Today’s blog features an article which was published this month in Peacewrites, a newsletter by the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney. The article was written for the newsletter by TRP’s new Country Director, David Brice.
On the 13th of June this year I was midway in my travels between Uganda and Australia. I was passing some time flicking through my Facebook news feed when I stumbled across a flood of updates from friends in Gulu, Northern Uganda:
“Gun fire all over senior quarters. Get inside and lock down.”
“Heavy gunfire in Gulu town. Streets deserted…”
An armed group had attacked a police station, apparently in an attempt to free an individual who had been arrested. In the hours that followed, the police and army exchanged fire with the group in the streets of Gulu and south of the town.
This came just weeks after an attack on an army base in the same district in which a soldier was killed and weapons were stolen.
While Uganda enjoys relative political stability, recent events are a reminder that not all is well beneath the surface.
A troubled history
My wife, Tash, and I started jogging earlier this year. One morning as we jogged down a dirt road close to where we were living we saw one of our neighbours out digging in her field. The day before she had been joking with Tash and yelling at her that she should help her dig. We stopped to say “hi” and introduce ourselves.
After first berating us for trying to speak to her in Acholi—as if she couldn’t speak English well—she began telling us about herself. In the midst of this fairly casual conversation she told us that she was now back in Gulu after having lived in Kampala for a while. Her parents, she said, had sent her down there after she had been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) for a time.
I’m not sure what caught me off guard more: the fact that she had been abducted as a girl by a brutal rebel army or how casually she commented on it, almost as if this was a pretty normal thing to say.
The saddening thing about this area of Northern Uganda is that it is actually quite hard to find anyone who wasn’t impacted in some way by violence connected with the LRA and Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF).
Over the 20 years of fighting it has been estimated that 66,000 young people were abducted. In Gulu District over 90 percent of the population was displaced. The majority of those displaced have only returned to their homes or land within the last ten years.
You wouldn’t know all of this by simply looking around. People just get on with their lives. They dig in their gardens, go to school, chat with neighbours and sell charcoal by the edge of the road. It feels like the buzz of normal life happening all around.
The hot spots have moved across the borders to places like The DRC and Southern Sudan and much of the funding for interventions has understandably followed.
The difficulty remains that peace isn’t built by just stopping the violence. Conflict isn’t resolved when the shooting stops. Scars haven’t healed just because people have stopped talking about them.
While widespread violence captures our attention, the work of healing, reconciling, rebuilding and pursuing just systems remains vital for the building of a “positive peace” which interrupts cycles of violence.
After the recent fighting in Gulu a security briefing was held by some of the NGO’s based in the area. Whilst recent incidents appear fairly isolated, an advisor suggested that we are witnessing all the hallmarks of the beginning of an insurgency. The military wing of a group calling themselves the National Democratic Alliance reportedly claimed responsibility for the recent attacks.
Perhaps the recent heat will dissipate. Perhaps it won’t. If it doesn’t, there may well be enough kindling in the widespread anger, sense of voicelessness and unhealed wounds for a bushfire to be lit.
Re-writing the future
In a little Eucalyptus “forest” just outside of Gulu a different future is being written. Instead of the sound of gun fire there is the sound of laughing.
In this little forest an organisation called The Recreation Project (TRP) is doing something slightly unusual: they are playing games. They are riding zip lines, navigating ropes courses and untangling human knots. In between the games they talk, debrief and laugh.
For the youth impacted by violence who participate in TRP’s programs, the activities, in conjunction with life skills and agriculture training, provide an opportunity for them to begin to heal some of the scars which remain. Here they have a safe place to feel and work through some of the hard emotions which emerge as they attempt to work with, and trust others.
They are creating within themselves a new future: one that is not dictated by pain and cycles of violence.
I am really pleased when I see individuals and organisations continuing to invest in so-called “post-conflict” areas like Gulu. Let us not forget all those who face the threat of imminent violence. Let us also not forget all those who quietly go on after violence, carrying the weight of scars and hurt relationships.