveni had a strategy to finish off the LRA. In 1996, he gave the northern population 48 hours to evacuate their villages and move into thousands of IDP camps. Immediately after the exodus, he deployed troops to the north's lush green countryside and started shelling rebel hideouts.
“That also killed a lot of civilians,” said David Okello, program manager of Caritas' psychosocial support program.
The Acholis lived in villages deep in the bush—one family's homestead and garden could spread across several acres. Moving into the huge slums made for a cramped, unsanitary and isolated existence. At the height of the war, according to the BBC, an estimated 1.6 million were displaced in the camps.
“To Acholi people, [the camps] really are prisons,” said Poole, the Invisible Children filmmaker. “They reduce them to beggars.”
Ojok moved to Acet camp, the biggest camp in Odek Subcounty, where he lives to this day. At first, although there were thousands of residents, there were only a few latrines and bore-holes—the indispensable metal tube that pulls fresh water from the ground.
In most camps early on, aid workers and camp residents said, there were no health clinics. They could only access healthcare through aid organizations.
Ojok managed to scrape by. He lived with his uncle, because his parents were dead, and helped run a small shop that sold basic sundries like soap and salt. He finished primary school and, using the money he saved, completed secondary school. Now, Ojok is an aspiring development-studies student. He plans to save up and attend Gulu University on the weekends while he builds a home and tends a garden with his wife during the week.
For most Acet residents, however, life was more difficult. Diseases like tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS spread like wildfire. Hundreds of children died of malnutrition and preventable maladies like diarrhea and influenza. People could not leave the camp to tend their crops, lest they risk being attacked or kidnapped, so most had no source of income. They were forced to rely on donations and food aid, often a humiliating experience.
With nothing to do, Ojok said, many of the men began to drink. “You don't have your garden; you don't have your crops,” Ojok said. “All the time you spend roaming around.”
During the war, aid workers and camp residents say, women's and men's roles changed dramatically across Northern Uganda. The women of the camp took over all of the family responsibilities. Meanwhile, many men drank away their trauma, shame and wounded pride—and cases of rape and domestic violence skyrocketed.
Today, aid workers and camp residents say, it's still a huge problem. During last summer's visit to Acet camp, Louisa Seferis, AVSI's program director, planned to meet Odek Subcounty's local counselor. She had to cut the meeting short—because he was drunk.
Ana Apio, 25, a stunning young woman with high cheekbones and smooth skin who has spent most of her life in a wheelchair fashioned out of bike tires and scrap metal, has lived in Acet since she was 9 and has resigned herself to staying there. Her boyfriend abandoned her before she gave birth, and now she raises her child alone.
Perhaps, she mused one day under the meager shade of a hut in Acet, she is better off without a man. Rather than help out with the family chores, she said, the men in Acet have made a habit of beating their wives.
“Very few men are good or responsible here,” she said. “Most are violent. Most men go drink and come home and beat their wives.”
“Even though the women do the digging, the men will take the harvest and go sell it,” she added. “They don't care.”
Franca Bella, a counselor for Caritas' psychosocial support program, said cultural prejudices, combined with the hardships of camp life, lie at the root of the domestic violence. “Women are the ones who are supposed to take care of the children, look for food and do everything,” she said. “It is a big problem, and drinking compounds the problem.”
The IDP camps were supposed to be temporary, but the war dragged on, the years passed and the people still couldn't go home. Today, there is no indication that many ever will.
‘Where was the army?'
By all accounts, Alice Auma's father, Severino Lukwoya, a genial old man with puffy white hair and glowing eyes, is crazy.
On a visit to his church service one Sunday last July, he made a number of outrageous claims. He said he regularly communicates with stars, rocks, plants and animals. After putting out a fire in the mountains and cleansing Lake Victoria of its evils, he alleged, he alone managed to get the peace talks going and bring a period of peace to Northern Uganda. The only way Northern Ugandans can end the war, he asserted, is by joining his church.
In his zany way, though, he actually made a point with which most people from the north could agree. Asked about Joseph Kony, he referred to a number of Bible verses and said that President Museveni and Kony could be one and the same: the caretakers of God's garden.
“All of them are doing the same work in the Garden of God,” he said, speaking through a translator. “All of them have killed.”
Why did the government's effort to vanquish the LRA fail? Ugandan aid workers and journalists point to widespread corruption in the military.
Government officials and high-ranking army officers set up “ghost payrolls,” aid workers and journalists say, to siphon money out of the army's budget. To them, said Robert Mukasa, news editor of the Daily Monitor, a leading Ugandan newspaper, “war meant making a big buck.”
Mukasa said government auditors once discovered that one army regiment deployed to the north—which usually consists of several thousand troops—only had 300 men. The commander was not registering the deaths of his troops, Mukasa said, so he could steal money from a steadily generous budget.
Meanwhile, the poorly guarded camps remained vulnerable to attack. In 2004, rebels stormed the Barlonyo IDP camp in Lira District and burned some 300 civilians to death, sparking massive protests accusing the government of neglecting civilians.
“There were so many attacks where people were asking themselves, ‘Where was the army?'” Mukasa said.
Joseph Kony is a mystery to most Ugandans. He rarely leaves his jungle hideouts or gives interviews to the media. In the minds of the Acholi, he commands an almost mythical status. A young local from Gulu, the bustling northern town, once said that Kony knows all—he reads your thoughts and sees into the future. Rumors abound about who Kony really is. Maybe, people say, he is an invention of Museveni's party.
But usually, most northerners don't want to talk about the LRA's elusive leader. When the topic came up in an interview last June beneath a mango tree in the Olwal camp, about 50 miles from Acet, a dozen residents shifted nervously in their seats. One concluded simply: “Kony is a killer.”
On the other hand, everybody knows Kony's victims. In Gulu, former abductees are everywhere: attending a meeting for the Village Savings and Loan Association, working as the night guard at a guest house, drinking beer and listening to rock music at Da Pub, a local bar.
What the abductees have been through is unspeakably horrific. Basic questions—like, “So, what was it like growing up in Kitgum?”—can bring out gut-churning answers, or they can draw awkward silences.
Agness Anena, a 23-year-old mother of two, was abducted by the LRA when she was 14. She was given to a man 20 years older than her who forced her to accompany him everywhere, even into the battlefield. He regularly raped her, even when she became pregnant with his child.
One day, Anena said, she broke away from him in the bush and began to run. He caught up with her and stabbed her with his bayonet, leaving a five-inch scar on her shin.
“Then I started to do whatever he wanted,” she said.
Anena escaped after her LRA “husband” was killed in battle. Her cousin, another LRA commander, helped her escape into the bush at 4 a.m. with her child and two other girls. When other commanders found out, they killed him.
She managed to find her way back home. But, Anena said, many people—even her family—were afraid of her.
“When you escape, the rebels will come to your village and try to find you, to kill you,” Anena said.
LRA fighters have committed some of the worst atrocities in modern history. They have used villagers' own gardening tools to dismember, rape and kill. They have tossed people into pots of boiling water and forced villagers to eat them. LRA commanders have forced abductees to kill their own friends and family.
Richard Akenna, the local priest of Lacor Parish in Amuru District, who counsels child soldiers who have returned from captivity, said Kony and his henchmen specifically conscript children into their ranks because small children are easily brainwashed.
“Someone can tell a child, ‘This [machete] is your means of survival. Live by it,'” he said, pointing at a group of giggling young boys, all former soldiers, playing soccer next to his church. “And they believe it.”
All child soldiers and LRA commanders who return from the bush receive amnesty by the Ugandan government, to encourage an end to hostilities. Local communities often put on traditional ceremonies to welcome a returnee back home.
But, over the course of the war, the government has never offered state-funded psychosocial support or rehabilitation programs for people who have escaped captivity, aid workers and former abductees say. Akenna, along with international bodies like Save the Children and small local organizations like the War Affected Children Association, helps fill the void.
Coming home is usually fraught with psychological, social and economic troubles. Returnees often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. And members of their community might be afraid of getting hurt in an emotional outburst, or they may still be angry about crimes committed. Villagers can also be fearful of rebels who might return to seek vengeance for a returnee's escape.
Women were who were raped while in captivity are often ostracized by family and friends. Their children are condemned as the kin of LRA commanders. Without any support, child mothers barely get by and can rarely afford to send their children to school.
Anena, like many child mothers, found herself and her child stigmatized by her community. Although she had another child with a man from her village, her boyfriend's family refused to see her because of her “LRA baby,” and she left her boyfriend to live with her mother.
Now, Anena said, being a single mom with no dependable source of income is like re-living the trauma of war all over again.
Apparently, the LRA is now at its weakest. This summer, The Independent, a Ugandan news magazine, reported that a recent intelligence brief estimated that 1,050 LRA members still live in the jungles of Central Africa and take orders from Kony. Several hundred of the members, The Independent reports, were new abductees.
For their reputation, aid workers say the fighters are surprisingly hospitable.
Last April, Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey and Poole, the three college-aged San Diegans who made the film Invisible Children and now run an NGO with offices in San Diego and Gulu, spent six days living with LRA rebels in the Congo's Garamba National Park.
They were working on a feature film about the war, scheduled to appear in theaters in 2009. “We lived in tents. We ran out of food; we ran out of water,” Poole said, in a telephone interview in August. “It was brutal out there.”
In the jungles of the Congo, they met 7-year-olds who carried water and food. “They looked like dogs,” he said. The children in their early teens, who had risen in rank, wore fatigues and toted assault rifles. “When you looked into their eyes, you could see that they had been brainwashed,” Poole said. “These kids were not soft.”
At first, the child soldiers did not talk much. But the three filmmakers spoke a little Luo and, eventually, their hosts were accommodating—they shared stories about how they were abducted and asked the filmmakers to sneak letters back to their home villages.
“The fighters really feared going home. They wanted to, but they feared,” Poole said. “They heard stories that they would be killed, that the government would abduct them and kill them.”
In July, as Richard Akenna sat beneath some mango trees and talked with Caritas aid workers and two reporters, a handful of children wearing school uniforms, most of them 6 or 7 years old, walked by. He gestured at them. “If [Kony] came, he would kill all of us,” he said. “But he would take them.”
That summer, some northerners worried that Kony would come back and do exactly that.
Since the peace talks, Kony and the LRA forces have been hiding in the jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic—where they have continued, intermittently, to abduct women and children. Kony was supposed to emerge from his hideout last April to sign a final peace agreement, but he never showed up—throwing the peace talks into turmoil and dashing Acholis' hopes that the war would finally end.
“People were just really heartbroken about it,” said Kelly Shearon, public-relations officer for the Gulu office of Invisible Children. “There was a black cloud over town.”
In mid June, rumors of renewed hostilities began to circulate. Ugandan newspapers reported that LRA rebels got into a firefight with the Sudanese People's Liberation Army a few dozen miles north of the Uganda-Sudan border. A couple weeks later, suspicions circulated that the rebels were actually Ugandan soldiers dressing like LRA. In August, reports surfaced that LRA rebels were abducting more people in the south of Sudan, stoking fears that they would return to Uganda.
The Ugandan government has flirted with starting a renewed military campaign against the LRA in Sudan and the jungles of the Congo—but the Congo refused to open up its territory to the Uganda People's Defense Forces, since Uganda helped invade the country and topple the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997 and '98, sparking a prolonged war.
During the summer in Gulu, the epicenter of all aid work in Northern Uganda, tanks began to roll down the streets.
Soldiers stood guard where they hadn't before. Conversations in Gulu's restaurants and bars revolved around the latest rumors. Aid workers told stories of reported but unconfirmed attacks. Everyone, it seemed, was scared—but nobody really knew what was going on.
So far, nothing major has. But the very thought of the LRA coming back to Uganda is enough to keep many villagers and IDP camp residents from going home. To camp residents, the peace talks are everything. A signed peace agreement, they said, is the only thing that can convince them that the war is over, and that they can finally go home.
But while they wait for the peace talks to bear fruit, starvation, malnutrition and disease continues to kill off the Acholi population. Since December, thousands have been afflicted with hepatitis E, a deadly disease that turns its victims yellow and makes them hemorrhage. For several months, the disease showed up only in Kitgum District but, eventually, it spread across dozens of kilometers. The epidemic had claimed 64 lives by the time it hit Acet camp in July.
The disease can be contracted easily—as easily as shaking a diseased person's hand. Churchill Okello, a security guard for the local office of Association of Volunteers in International Service (AVSI), cannot visit his uncle's house, where a relative has been afflicted.
It's a vicious cycle: War begets displacement; displacement begets more displacement. Still, despite the terrible conditions, many residents say that the camps are the only place they feel safe.
“Our home is not safe,” said Margret Lalam, 39, who has lived in Acet for 20 years. “Why would I leave the camp?”
The SDSU student group Aztecs for Africa will screen a new Invisible Children film, Go, on Tuesday evening, Sept. 23. For time and location, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.