Thursday, July 26, 2012

Peace Camp

Every Year, some Peace Corps Volunteers put on what is called Peace Camp, one of several camps sponsored by Peace Corps through the year.    The goal is to work with young people who have been impacted by the war that raged here for 20 years, ending only in 2008.  Young men and women, from four different tribes among which animosities still exist, come together to learn skills they can take back to their communities and contribute to “peace building.”    Everyone in the north has been affected by the war and anyone working in Northern Uganda will tell you the north has a different feel to it.  It is definitely what is called “post-conflict” and has an aura that is very different from other parts of Uganda.  Certainly part of that is related to landscape and the lack of infrastructures that support the basic kinds of services one become accustomed in the First World – or to some degree in other parts of Uganda.

Other aspects of this different “feel” are related to the fact that Northern Uganda is 20+ years behind in every aspect of life imaginable:  education, social structure, services, etc. But there is another aspect to this area and it mystifies me. It is the gentleness, kindness and generosity of spirit of its people.  I know you've heard me say that before, but in the face of some of the things you will read below, it is amazing. Yes – things don’t get done; there is an apathy about things that drive a westerner and many Ugandans flat out nuts.   I’m not even going to go there, but it requires backing up and putting some distance between the frustrations and our western perspectives.  (That is not to say that they are not important especially in terms of where Uganda wants to go developmentally).  It’s just that  - as I’ve said before – when you’ve been abducted or identified your family from a boiling pot of human remains  – or had your house burned – or become maimed – being on time or getting a food order right?  Well – they just don’t make the short list in things to worry about.

So, back to Peace Camp.  My housemate is a regional coordinator and is receiving applications from “youngsters” between the ages of 17 and 25.  Remember, many of these individuals were in the bush or IDP camps for a decade or more of their years, so these ages don’t translate in the same way as they might elsewhere.

One of the questions applicants must answer is: “How has the war in Northern Uganda affected your life?” The answers are understated, because there are no words to convey  these concepts to someone who has not experienced what they have.  Interesting to read these and discover that many of the kids who were abducted don't even mentioned the fact. That fact is so wide-spread,  I wonder if there is the assumption that almost everyone was abducted, so why mention a "given."   Because it’s impossible for someone who has grown up with peace to identify with the atrocities that were commonplace here, especially given the romanticized version of violence that comes through Hollywood, some of these answers may surprise you.  Most people never mention the war and people don't easily offer up their experiences.  Those that haven't faced it can't understand; those that have - don't want to relive it. But here is what some of the applicants wrote.  In their words:

Girl, age 18:
 “I lost some of my relatives in the war and I had to move from our home to the town areas like the bus park for safety. And also lost most of the people of my area were also killed and others were boiled in the pot.  This affected my life a lot in the war.”

Girl age 17:
“These war has made me to become an orphan by lacking both of my parents and other relatives –in addition to that it also delay my study which I am not happy about it.  These war has made some people in the community to lose of their body parts like ear, arm, leg, lips and breasts which is so painful.”

Boy, age 15:
"The was affected my health of which it led to disability (i.e. I am not able to work and use wheelchair since I am also disable.) I also lost one of my parents hence am too frustrated with no one to help.”

Girl, age 22:
"The war brought me down into a shameful life that led me to a painful life i.e. I loose my study. I became homeless, disable, too frustrated and too confused and the greatest of this is me being shot by the gun and I became lame  and sad in my heart.”

Boy age 17:
"The war has brought poor standard of living in our family i.e. it destroyed most of our properties and they even captured two brothers of mine and taken them in the bush and now as I talk they are not yet back.”

Girl, age 17:
"I was captured and my mother and my father were also killed. The war has made me totally an orphan.  War has made me confuse in my mine.  Killing of many people still make me to remember.”

Girl, age 18:
"I loss both my parents. I started my study late. Paying my school fees is also another problem. I loss all my relatives that would help me to pay my school fees in time.”

Girl, age 17:
“ The war interrupted my education when I was abducted by the rebels.  It has also made me an orphan since both of my parent were disturbed in that my mother was killed (murdered) in this very time of war.”

Girl, age 17:
“The war has affected me in such way that my grandfather’s one side of ear and toe was cut off and it was making me not sleep in the house through running to the bush looking for a place for hiding.”

Girl, age 21:
It affected me in the following ways:  1) Led to a delay in my education because during the period of studying, rebels came to schools with the intention of killing the teachers, head teachers and grabbing pupils to be trained to become rebels. Due to that process, my head teacher and the Ministry of Education decided to close the school … until the schools around our village were free from wars and conflict.  Hence, it left me for two years without studying. 2) It spread diseases like malaria 3) led to loss of life due to the burning of houses.  One day rebels got me and my family members at home.  They put us in one house and set it on fire. With God’s mercy, we managed to get out. When my father got out, they killed him… they were waiting behind the house to kill anyone who escaped.”

Male, age 24:
“My mother was raped by a soldier and… was infected by him with HIV/AIDS. After one year, she died of AIDS in 1997. My grandfather, who used to pay our school fees, was also killed by the rebels. That caused me to stay at home for nearly four years, after which my brother started helping me with his meager earnings.  Furthermore, I was slapped on the ears by a rebel when I was crying for my mother. She had escaped into the bush to avoid being captured. And hence, my ears are damaged.  Now I cannot hear well due to the permanent damage (chronic pus discharge from both ears). It has proved to be the worse experiences in the war because it left me a disabled person.”

Boy, age 22:
“The war affected me in the following ways: I lost my father, who was killed. Secondly, all our properties were vandalized.  All our animals were taken. I myself was burned in a grass thatch house and set fire, but I survived. I have only one sister and one brother. The rest of my brothers were killed.  I have an injury from bayonet. My mother was paralyzed. This made me head of household. 

And finally, one girl (age 17) states that she was not really “affected” by the war in that her parents were already dead and she had no parents to lose.  Living alone in a hut from the age of six, until she was found at the age of 11, in her words:  “This war did not really affect me that much because I have no family so I did not loose anyone because I am an orphan who stays alone, but still I got so traumatized by how human beings were killed and boiled in the pot and then the young ones were taken for training to become soldiers leading to total displacement of people… mothers were taken as a wife to Kony and a husband as a soldier leaving total suffering.”

I just finished a book, A Long Way Gone, by a Ishmael Beah, a young man who was forced to become a child soldier during the war in Sierra Leone.  It’s horrifying, but also illuminating and tells of his experience, his rescue by UNESCO and rehabilitation.  An amazing story that reminds me of how, even though this area is “at peace,” how much pain and anger lies just beneath the surface. One can feel it in ways that are hard to explain or identify.  It’s just there.

The stories you have read here are a mere ripple on the water of a storm tossed sea.  And people tell them in a very matter of fact manner as though they were saying "and yesterday I went to the store..."  belying the depth of their experience and sorrow.  In many ways, emotions have shut down as a copying mechanism.

These are shared as a way of letting you know about the people we work with and share space with on a daily basis.  Rest assured that - contrary to the KONY 2012 youtube hype - these events are not going on in our midst and to the best of anyone's knowledge, Kony is not camped out in the back yard!  I know this because I have four lovely Ugandan's living in my back yard ;-)

To your health and well-being... 

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