The war the world forgot, Gulu and Northern Uganda

The modern history of Northern Uganda makes for miserable reading. The region has been starved of development and infrastructure, starting as official policy of the British Colonial Administration in the 19th Century. It is a history which, for the last 200 years, is littered with conflict and suffering. Today, it remains one of the world’s longest-running and most destructive conflicts. Barely noticed by the outside world for decades and, despite occasional peace negotiations, stubbornly unresolvable.

The coming of independence in 1962 didn’t improve things for the north, its people deliberately repressed and persecuted by successive Ugandan governments. From Idi Amin to current President, Yoweri Museveni, the north has been the victim of official persecution along ethnic and political lines. Inevitably, this led to armed resistance, culminating in the maniacal depravations of Christian fundamentalist, and former altar boy, Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army.  Civilians bore the brunt of the endless fighting, and Museveni’s government resorted to herding people into camps.

Young woman and baby, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Young woman and baby, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Children, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Children, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Women and children, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Women and children, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

This mass movement of people into camps was supposed to allow the Ugandan army to better protect them from the Lords Resistance Army. This was probably cold comfort for many, the army stands accused of committing atrocities against civilians as well. For twenty years people have lived in the camps. Young people have spent their entire lives there, losing their connection to their original communities. Limited opportunities for education and employment, coupled with a dependency on food handouts, have had predictable consequences.

At least people in the camps had a degree of security, those that remained in their villages were subject to depraved and brutal attacks from the Lords Resistance Army: villages were burned to the ground, men women and children were killed and mutilated, young boys were kidnapped to become child soldiers, young girls sex slaves. This whole region became depopulated through fear.

Motorbike and bicycle, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Motorbike and bicycle, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Man and child, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Man and child, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Boy in a tree, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Boy in a tree, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Since 2006, the fighting has receded and the Lords Resistance Army’s ability to conduct operations curtailed. From 2009 onwards the estimated 2 million displaced people living in camps slowly began to return to ‘relocation villages’, a half-way house between the camps and their villages in remote rural areas. Areas that had long been considered too dangerous for habitation while Kony and his militia freely roamed the countryside.

What struck me as I travelled around this region, and talked to people living in the camps, was just how resilient people were. There are very few places on earth that have seen worse horrors than this, yet people have endured and are slowly returning to their communities, rebuilding their lives. The damage to both people and infrastructure has been severe, no more so than for the former child soldiers and sex slaves of the Lords Resistance Army. Psychological trauma is extremely high.

Woman makes beer, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Woman makes beer, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Children, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Children, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Man and cow, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Man and cow, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

The crowded camps near to the town of Gulu – capital of the region of the same name – starkly contrast with the surrounding countryside, emptied of people too fearful of Kony and the Lords Resistance Army to remain. Driving through the empty countryside, much of the former agricultural land overgrown and uncultivated, we’d occasionally get a glimpse of a person working a patch of land they had cleared for cultivation.

These people were like shadows, the moment you spotted them, they would disappear into high grasses surrounding their small plot of land. In a place where being visible is fraught with danger, no one takes the risk of being caught in the open.

Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Young women and babies, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Young women and babies, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

USAID and WFP toilet door, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

USAID and WFP toilet door, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

In isolated ‘relocation villages’ – a concept copied from Rwanda when people returned to their communities following the genocide – we came across extremely poor communities with very little infrastructure. No running water or electricity; few, if any, medical facilities; no transportation other than on foot; the cultivation of food was limited, and people walked dozens of miles to get to UN food centres. Men were in short supply, and each village seemed to be populated by women and hundreds of children. Many of the children seemed undernourished or malnourished, frequently presenting distended stomachs.

Woman carries wood and baby, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Woman carries wood and baby, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Music and dance, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Music and dance, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Woman dancing, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Woman dancing, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Goats, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Goats, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

Ugandan army soldiers ‘guarded’ the villages, but some of the women claimed the soldiers would get drunk, come into the villages to attack and rape them. There seemed to be no work or employment other than back breaking agriculture. The overall picture was one of communities, with very few resources to draw upon, facing enormous challenges without much support.

High speed through the countryside, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

High speed through the countryside, Gulu, Uganda, Africa

It is hard to see how things will change. The international community remains remarkably unconcerned, and people in this region can expect little help from their own government. Meanwhile, despite increased efforts, Kony is still at large and the Lords Resistance Army continues to launch attacks against civilians in both Uganda, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Chimpanzees, Shoebills and the Great Blue Turaco, it must be Uganda

Uganda is a challenging country to visit. It is beset by poverty, inequality, conflict and numerous health issues. It is also a country with which I feel a strong affinity. Maybe it’s because just outside Kampala they named a town, Port Bell, after me. Maybe its because one of it’s most famous beers, Bell Lager, is also named after me. Or maybe, just maybe, it is because Uganda wins the award for producing the most attention grabbing radio advert I’ve ever heard.

Share your passion for Bell Lager, Kampala, Uganda, Africa

Share your passion for Bell Lager, Kampala, Uganda, Africa

It was up against some serious competition, after all, I once sat in a bar in Belize listening to calypsos promoting the use of condoms by advising the men of Belize that women were conniving and devious harlots, hell-bent upon trapping innocent men into relationships. Give them a chance and they’d deliberately get pregnant…or so the jaunty calypsos would have us believe.

In the end, Uganda’s radio advert won by a country mile. I was sat in the back of a taxi in Kampala, the radio was loud enough to be heard in a neighbouring country, and the driver took delight in drawing my attention to the advert. In a country blighted by HIV, unwanted pregnancy and a miserable record on women’s empowerment, the advert was intended to put an end to the phenomenon known as “Sugar Daddies”.

Young woman in the market, Kampala, Uganda, Africa

Young woman in the market, Kampala, Uganda, Africa

Fish vendor, Owino Market, Kampala, Uganda, Africa

Fish vendor, Owino Market, Kampala, Uganda, Africa

“Sugar Daddies”, older men who use money and power to extract sex from young women and girls, are a major societal problem. The advert was blunt. Essentially, two girls are at university. One has a Sugar Daddy who gives her a mobile phone and clothes, the other has no Sugar Daddy and is poor. The girl with the Sugar Daddy arranges for her friend to meet another Sugar Daddy so she can have nice things as well. The man is waiting in a car on a darkened street. She opens the door, the interior light comes on to reveal…her father.

The moral of the story is obvious, but still quite shocking. I had come to Uganda for work, and, after a couple of days in Kampala, I was driving north on a pot-holed road to the benighted region of Gulu. In this vast and lawless area, which has the misfortune to border Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kony’s Lords Resistance Army has waged a brutal and terrifying war against the people of this region for two decades.

Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu Region, Uganda, Africa

Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu Region, Uganda, Africa

Woman makes beer, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu Region, Uganda, Africa

Woman makes beer, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu Region, Uganda, Africa

Kony’s story is well known. A man with messianic tendencies, who believes he is the instrument of God on earth. He has adopted a particularly perverse Christian fundamentalism to achieve his goals, including mass rape and murder, torture, decapitation, kidnapping male children to be child soldiers, and female children to be sex slaves. His militia have run rampant across this region, killing thousands and displacing hundreds of thousands.

The human cost of Kony’s delusion is incalculable. Kony insists that he is fighting for the Ten Commandments to be fully imposed in Uganda, but he forces children to murder and mutilate their own parents; orders whole villages to be burned to the ground and the inhabitants killed. Very Old Testament. This has been going on for over two decades. It wouldn’t be inappropriate to ask why the International community has done so little to help?

Young woman, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu Region, Uganda, Africa

Young woman, Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu Region, Uganda, Africa

Children in Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu Region, Uganda, Africa

Children in Internal Displacement Camp, Gulu Region, Uganda, Africa

It was a period of truce and faint hope when I arrived. I spent a week in the region meeting people living in the Internal Displacement Camps, getting their stories and venturing into the countryside to see progress towards rebuilding villages and communities. After returning to Kampala, I decided to go and visit some different areas on my own time. I particularly wanted to see some of Uganda’s fabled wildlife.

Baboon, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Baboon, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzee, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Chimpanzee, Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda, Africa

Despite huge environmental degradation, intense pressure from population growth and agriculture, Uganda has some amazing wildlife to offer. I headed east to the Kibale National Forest, a wonderful region where it is possible to see lots of primates, birds and other wildlife, but which is most famous for chimpanzee tracking. Returning to Kampala, I went to Lake Victoria to try to catch a glimpse of the illusive Shoebill Stork (a pre-historic looking giant of a bird).

Boat on Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Boat on Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Shoebill Stork, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Shoebill Stork, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Malachite Kingfisher, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Malachite Kingfisher, Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

Despite all the challenges – and they are many and severe – faced by Ugandans, this was to be an amazing introduction to a beautiful and fascinating country. People are really friendly, and it is a country that deserves to see more international visitors – although if you’re gay it is unlikely to top your list of holiday destinations.