It was tropically hot on one of the main pot-holed highways heading North in Uganda towards South Sudan. We were all using different strategies to cope with this eight hour bus trip, mine being a variation of squatted sitting was deteriorating but at least I could read. Jamie had printed out articles for us to read as prep for our visit to Lira where we would visit the Rachele Rehabilitation School and the Internally Displaced Person’s Camp. Atrocities committed by Joseph Kony, a Christian terrorist and leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have been taking place in this area for the past twenty year.
When I looked out into field standing on the memorial of the Displaced Person’s Camp I felt in my gut the horror of the people who had been brought to this camp for protection from their villages at the height of the Kony activities in Lira. The Kony army attacked the camp killing hundreds and kidnapping many. We stood on the stone memorial that covered the arch of the village where the huts would have been. “Displaced persons” should not be read over too lightly. This territory and many other regions of Africa report up to two-thirds of the populations have been displaced refugees due to war.
This January 2015, one of the last remaining LRA leaders, Dominic Ongwen, who was himself kidnapped at the age of 10, surrendered and was transferred from the Central African Republic to the Hague to be put on trial at the International Criminal Court. “This is a welcome development in the international community’s campaign to counter the LRA’s dehumanizing violence and to bring perpetrators to justice after more than two decades of the LRA’s brutal campaign of torture, rape and murder,” reported US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power. Prior to our trip I would have agreed. As a result of this trip I am left in an uncomfortable space of challenging my beliefs, perceptions, cultural inheritance and of understanding of history.
My experiences in Lira exposed me to the differences between a justice system premised on a code of law versus more traditional systems grounded in conflict resolution. Some critics, including indigenous and religious leaders in the area, argue that the the threat of the International Criminal Court influenced Kony’s decision to not participate in serious conflict resolution and that without resolution the atrocities continue to this day. (Similar atrocities are happening daily in Nigeria.) This is complicated by the fact that the government of Uganda had granted immunity for the child soldiers.
Is justice a conceptual, cultural paradigm imposed upon the world? Did conflict resolution courts in Rwanda allow only Tutsi injustice to be voiced without granting equal opportunities for crimes committed upon Hutu by the Kagame army? How quickly I wanted to make the questions abstract rather than truly feel.
However along with our exposure to Lira we had multiple opportunities to share with people who had been involved. Betty is a young woman who was kidnapped as a child and forced into living for survival in the bush as a female child soldier until she eventually escaped. She and others spoke to us at the Rachele Rehabilitation School. We spent two days with her and her children, on the bus, at the school, at dinner in the hotel, at the hospital and orphanage. For every story of destruction there was a story of courage, kindness, the hard human work on the part of all those involved including families and local /global communities. There is still much work to do, healing is a long journey. Betty added another real factor when she sighed and said “I survived, but there is no work here. How can I feed my children?