After two decades of war and displacement, it is dawning on the people of northern Uganda, they have a chance to go home. A cautious return - step by step – as peace talks progress. But how will people settle the past – with forgiveness or retribution?
Alice Ayot: “I think in their hearts, people really do not want to forgive these people. But the government wants it, because they need to talk peace.
“I would jail them.”
Alice Ayot, 47, survived a rebel massacre in 2004, and was beaten almost to death by child soldiers.
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“I was forced to carry the dead body of one of their commanders on my back. After a few kilometres I couldn’t move with the weight of the body – I fell down and the rebels beat me. They stabbed my neck, they beat my ribs, my chest, my back – I thought I was dead. I was lying in a pool of blood.”
Alice only survived because her husband looked for her body to bury.
“I regained consciousness in the morning, with flies and termites moving on my body. I saw I was surrounded by government soldiers, my husband was with them.
“It’s difficult for me to forget. I still get pain. When I bend like this, it feels like my neck is cut, and it is going to fall.”
She came with her children to Gulu town, about 20km away, where they feel safe. Her eldest son, Richard, 14: “There’s a feeling of revenge. Imagine if someone killed your mother. You’d feel you should kill him or her.”
Her husband, Peter, found his terribly injured wife not far from their homestead. She has never returned and says she never will, until the war is over. But Peter stayed in the camp, which is right next to the farm, cultivating his fields, growing fruit and vegetables – he wants the family to come back to their ancestral land.
He thinks traditional justice should be used – a ceremony that persuades communities to accept the past for the sake of the future.
“I can forgive them. Because the children have done this one under their leaders – the children are innocent. If I don’t forgive them, this thing will just remain a trauma to my family and to my children.”
After the Lord’s Resistance Army, the LRA, launched a brutal rebellion in 1986, some two million people were displaced. Many were forced to live in government-controlled camps, as the LRA launched a violent campaign against its own community. There were massacres and mutilations – about 20,000 children were abducted or killed.
Life in the camps was also tortuous - safety was not guaranteed; poverty was. Death rates were high, and family structures broke down. Livelihoods disappeared as the population was denied access to their fields. People struggled with basic survival, penned into the camps by strict curfew.
But then, in 2003, President Yoweri Museveni asked the International Criminal Court at The Hague to investigate the LRA. He faced growing criticism for what had become one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.
Museveni, here touring the north in January 2007, put forward his case – the rebels would have to face international or local justice. And the camps must be closed.
Peace talks started in 2006 – here in Ri-Kwangba on the Sudan-Congo border, and in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan. Four of the LRA commanders were indicted by ICC for crimes against humanity. It has forced the rebels to come to the table, but also proves a major stumbling block for the talks.
The notorious LRA leaders rarely come out of their forest hideout – Joseph Kony, spiritual leader, and Vincent Otti, the military strategist, fear being seized for trial.
International and local delegates have managed to secure some basic agreements between the two sides – but justice and retribution remains the biggest issue. The LRA want ICC charges dropped.
They want to go home, submit themselves to traditional, community-based justice instead. And the rebels insist the Ugandan military must also be investigated for its role in the conflict.
But one of the biggest challenges to be faced is the future of children like these – some of the thousands of boys and girls who have been abducted as young as seven or eight, and forced to kill and mutilate.
Child soldiers became the fighting core of the LRA. They were indoctrinated with horrific murderous rituals to become ruthless and committed fighters.
Florence Ayot is a former child soldier, and rebel wife. She was abducted when she was only nine, and married off at 13. When her first husband was killed, she was given to a second LRA commander – but later managed to escape. She now lives in Gulu with two of her children from the bush – the son and daughter of one of the key LRA commanders, Dominic Ongwen.
Ongwen, about 32, is one of the four indicted LRA leaders. He is the youngest person ever to be charged for crimes against humanity by the ICC. Formerly an illiterate boy farmer and an orphan, he was also abducted when he was about 10.
Florence: “When I was first given I felt bad, because I was thinking, I’m still a very young girl – why should I be changing hands from one man to another? But they told me, if you go home, you will be killed. So eventually I got used to it, and decided, come what may, this is not my wish to become a wife to many rebel commanders, but it is the situation, so I coped.
“When you are the wife of a commander you are given special treatment. You don’t have to fight, you are not made to carry big loads, unlike the small abductees who have a difficult time and are made to go on operations.”
Florence has married another former child soldier; she says they understand each other and want to settle to a normal life with the children. But she is haunted by the death of her eldest child, who was killed at nine years old when they came under attack by government helicopter in the bush.
Florence: “It was the 2nd October 2004 when we were moving in Gulu district. I had one baby on my back and my eldest son was following behind me. My big son ran over to Dominic Ongwen. We got separated when the helicopters attacked. I crawled into the thickets and hid. The next morning I was told my child had been killed, shot by the helicopter.”
Florence says she was not allowed to see the body, and still wants to perform a burial rite of some sort for her child. She thinks of him every day.
She also carries a profound sense of loss over her parents.
Florence: “I’ve not been back to the village because there’s no-one there for me. My father died after he was beaten by rebels, my mother died later on because of so many thoughts and problems.
“Five of my brothers were killed when they were abducted and tied with a line of rope. A helicopter attacked them. And the only brother left around here doesn’t even know who is who. He’s kind of mad now.”
Florence: “I don’t want the rebels to be punished. They should be forgiven. Even if they were punished, my parents would not come back.”
Florence hopes to be accepted back into the community, but she is wary …
Florence: “We live just as neighbours. I don’t say I’m from the bush because I want to mix freely like ordinary people. They’ll begin talking and pointing their fingers. They say we have killed people, they say we are possessed by the bad spirits of people we have killed.”
Florence: “I am bitter because I have no sense of direction; I have no real source of income. Sometimes we fetch water for people, or wash their clothes, just to get money to eat.”
Two of Dominic Ongwen’s brothers have been to see the children. They treated her nicely, said Florence, but not as a sister-in-law. Some of Ongwen’s brothers are also escaped abductees. They live on the outskirts of society – listening for the outcome of the peace talks. Camping out on the family farm, they spend their days digging and clearing – hoping for a resolution.
And this is Madelena, who has acted as mother to all the Ongwen brothers and to Dominic when he was an orphan. Her husband, Odong, was brother to Dominic’s father.
Madelena remains in Olwal camp, shackled by extreme poverty and fear that the peace talks may collapse. She takes charge of a large extended family without any real source of income. She has a new baby - and she waits for Dominic to return.
Madelena: “I wish Dominic would come back. I want to see him, because I hear he is wounded, he’s limping – he would come and leave the mentalities of the bush behind and live in the village. I would take responsibility for him.”
To Madelena, Dominic Ongwen is still a missing 10-year-old child.
Madelena: “It wouldn’t be good if the government took him to the ICC. He was abducted when he was very young. He was forced to do those crimes.”
Madelena: “In the camp, most responsibilities are left to the women – men are handing over their role to the women.”
The camps have little to offer – but there are even less services in many of the villages and return sites. The family depends on the water source, the school and the health clinic here. Five of her 11 children died, two of measles, the others of malaria – some were abducted. Madelena says there have been times when she also wanted to die, but she knows she is critical to the survival of the family.
Madelena: “The men drink and women take full responsibility for the home. There is far more drinking in the camps than there used to be in the villages. Alcohol is brewed and sold in every household – the men begin drinking as soon as they wake up. I also brew alcohol sometimes and sell it when I need money for something.”
Traditional relationships and skills have been destroyed because of camp life, and that worries her.
Madelena: “Camp life has really ruined the future of our children. The problem is family breakdown – we are not able to sit together around the fire with the children and tell them of the good things and the bad things. In a family where there are not brothers and men to sit and teach, the younger ones become so difficult and don’t listen.”
But David, her 15-year-old son, is determined to have a future, and he is planning his move. He says he will leave Olwal camp and the village as soon as he can and go to Gulu town – just 20kms away; he is in search of the best education he can find.
David: “Camp life is bad, especially for us kids who are going to school; sometimes you go and the teachers have not turned up. Sometimes even the kids don’t go. They say they are going but hang around the camp.
“Without education, you can never develop, however good a farmer you are. I would not want to become a farmer, if I’m lucky I’ll leave digging because I’ll be studying somewhere.”
Many teenagers like David will abandon traditional life and move into urban centres – there will be new patterns of settlement when the camps finally empty.
He has no illusions about what he leaves behind.
David: “Ah, I never tried alcohol and I never will. I know the effects – the next day you think about the money you have wasted.”
Many still depend on food aid in the camps. Some families keep one foot in the camp and one in the village. If they leave the camp, they may no longer be registered for assistance – a move they cannot afford to risk.
The young, and vulnerable, still need support while the family prepares to move back to the village. They say they need hoes, household items and seeds, as well as money to re-build the abandoned structures. For some, it remains an issue of safety. They are determined to stay in the camp until there is a clear outcome to the peace talks.
But in some of the less affected areas, like Lira district, the move out has been more decisive. Markets are developing along the main roads and next to the newly settled sites. Old trade routes are being opened up again. People are getting back on their feet economically, selling produce from the homesteads and making charcoal from the newly accessed fields and forests.
This was Agweng, one of the first camps to empty. After the exodus, most of the abandoned structures were destroyed.
Galdino Opalo and his 16-year-old daughter Juliette were one of the first to leave Agweng, and move the family back to their homestead.
Galdino: “The transition from the camp is really difficult, because sometimes we go without food, and we have no household items. The children just sleep on the floor without blankets or mattresses. And I don’t have the strength or the money to put up a good building.”
Galdino is HIV-positive – the camps had some of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world. His wife Santa died of AIDS just before the camp closed.
This is Santa, filmed just a few weeks before her death.
Galdino: “We tested together in January last year, and she died a few months ago. Drugs are free, but now you go to the hospital and they are not there. I have now missed for three weeks, and since I stopped taking the drugs I feel chest pain.”
Galdino: “I do not know when I will die, but by the time it happens, Juliette will be mature enough. Pulling Juliette out of school was not our wish, but when the mother was ill, she could not do anything – and the children would come back home to nothing. That’s why we decided to use Juliette.”
Juliette, 16, has effectively become head of household.
Juliette: “I have to remain and cook for them. It is not good because I am being denied education … I don’t know how my life will be here. When you go to school you learn good things that change your life and future.”
Juliette: “Since my mother died, we were the ones who must look for food – She told us she had HIV and was going to die. My father also has it.”
There are no services here – facilities at the camp have been closed. Galdino’s son stepped on a rusty nail, which has become badly infected – he is left in the hands of his father.
Galdino: “I can’t take him to hospital, because there is no money. The health centre in the camp has gone. There is one 4km away, but I am not strong enough to ride there.
“My greatest fear is that tomorrow when I die people will come and grab the land away from my children.”
Issues of justice certainly preoccupy Galdino – but they are ones of land rights, health and the future of his children.
Galdino: “If I had money, I would get a lawyer to write my will and make sure my children get this land.”
The future of northern Uganda is in the hands of a damaged generation.
The past must be settled somehow – but the question is, how?
Will it be through the community with traditional ceremonial justice; or should the indicted leaders be tried by the International Criminal Court?
Until an agreement is reached, justice itself is on trial.
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