Tag Archives: NGOs

Ugandan Gen. Admits the IDP Camps Were Part of UG Military Strategy: A Bombshell Dropped (Literally)

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.

My colleague Patrick Ogwang, who works for a Northern Ugandan newspaper called Rupiny. His aunt still works daily in the farm in Patrick's village, about 30 minutes from Lira town. I'm the woman in black on the right. Igor Kossov, an American journalist and former Sunday Vision writer, took this photo during our trip at a mental health conference. Northern Uganda has some of the highest rates of mental illness in the world.

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.

I interviewed Andrew about his experiences living in the camps, and his new life in Lira. The students were disabled because of both UPDF-inflicted injuries and the lack of health infrastructure in camps.

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?

Before the government forced Northern Ugandans to live in camps, they had their own villages and towns, schools, a vibrant culture, and contributed to the country's economy as farmers and merchants. The camps took almost 2 million people and left them in a quagmire of NGO dependency, state and rebel violence.

This blog is a product of Africa Connections, which helps African immigrants connect with news from home.



ugandan kids 

1.   Why don’t girls have hair? When I first came to Uganda, it seemed at first that it was a country filled with many, many boy children.  Upon closer inspection, I realized that most girls shaved their heads before classes began, for uniformity and neatness.  When I was in primary school, my mom showed her delight in having a daughter by making me grow my hair so long that I could sit on it.  It wasn’t until my parents separated that I finally felt the sweet pleasure of having short hair, the feeling of a cool breeze on my neck. 

In eighth grade, or S2 as it’s known here, hair was a huge deal.  It could make or break you.  All teen girls obsessed over their hair.  It took up a lot of time.  In the morning, before classes started, girls would flock to the bathrooms armed with large paddle brushes and combs, determined to get perfect, shiny locks.  A trip to the hair dresser could determine your social future. 

When I was thirteen, I hated my hair much more than I hated geometry and chemistry, my least favorite school units.  It was incredibly oily, weak, and limp—so limp, it could barely stay up in a ponytail or bun.  Thinking about the sad state of my hair took up most of my thirteen-year-old brain cells.  When I wasn’t thinking about it, I agonized over my jeans (too short for my constantly growing legs) and tops.  After I went to Uganda the first time, I showed my friend Dorothy (who I met in S2) pictures of my Ugandan sisters, and we reflected on what a big deal hair was growing up.  Maybe Ugandan schools have it right—shave your heads, and use your brain cells for something useful… like geometry, for starters.

Mosa Courts, Kampala

Mosa Courts, Kampala

2.  Where do people get their money? This really confounds me.  In the U.S., people’s source of money is usually obvious.  It’s their salary!  The expansive houses, luxury cars, and posh vacations usually belong to people who make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year at their (formal) jobs.  People with small salaries usually have tiny houses or rooms that they rent, and stay at home during leave.  Of course, salary doesn’t necessarily mean prestige in the U.S.  Some of my friends with prestigious jobs in the arts make little money, while a friend I know that works as a security guard and bouncer at a trendy club makes $90,000 a year, or sh180million shillings.  But people’s material wealth usually lines up with their salaries.  In Uganda, it’s a different story.  Someone will have a tiny salary, but a large car worth millions of shillings, and a huge house.  Others with salaries that seem to indicate they should be eating rolex own large amounts of land outside of Kampala.  Since credit is practically nonexistent in Uganda, compared to the debt-friendly U.S., I’m forced to realize that the same people with tiny salaries probably paid for their houses with cash.  Cash? Not credit! Where does their money come from, I often wonder.  What they own is much larger than their salary after taxes.  Of course, what I always want to say is—what on Earth are you doing after 5 pm? Clearly, harvesting some cash.

Bye Mzungu!

3.  Why do children say bye, rather than hello? Any friend who has the misfortune of walking with me anywhere in Uganda is used to hearing this greeting: bye-iii, Mzungu! Bye-iii! Although Uganda may sometimes be divided over land and other issues, at least its children everywhere seem to be in total solidarity on how to greet foreigners.  As soon as you start to feel comfortable in Uganda, like it could be your home, there is always a loud group of kids all too eager to wish you goodbye. 

Which leads me to wonder, why don’t they say hi? At first, I tried to start a “Hello trend.”  Walking home, I would realize I had been spotted, and hear kids already making their goodbyes to me.  But I’m not leaving, I would complain in my head.  “Hello! Hello!” I would respond.  Eventually, I gave up.  Goodbye, it will have to be.

In My Culture, Being Thin Means Beauty & Wealth

In My Culture, Being Thin Means Beauty & Wealth

4.  How can you tell me I look fat? In the U.S., where a lot of our fruits and vegetables are imported, good nutrition and a slim, even malnourished body is associated with wealth.  Fans of Desperate Housewives, a series popular in video libraries here, might recall how one housewife fought to have the prestige of being a size “zero,” even during her pregnancy.  In America, it seems to be that the more money you have, the skinnier you become.  Some of the wealthiest women in the U.S. are the tiniest, like Paris Hilton.  Top-grossing supermodels seem to live on cigarettes and black coffee.  It seems that those overweight in the U.S. are perceived as depressed (as if you stay at home in your free time, weeping over a carton of ice cream) or poor (you can only afford to eat at McDonald’s and Burger King).  These are crude stereotypes, but perceptions stick.  After all, going to the gym, having a trainer, and purchasing pricey, organic fruits and vegetables requires quite a few dollars.  In fact, in some low-income neighborhoods in the U.S., it can be almost impossible to find anything resembling a mango or greens.  Living in Uganda gives me a large amount of cultural dissonance.  When I came back to the country in March, many of my colleagues greeted me warmly with cries of, “Becky, you’re grown fat! You’ve put on a lot of weight in your stomach.”  Instantly, I recoiled, wanting to run to the nearest bathroom to cry.  Although I knew it was a cultural difference, my gut reaction was—how can you be so heartless and rude? I would gulp two or three times, as if to swallow my hurt.  Luckily, I know that when I go home, I’ll be greeted with the sweet sounds of “Becky, you look so skinny!” My friends will grab me and compliment my skinny arms or waist, even if my weight is relatively the same as when I left.  This, in my land, means that I look good!


5.  Why are NGOs seen as business ventures? In the U.S., working for a nonprofit or NGO is something you do as a financial sacrifice.  Hence, perhaps, the name “nonprofit.”  Although not always the case, such as a career is perceived to require a lot of time, commitment, and financial austerity.  In Uganda, this is not true.  NGOs are a business, a source of foreign exchange.  Those I know working for NGOs in Kampala or upcountry are perceived as lucky, wealthy, “making good money.”  It’s a complete reversal of how nonprofits are viewed in the U.S., where people will often have to take on a second or third job to survive in their NGO work.  But in Uganda, the word on the street is that nonprofits are really for-profits.