Ongoing from here is a synopsis on the various past, present and future situations, both optimistic and totally depressing (and perhaps totally boring depending on who you are), in the region as we have quested to delve into on our visit to the north...
We were going to take a tour of Gulu to perhaps learn a little more about the sordid history of this region "from the horse's mouth" per se now that this part of the country was stable and trying to rebuild itself for the future. You likely have heard of Joseph Kony of the infamous (and unravelling) viral Kony 2012 campaign by Invisible Children who, through their awareness raising campaigns put northern Uganda on the map for me somewhere circa 2007 ish? Anyways, this is a very long and very complex story of which the book "The Wizard of the Nile" does a much better job than I of unpacking, but basically in the north there was a rebel army called the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony that was fighting government soldiers. This rebel army was ruthless in their tactics and the civilians in the northern parts of Uganda were the ones to suffer most, caught in the middle between a rebel army that tormented and persecuted them as well as the government soldiers who did the same. Kony and his army were extremists, often motivated by some undefinable religious agenda, and if you weren't fully in support of him, you were against him. And if you were against him, he and his army would come and burn, kill and/or torture entire communities and families. The rebel were known to cut off limbs, lips and ears to make a statement to the villagers in the north of what was to come if they were not in total support of the rebels. They were also known to play sadistic games of cat and mouse where they would send a message to a particular community outlining the day and time the rebels would be coming for them. Kony perhaps most famously made headlines for his and his army's forcible recruitment of child soldiers, both boys and girls to join the ranks. Like many armies who use child soldiers, the LRA used ruthless practices of killing, torturing and intense propaganda to insure loyalty of the new recruits. They would raid villages and force children to kill or torture their own family/neighbors insuring that they would be too shamed to go back and thus would not make any attempts to escape. Children were forced to beat other children to death with rudimentary agricultural tools or just sticks to prove themselves. They were forced to torture/kill any child who attempted to escape the rebel army in order to send a message of what would happen if you tried to escape. They were forced into battle on the front lines against the government soldiers. Young girls were married off to high ranking commanders as what we would now call "sex slaves". There were even reports of cannibalistic tendencies among the rebels. Kony and his army fostered such a culture of fear (kill or be killed) and indoctrination among his recruits that even thoughts of escape were grounds for death. At the height of the conflict and what Invisible Children showed us in their documentary (which has its fair share of scrutiny in itself) was the "night commuters", the thousands of children who, afraid for rebel attacks on their villages and abductions at night, would leave their home in the village every night walking many km to go sleep in the relative safety of Gulu town on porches and verandas or any place they could find before walking home again the next morning. This conflict went on for years and years with very little attention or support from either the Ugandan government and the international community. Once the government did become involved (their involvement and policy is also highly contentious and scrutinized) their policy was to "flush the rebels out" by putting virtually the entire civilian population of northern Uganda into the relative safety and containment of internally displaced people (IDP) camps. As a short term policy this perhaps was alright except for the fact that an end never came and this population ended up staying in these camps with no access to their land, to grow and harvest their own food, in shitty conditions living on aid handouts for years. Furthermore, the LRA would attack civilians in retaliation for government attacks against them furthering the suffering the civilians of the north. Eventually the rebels were driven out of northern Uganda into DRC and South Sudan which is why this area is now relatively stable. Over the years the Ugandan government has been highly criticized for its handling of the crisis in the north of the country. Arguments around everything from indifference and inaction to inappropriate military intervention given the crisis was largely being fought by children to going as far as to posit that the government was actually intentionally behaving in a way that prolonged the war because economically and politically, it suited him. Hence the lack of popular support for the president by the people of the north.
Our first stop on our tour was Fort Patiko, aka Baker's Fort which was out in a rural area north of Gulu and the only thing that somewhat resembled a tourist attraction.
We were initially told that we could easily boda out there but we thanked the powers that be that we didn't once we got going in our car and realized just how utterly terrible the roads were because it had rained torrentially all the night. In related news, for as arid and dry as the north is, it sure rains here! And as per the usual, when it rains the power goes out so we had a few nights in Gulu with total power blackouts which meant no AC and bathroom breaks with a headlamp inside our lovely little hotel room. Anyways, Fort Patiko is an old fort in the middle of nowhere, pretty well the sticks of northern Uganda but we picked up a guide on arrival because one waits at the gate. This site, a black stain on the history of colonial Africa, was initially operated by the Arabic explorers/traders who first landed in northern Uganda. As the story goes, the Arabs first came in and were very nice to the local villagers and bartered and lived amicably with them for a period of time until turning on them for purposes of the slave trade. The Arabs began capturing the locals and the fort essentially became a prison, a holding ground for possible slaves, males and females kept in separate areas until "judgement day" as they called it. These holding areas were essentially just confined areas within the rocks not even tall enough for people to stand up and the guards would guard potential slaves to make sure they didn't escape.
The Fort was also the site of the more grisly task where each captive was brought before the Arab chief who sat on a rock surrounded by a larger rocks slab that sloped into the grass below. For each captive brought before him, the chief decided, if he was a man whether he was big/strong enough and if a woman, whether she was beautiful enough. For those whom the answer was yes, their fate was to be sold into slavery. For those whom the answer was no, they were either beheaded there on the sloping rock slab such that their bodies would roll into the grass below (you can still see the panga knicks in the rock, it's morbid) or they would be shot while standing on the edge of a rock drop such that their bodies fell to the ground below.
This was the first time on our travels where we had learned anything of the slave trade and it continues to blow our minds how barbaric of a time this was. Eventually along came Samuel Baker, a British explorer and with his Nubian troops, defeated the Arabs and took over the fort and freed the potential slaves. To this day it seems there are several memorial namesakes for Samuel Baker across Uganda. Nowhere is the dualistic history of the fort more prominent as the rock where both groups used to pray, to this day marked with both the Muslim symbol and the Christian symbol.
The entire fort was pretty well just an area built on top of a natural rock pile in the middle of the grassy Ugandan plains so it was a really crazy feeling just to stand at the top and look around and imagine how isolated of a spot this was and still is today with such historical and ruthless significance.
Because the fort was literally in the middle of nowhere, driving to and from was also one of the top surreal moments of the trip as we were literally driving through the rural areas where all of the horrors of the war in the north happened.
These were the same roads that "night commuters" and rebel soldiers walked along. I expected the landscape of the north to be flat, dry and dusty but the reality was quite different. The landscape was full of thick shrubbery and trees with tall grass everywhere, such that it was often very difficult to see the huts buried within the grass.
This was ground 0 for thousands of children and families, literally "the bush" as the army and the child soldiers would call it. The entire landscape was dotted by these circular mud huts with thatch conical roofs, often arranged into clusters of several together.
My mind immediately flooded to the countless images I've seen of drawings by former child soldiers that depicted exactly the scenes I was seeing with my own eyes in this moment, only their images also showed soldiers stalking through the long grass, pangas, severing, death, blood and fire. Obviously scenes that no child anywhere in the world should EVER have had to witness or participate in.
Our driver then drove by the roadside memorial site in the village of Lukodi where an entire village was planfully and systematically wiped out by the LRA in a surprise attack in 2004 with the apparent orders to "kill everyone, save bullets", a painfully graphic reminder of the callousness of how this war was fought. The people of Lukodi were targets because they were seen as government sympathizers given that the government soldier base was located within the village, an obvious testament to the illusion of protection that the government soldiers provided the innocent civilians of this region. A great article summarizing this massacre and illustrating the tactics of the LRA can be found at:
We also visited St. Mary's Lacor Hospital on the outskirts of Gulu town, a humanitarian minded hospital founded by Catholic missionaries and initially developed by an Italian and a Canadian surgeon.
It is also the place that, at the height of the conflict treated war afflicted people, that the rebels frequently raided for supplies and where the masses of "night commuters" would sleep along the verandas of the treatment rooms to avoid nighttime attacks/abductions by the LRA. Today, according to our guide the hospital is still a very good and affordable functioning hospital for the people of the region, though they never have enough beds for the countless Ugandans who seek treatment there. Today, instead of the "night commuters" strewn about the verandas, you actually see men, women and children lounging on the verandas waiting for their turn to claim a bed, an ever present reminder of the overburdened health care facilities in developing countries.
As we drove through Gulu and the surrounding areas, as you can imagine, I pelted my guide with questions asking him to speak candidly about both the history and plans and challenges around moving forward within the region so that I could understand firsthand the situation that moved me into social activism, as it stands now. At current, most all the IDP camps set up as a refuge against the LRA have been permanently disbanded (as I understand it there are still several operating in the north of Uganda but who primarily support Sudanese refugees) sending all of their "residents" back "home". As you can imagine, this is an incredibly complex situation so I asked the guide to speak about his opinions on whether the disbanding was a good/bad thing and what the current state of things are. This is obviously one person's opinion and interpretation but based on my many conversations with other smart people over the course of this trip about such topics, it resonates with the same sentiment re: the inherent complications with IDP camps. This is what he said: The disbanding of the camps at the root is a solid move towards rebuilding this area of the country. That being said there are immense complications because the camps were not a short term solution, therefore, life in the camps became a long-standing multi-generational way of living. You have to understand that the people "interned" in these camps were forcibly removed from their land into a confined space with no means to earn a proper living having obvious implications both financially and mentally. They were abruptly removed from the only life they ever knew. The only hope they had of survival was by food aid from various NGOs. They had children in the camps which essentially bred an entire generation of "camp kids" who have never known anything different. This sedentary lifestyle, as you would expect, bred a high level of alcoholism, sexual assault, child pregnancies and HIV. So, according to this person's relaying of information onwards to me, we have an entire two or more generations of people who, by no fault of their own, grew up living off handouts so many have a sense of entitlement and are not really good at living a productive life as productive members of society. They are traumatized people and obviously many suffer from addictions and mental illness. Most displaced people were from very, very rural villages with an extreme lack of education and literacy in the first place so they have difficulty getting mainstream jobs. It is very hard for them to live in the towns/cities because of their difficulty getting a job and affording life in the city with the demand to buy/rent land, buy food etc. vs. rurally where they can essentially live an entirely self-sufficient life for free. Very complex stuff here and across other situations where IDP camps have occurred in the world. Actually, since this trip I've become much more aware and privy to the challenges surrounding IDP camps but unfortunately, these problems do not tend to garner such rampant support from developed countries. Other images and issues are more "glamorous" and go farther in garnering funding above and beyond the issues surrounding IDP camps, so much so that I've actually heard the IDP situation described as the "invisible humanitarian crisis" that often underlies the more publicized humanitarian crisis'. Something to think about.
So I asked what the guide felt was the next steps here and again, in his opinion, he spoke of the need for sustainability projects to provide a means for people to earn a productive living as well as the need to move health care services closer to people. I know there are several NGOs of this nature (e.g. teaching people a particular skill like weaving, jewelry making etc. that will produce products that they can then sell) that continue to operate in this region as people take next steps to rebuild their lives. I wanted to perhaps drive by some of the larger NGOs operating in the region, however, the guide was very frank in explaining that NGOs in the region have been steadily closing their doors now that the immediate humanitarian crisis is over. World Vision's "Children of War Rehabilitation Centre" as well of others of that nature are no longer in operation as the massive influx of child soldiers in the region are processed or are grown. Aid workers are leaving in droves. Other agencies, like Invisible Children are unravelling by the minute. Actually our guide knew many of the people involved in Invisible Children so gave us a rather bleak synopsis of what is going on with the agency that, I still feel to this day, made this war "mainstream". Basically sounds like Invisible Children has been plagued by internal conflict for a long time and there has been some pretty fundamental disagreements between the American staff and the Ugandan staff on the ground such that the original American founders as well as many of the current American staff have entirely pulled out of the organization. I guess of the three founders, one is in Kampala doing a different private business, the other is in the Congo and the other, the guide couldn't remember. I've since had several critical conversations with people specifically about Invisible Children, however, I continue to hold my own strong and often unsupported view of this ill-fated agency. Again, merely my opinion and by no means do I claim to be the most educated, "in the know" person on this topic and I neither support nor deny them as they exist today, but here goes my devil's advocate perspective on this highly controversial agency.
In recent years Invisible Children has been under a lot of scrutiny about it's aid and it's finances and I have, both through readings and conversations with other people, grown rather aware of the criticisms against them. The first blow seemed to come when they released their financial records and they were heavily criticized for such a small percentage of their fundraising dollars actually going towards on the ground programs vs. media campaigns, salaries and the like. They have also been highly criticized for being late to the game because by the time they released their documentary this crisis was already known about for years. I find these arguments rather infuriating and obsolete because Invisible Children's primary mandate right from the beginning had not necessarily been on the ground project aid but rather a massive advertising/awareness campaign. They became famous because of the documentary they produced and if you had looked at their website in the early days (which I did, often), they were all about funky media initiatives and getting the story out to as many people as would listen. The rest of the on the ground initiatives all came later. The three founders are literally filmmakers and like clothing designers for christ's sake, that is what they do and that is what they did for Uganda and I would argue, rather successfully. As for people already knowing, sure, perhaps the UN and Human Rights Watch and whatnot were aware but I'm most certain that the mainstream public and the younger demographic did not. Personally, because of their funky and highly creative media campaigns I feel like Invisible Children made history in that social activism and social mindedness started appealing to the general public. It made it "cool" if you will. I would even argue that Invisible Children birthed all these viral social media/hashtag campaigns which is a pretty big deal. I know this is all also a criticism of Invisible Children and since then the term "armchair activist" has been thrown around a lot and I understand it to some degree. But in the end, perhaps many fickly inspired people's "armchair activism" goes nowhere, but I think motivating the general public to talk about and care about global issues even if it is just for a short time, can never be a bad thing! I've heard arguments against their simplification of the issues in the north, skewing the presentation of facts to lead people to believe one thing about the current state of events (night commuters) that wasn't actually fact or milking something that was long past (as in while they were promoting, night commuting had long since stopped) while Gulu and surrounding areas were already rebuilding. Again, I would say that it takes awhile between getting footage and releasing a full documentary that perhaps things change and again, a simplification is not entirely an outrageous concept considering the audience they were after. And quite frankly and this is somewhat controversial, a detailed and through outlining of the grey zones of highly complex issues doesn't get attention and funding from the general public. And this attention and funding from the international community is what sustains these projects on the ground. If a great agency can't motivate the white people of the world to open their wallets, they fail. Like it or not, that's the way it works. And the general public is rather radicalist in what they respond to and a dramatic and one-sided presentation of issues is "glamorous" enough to motivate public action. In other words sensationalist presentation and not critical, in depth look at the entire issue presentation, gets attending and money thrown at it. Look at every documentary ever produced...I'd argue that 100% of them are a highly biased, highly extremist viewpoint because you know why, because moderate thinking people aren't moved to make documentaries, that's why. That's the sad but realistic facts folks. Onwards to Invisible Children. Then there was the highly publicized mental breakdown of the main founder of Invisible Children after the Kony 2012 campaign which, I think, ultimately sealed the fate of this organization. Once again, crazy yes, but is it that unexpected given the viral success and subsequent heavy scrutiny and criticism of something that you passionately built from the ground up? I'd probably have a mental breakdown too. Perhaps I am too sympathetic because I have a little soft spot for Invisible Children but either way, by this point the writing was on the wall for this agency and as of recent, they announced that they were completing folding operations due to lack of funding. Not gonna lie, I was a little sad to hear it. I am done now.
Moving on, we had our last night eating dinner at our hotel and chatting with Michael who by this point was, I'm quite certain, smitten by Bridger and who begged us not to leave because "he'll miss us so much". In the end, through a series of server changes, beer returns and half payment in cash and half on the bill, somehow at the time of paying the bill, once again there were a few questionable extra drinks on the tab, one of which was because Michael claimed that Bridger said he would buy him a drink. Um hello, is this Fort Portal again?! With all the changes, perhaps it was an innocent mistake, perhaps it was another total screwjob, we still were never entirely sure but were left with a sour taste thinking "awww, not Michael too!".
One redeeming ray of hope after the "not Michael!" incident was that Bridger got an email from the Rwandan government once again clearing him for visa on arrival at immigration. Having left it to the last minute, we were SO happy to have this document in hand now knowing that now we could fly to Rwanda on our scheduled flight in peace. No problems right? Duh duh duh...