Northern Uganda – Day 38

Posted on April 11, 2012

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Northern Uganda is an area I would very much like to visit one day. Nancy is from Gulu a town that has been left scarred in the last 20 years. Unlike my childhood, Nancy’s has been filled with happy as well as very traumatic memories. In 1994/1995 when fighting between the rebel militia – Lords Resistance Army (LRA) and the government soldiers – Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF) – was at its height, a massacre took place in a village not far from the centre of Gulu.

This story was told to people in Gulu by one of six survivors, a young woman. Why she and the others were not also slaughtered, no one can be absolutely sure, but it’s thought the rebels wanted them alive to spread the word.

A camp in one of the villages had been set up for displaced people. The government had ordered the locals in the surrounding areas to leave their homes and come to the camp. The rebels had taken over many areas of the north, so the UPDF created a so-called safe haven where people could build temporary mud huts to stay with their families while being protected by an armed presence. But one day the rebels came. They ran into the camp shouting: “Get inside! We have not come for you. We have come for the soldiers!”

Frightened and unsure of what to do most people did as they were told. The rebels chased after the soldiers, who ran for their lives, but they failed to catch them. When no bloodshed was had, the rebels returned to the camp angry. The villagers now abandoned were left wide open for an unimaginable reprisal.

Among the rebels were Kadogos (child soldiers). For those who don’t know, these children are taken by force from their family. They are handed a machine gun or panga (machete) by a rebel soldier and ordered to execute them then and there or die as a consequence. Once their loved ones are dead, they are trained to become killing machines. People say they fear Kadogos the most.

The rebels hungry for blood set everything on fire. They burned people alive in their houses, and huts; they sliced those running outside to pieces with pangas; they took screaming babies from their mothers and beat them against tree trunks until they became limp. Even cattle, goats and chickens were butchered. No living thing was left alive and the ground became a river of blood.

One young woman who had turned up at camp to check on her parents arrived moments after the massacre had taken place. Strapped to her back was her baby.  They took her and five survivors hostage and marched them out of the village. Her crying baby was snatched off her and thrown into the bushes. When they were eventually set free they were told to go tell people about what they had seen. She managed to recover her child and made it back to town traumatised. What she witnesses was so brutal she was left mentally scarred – she is said to have gone mad.

This story left me feeling so hollow and sick to my stomach. I cannot ever imagine experiencing terror like that; living in a town that is close to the site of a massacre; or witnessing extreme violence. There were many occasions during Nancy’s time at boarding school in the north when she and other pupils had to be evacuated because rebels were close by. Once in 2001 her school was hit by gunfire and shelling. The children were taken to safety and told to go home to their villages and come back in two weeks when classes would resume. And guess what? They did!  Can you imagine telling parents in the UK bring your child back in two weeks’ time when the fighting has calmed down? It just wouldn’t happen. She could only study during the day because at night they had a curfew. All lights had to be switched off by 7pm, so as not to draw attention to the building. It must have been terrifying not knowing what would happen from one day to the next.

I feel so privileged to have had this opportunity to know someone who has pulled herself through such difficult times. She never ceases to amaze me and is just one shining example of how incredible and optimistic this generation of Ugandans can be.

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