the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

Gulu: a thriving town with a troubled past

on December 26, 2019

I’m staying in Gulu for the Christmas holidays and it’s a good place to be. There are lots of volunteers to socialise with and a good range of cafés and restaurants to idle away the hours. The town has a bustling centre with shops, banks and a good market. I’m staying on the outskirts where there are long avenues lined with government and NGO offices, newly built compounds with smart housing and a clutch of reasonably priced hotels. The town is now the main hub of north Uganda having expanded considerably since the 1990s. It will be recognised as a city in the not too distant future.

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The current prosperity masks a troubled past. The north of Uganda has traditionally supported the south but has not enjoyed the same rewards. In the 1980s tensions in the area deteriorated into tribal conflict and bloodshed. Upon gaining power, President Museveni sent forces north to establish his authority. Opposition to this became fertile ground for the development of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Following the defeat of Alice Lakwena’s rebellion (who led a troops under a banner of Christian and Acholi rituals), Joseph Kony seized control of the rebels and introduced a doctrine where it was legitimate to abduct children and induct them into the Lord’s Resistance Army where the massacre of villagers was a regular occurrence. After years of dominating the area and following a lengthy peace process, Joseph Kony fled into the Central African Republic (CAR). It is believed he is still at large in CAR although he is rumoured to be in South Sudan or elsewhere. Members of the LRA where reabsorbed into society through traditional ceremonies of cleansing and forgiveness and eventually given amnesty by the government. There has not been any conflict in the north since 2005. But as I walk the town centre amongst the shops with wide verandas, it’s shocking to realise this was where 15,000 children slept each evening as an escape from the LRA. And, it’s sobering to think that the child soldiers who once served the LRA now have families of their own and somehow have to live with the autocracies they committed.

During the long drive from Kampala to Gulu, our driver (I’ll call him Paul) shared his experiences of growing up during the reign of terror inflicted by the LRA. He was approached by the LRA on three occasions and managed to escape by answering their questions with a clear head and by keeping calm throughout these terrifying experiences. He knew the chances of escape were slim: three of this brothers and his father had been murdered by the LRA. Each time he was released, he managed to hide amongst trees until the danger had passed. One time, he was walking home from school for the holidays. He had heard rebels were in the area so headed for his aunt’s house. Once there, he borrowed his cousin’s bicycle to make a speedy visit to his mother. On the way there, he was stopped by rebels. The latest arbitrary ruling by Kony included a new law banning the riding of bicycles. He watched the rebels chop the bike to pieces and then burn it. Later he was allowed to leave and he hid until the rebels had moved on and he was able to make it home on foot. Later, when he told his aunt what had happened, the family decided that the bicycle was new and had to be replaced. Paul didn’t want this debt hanging over him, so instead of using money to pay his school fees, he offered this as compensation. Without classes to attend, Paul developed his skills in tending a vegetable garden. Fortunately, the school allowed him to resume his studies when money permitted.

Paul’s experiences chime with an excerpt from a non fiction book I’m reading called Aboke Girls by Els de Temmerman which describes the abduction of 139 girls from St Mary’s School in Aboke in 1996. One of the sisters followed the rebels into the bush and asked for the girls to be returned. Surprisingly, 109 girls were released. The book records what happened to some of the 30 who remained in captivity. Here is a horrifying event observed by Sarah:

…the rebels spotted a man riding down the path. He tried to get away but the rebels had already grabbed him. ‘Why do you ride a bicycle?’ Lagira questioned him. Didn’t he know Kony’s law banning the riding of bicycles? The man pointed at his leg, which was swollen and smeared with some local medicine. He couldn’t walk and was on his way to the hospital for treatment, he stammered, and he pleaded for mercy. But Lagira coldly told him that his leg would be cut off, according to the rules. At that moment, a woman accidently bumped into them. She too was grabbed by the rebels. Lagira ordered her to kneel down and bite off the leg. If she refused to do so, she would be killed. With horror, Sarah witnessed how the woman did as she was told. But of course, she could not get through the bone, so Lagira gave her an axe. Even then, it took all her strength to cut the leg in two. Both were left behind on the road, crying.

When I asked Paul, how it was possible to be reconciled with people who had committed such horrors, he just referred to the amnesty. And then he said it was important to celebrate the memory of those who had been put to death by the rebels. To commemorate their lives rather than dwelling on murder. And so Paul is able to find a way forward.


One response to “Gulu: a thriving town with a troubled past

  1. Suzanne Goldring says:

    This was grim reading on Boxing Day. But you are safe and well and maintaining a clear perspective on all you hear. Really admire you going this and all who are out there. xx

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