It was a Friday night in Brooklyn, in my apartment that’s a mix of memories from New York and East Africa. Ugandan crafts, earrings, and scarves liven up my otherwise typical New York journo-bedroom: books, magazines, newspapers, too many cans of diet soda, a dirty gray, much-loved laptop, with the letters wearing off. I was waiting for a friend to visit, decompressing after a week of excitement writing for Women’s eNews, the New York Post, and working on stuff for my diaspora news company, Africa Connections. Out of habit, I quickly scanned the latest headlines on the Kampala-based Independent’s website, and scanned a story about Northern Uganda. Then, what—–!
To my horror, I read an admission that a Ugandan general leaked in an interview with the Observer, a Kampala-based Ugandan weekly newspaper. Without thinking, he blurted out that the IDP camps were part of deliberate military strategy, something the Ugandan government has been denying for decades. (The war in Northern Uganda was actually the longest-running conflict on the African continent.)
What are IDP camps? Well, for those who haven’t had the experience of visiting NGO-City (in northern Uganda, the joke is that there is an NGO for every person living there), almost 2 million people lived in “internally displaced person camps” for decades, or camps for people who are refugees within their own country.
Some people still live in them, but most of the camps have closed down (forcing people, many of them disabled, to return to their former villages without transport or assistance, and causing deadly land disputes as people ofind their former homes occupied by new people), but in their heyday, 1.7 million people lived in these camps, where an estimated 1,500 people died weekly, a significant number children under five. On average, three northern Ugandans would commit suicide daily in these camps, which were maintained largely by, well, NGO-City. Women faced much more sexual and domestic violence in these camps than they would have ever endured in their villages.
Although people have known this for awhile (but don’t speak up, afraid of Uganda’s sedition laws or worse), the people who lived in the camps weren’t necessarily fleeing the LRA insurgency– many were actually fleeing the Ugandan army, the same military that receives a lot of aid and training from the U.S. government (the largest Africom exercise this year was in Northern Uganda).
To starve the rebels’ of youth (conscripted child soldiers), information, and stolen food, the military thought the best strategy would be to evacuate the ENTIRE region and put them into virtual-death camps. I do not use that phrase lightly. Before I read this article in the Independent, I never called the IDP camps that way, because I didn’t realize they were a direct part of the government’s military strategy.
Why did the government do this? Well, this way, the army could bomb and attack the LRA at will throughout Northern Uganda, at a time when the insurgency was being supported by the Khartoum-based Sudanese government (in response to Uganda backing Sudanese rebel groups). Can you imagine destroying an entire region’s economy, homes, traditions, and social networks by forcing everyone to evacuate their residences, farms, etc. and live in IDP camps? The LRA was never stopped– they just moved their atrocities into the DR Congo and the Central African Republic. Meanwhile, Uganda now has one of the highest rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and mental illness in the world.
(I went to a conference in Lira, northern Uganda, over the summer, and one of the country’s psychologists–there are only twelve total in a country of 30 million- tried to defend Uganda’s mental health this way: ‘Well, Uganda is not that bad off. Some countries are worse, like Sierra Leone.’ Yes, Sierra Leone was his reference point for defending the country’s mental health. But the rate of mental illness in northern Uganda is off the charts, as well as in the urban refugee communities in Kampala, where Congolese refugees battle PTSD. I visited the World Bank-funded mental hospital in Kampala to interview a Congolese teen girl whose family’s support from UNHCR had been stopped due to budget cuts. She told me that she saw men with pangas, or machetes, everywhere– in her bedroom, in the marketplace, etc. Her father and brothers had been killed in Bunia, DR Congo. Her mother, who she lives with in Kampala, contracted HIV when she was raped by Congolese rebels. When the girl Sarah first heard about her mother’s diagnosis, she went mute for months.)
I still cannot believe that this general finally admitted that the camps were not a by-product of LRA terror in Northern Uganda, but a deliberate strategy of the Ugandan government– which has always devalued the people of north and northeastern Uganda. The Human Rights Watch even reported in the 1990s that the LRA were not the ones bombing northern Ugandan villages with mortars, but it was the Ugandan government bombing its own nationals. Why? Aronda’s words now ring clear– the government, which has a long history of systemic violence against the region, bombed its own villages to encourage people to move to these IDP camps. And anyone who left these camps to, say, cultivate their crops or visit their former homes, was treated as either a rebel or rebel collaborator. Any independent political organizations that rose to challenge the treatment of northern Ugandans was also destroyed as a potential rebel-collaborating group. All of this from a country and government that has been lauded for decades in the international community for its macroeconomic stability, its progressive policies towards women, successes in fighting HIV, and universal primary education programs.
In the camps, there was no economy, no farms for an agricultural people, no hygiene. Reporting for the Washington Post in 2007, I interviewed northern Ugandans who had left the camps and were trying to rebuild their lives in Lira, a small agricultural town. One young teen boy, at an NGO school for students with disabilities (disabilities are very common up north), showed me his leg, deformed by a bullet. The government thought the LRA might have infiltrated the camp, and began shooting people, he said. I remember I asked him who had shot him, and he whispered to me softly: “The UPDF.” Moving along the classroom with crutches, he took lessons with another boy who accidentally broke his leg in the camp. There was no medical infrastructure or way to go to a hospital. He wasn’t treated, and his leg was left to fix itself on his own.
Northern Uganda is a much different place these days, as the camps have closed, and people have gone to traditional healers to try and treat madness, or mental illness. Countless banks are in Lira and Gulu (another northern Ugandan town), and many new shops have sprung up. Many of the NGOs, which kept the camps going, have left. Life is going on. Despite 2008’s floods, and a horrific drought this year, northern Ugandan farmers are trying hard to feed their families, make a living, and rebuild their communities. Women are taking on traditional male tasks in rebuilding their homes, redefining gender roles.
But now that the Ugandan government has finally admitted to the military policy that guided it for decades, even during the ‘good’ years of the regime, I can’t help but wonder– what do we do with this information?
This blog is a product of Africa Connections, which helps African immigrants connect with news from home.