A Visit to Gulu: Remnants of the Past Mingle with the Present

17 Jun

Dr. Okumu and his mother Auma

Before you begin to read Blog 14 I need to make you, the reader aware of how I arranged this narrative. The people in my story are very real and I have recorded their stories exactly the way they have told them to me. Presently the city of Gulu is one big melting pot filled with people who in one way or another were involved in the Civil War in the north or were associated with Joseph Kony either willingly or unwillingly. The past is still very much present on the streets of Gulu where soldiers who were once members of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have been allowed to return- no questions asked. Child soldiers have turned into grown men; many of whom have chosen careers as Boda-Boda men, motorcycle drivers. They stand together shoulder to shoulder on street corners around Gulu waiting to provide rides to passengers needing their services. Many young women who have opened kiosks and sell dresses or household goods to customers around town were at one time or another housed at GUSCO – Gulu Support the Children Organization Reception Center having been either sex slaves, soldiers’ wives, or girl soldiers; all of them attached in some way to the LRA. And even the “good guys” in the conflict, The Ugandan army (UPDF), did not turn out to be that professional in their dealings with the Acholi people especially when moving them into the Internal Displacement Camps. The individuals who have chosen to share their memories with me need to have their bravery and courageous actions documented and acknowledged by the entire world community. These men were regular, everyday people who did the impossible by standing tall and following their consciences when it was far simpler to take things by force and act in their own interests.

I left Kampala with a team of university professors and an educational administrator last Sunday morning to further investigate several educational research topics in northern Uganda. We left very early in the morning and it took us between seven to eight hours to reach Gulu. It was my second visit there and is a long tiring drive. Gulu is a city located in northern Uganda. It played a major role during the Civil War in Uganda which was fought in the north and lasted from 1986 until 2006, a full twenty years. Patrick, our van driver and personal friend, told us stories on the way into the city about what it was like in this region during the Civil War. He had been hired by American and Ugandan journalists to drive them into the bush in order to conduct secret meetings with specific guerilla commanders fighting in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) although he was sure that these reporters had never met with the actual leader of the LRA, one Joseph Kony during any of these trips. (For an explanation about Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army see Blog Two). Sometimes the journalists had made previous arrangements to meet with certain rebels at particular places along the road but other times the reporters had Patrick question the villagers about the LRA’s location and drive down narrow, dirt paths far into the bush in hopes that they might run into some of Kony’s men. This was a very dangerous maneuver that could have gotten all of them killed but one that Patrick had to comply with as the driver of the van. Patrick took the journalists and television newsmen into Gulu a total of five times and was paid very handsomely for his efforts by their news bureaus but he admitted that the money in no way made up for the continuous fear and uncertainty he experienced during his visits there.

On our way in he pointed out the remnants of two very large Internal Displacement Camps. By 2004 two million people had been interned by the Ugandan government in 180 separate Internal Displacement Camps located in northern Uganda in order to keep them safe from the Lord’s Resistance Army and other rebel groups fighting in the area (WHO, 2009). The camps consisted of quickly constructed circular wattle huts, the walls of which were made out of a hard clay mud with tiers of heavy wooden sticks tied together in bundles and layered around the top the mud brick hut. These camp models were poor copies of the traditional Acholi huts constructed by the Acholi people in spacious compounds around the region of Gulu. Although these huts do come in different sizes the ones I have been invited to enter are all high enough to stand up straight in once you bend down in order to enter the doorway. In traditional Acholi compounds relatives share the entire space but do not build their huts close to one another as a rule. In the Displacement camps the huts were built so close together that each roof was almost touching the one beside it. These camps had some of the highest mortality rates in the world. According to data collected in a report written by IRIN Africa: Uganda, one thousand people per week died mostly from AIDS- related diseases and Malaria. All of the Acholi families have since left the camps and the remaining wattle huts have been re-allocated to the elderly residents of Gulu especially those who lost all of their children and/or relatives in the civil war. There is another set of huts further down the road presently occupied by destitute families who have nowhere else to go.

As we entered Gulu Center Patrick slowed down as he drove by a very large hotel. He told us that this was the hotel in which he and the reporters had stayed during the war. He explained that it was the only one open at the height of the war. According to him it was guarded by Ugandan soldiers because it was where the Uganda officers serving in the UPDF were housed and so was a safe zone in the middle of town. He remembered how quiet the streets were compared to the blusterous noise coming from the crowds parading up and down the main roads as we made our way over to our hotel and how guarded the few people were when out on the streets. He remembered that men would hunch down and run as fast as they could in order to cross the street similar to the stance a tight end takes in an American  football game.

Gulu is a much hotter and more humid region of the country of Uganda than the capital city of Kampala that is located farther south. The weather thermometer can reach well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit on any sunny afternoon and it is far more humid than Kampala with humidity percentages running in the mid-90’s. It is not unusual to start sweating behind the neck and around the chest area as soon as one gets out of the car. There is a distinct smell in the air in Gulu Center though whether it is from smoke caused by burning trash or methane gas produced by the livestock in the fields I do not know- but there is definitely something distinctly different in the air. Nowadays there is a great deal of purposeful activity on the streets and a lot of buildings are either being repaired or new ones are being constructed from scratch. People are preoccupied as they walk down the main thoroughfares and look as if they are going somewhere to do something meaningful.

Gulu is currently a place where Non-Governmental Organizations and Church Groups (NGO’s) abound. Four wheel drive vehicles bearing a range of distinctive logos on their car doors and strangely numbered license plates attest to a myriad of organizations whose offices are located on the main streets of Gulu. Relief organizations such as Save the Children, US AID, UNICEF, UNESCO, and The World Health Organization have erected signs that point the way to their individual headquarters. There are so many “mzungu” (Swahili word for white people) especially Americans, scampering up and down the streets of Gulu that you’ll think that somehow you’ve been magically transported back to the good ole US of A. You’ll see groups of adults who’ve come as part of American –sponsored church relief efforts as well as a large population of college students who’ve arrived by bus to volunteer in educational and community programs as part of the Invisible Children Initiative. I think the presence of foreigners with money is just what the economy of Gulu needs and look upon the infiltration of “Mzungus” in the area as something like a Post-Civil War Disney World where tourists volunteer to help out rather than take another go at Space Mountain.

Gulu was settled by members of the Acholi tribe along with the Lendi who remain the dominant ethnic populations in the area. One of the professors who accompanied me on this trip is a dear friend and colleague, Professor Santo Aumu Okumu, professor and chairman of the Psychology Department at Kyambogo University in Kampala. Dr. O is a member of the Acholi tribe who was living and working in Gulu at the start of the Civil War. His mother, brothers, and sisters still live in their village compound just outside of Gulu proper and were also in living Gulu at the beginning of the war. We arrived at out hotel named The FreeZone, a four story building that sat kitty-corner on two of the main streets with outside terraces around the top three floors. We walked up the stairs to the lobby and registration desk which was currently located on the second floor. There was new construction going on throughout the first floor and it looked like the hotel’s dining rooms and restaurants would be housed there permanently. We were shown to our rooms which were identified by the names by countries rather than numbers. Different members of the team were placed in France, Japan, and Israel.

The first thing we did after we had checked into our hotel was to drive to Professor O’s family compound in order to meet his mother, Mama Aumu, Dr. O’s mother. Mama Aumu is eighty-seven years old but does not look her age one bit. She is little and wiry but still spry even at her advanced age. She reminds me of my University Chancellor who has that same type of physique. Auma still tends to a very large garden located directly across from her traditional wattle hut. As mother and son talked together I could tell by his body-language that he cared for her very much and she for him- he even took her first name and included it in his own name when he received his Doctorate in Psychology. “My mother had no chance of receiving a formal education as a woman in this village many years ago,” he said, “but she would have loved to have gone to school. So she instilled the value of an education in each one of her four children. I have included her name in my own in order to honor her and her achievements so that each time my full name is spoken along with my academic titles her name is spoken as well.”

Dr.O’s wife and one of his daughters had arrived in Gulu the day before with an American college student named Cara who lived in Syracuse, New York. She was part of a “World Peace” exchange program in which American college students are hosted by Acholi families in Gulu for several weeks in order to learn the culture. Mama Auma has hosted these young American women for four years now and loves interacting with the girls. After her time in Gulu is up Cara will move on to Kigali, Rwanda and stay with another family.

Mama Auma insisted that we eat and rest out of the glare of the midday sun so we sat for awhile in her guest house chatting with Dr. O and some of his relatives. Mama went off to her traditional Acholi kitchen to brew some Chai, (East African tea) and prepare buttered bread. Eventually their concerns about the weather changed to the men’s experiences during the Uganda Civil War and I listened intently to what they shared with me. And then Dr. O. began to tell us his heart wrenching story as only he could. He told it well but with no emotion, It was as if he were relaying a popular episode of a very violent television show but I knew why he delivered his narrative this way. It was in order to keep his intense feelings from interfering with the telling of the story. Had he allowed the emotions connected to this experience to come forward he would not have been able to physically tell the story without breaking down. I too, had learned to use the same technique upon occasion in order to relay painful memories about my work in East Africa without causing a scene.

Santo Aumu Okumu was a thirty -two year old teacher at a secondary school in Gulu District when members of the Lords Resistance Army came for him. It was late in the afternoon when they arrived at the school and most of the students had already left for home but Santo had remained to finish some paperwork and was sitting at his desk when they entered the room. He did not know these men, they were not from Gulu and they spoke in Swahili, not the native Acholi language used in the district. “Then they tied me up and made me go with them,” he added.

This simple yet poignant statement caused me to look over at the deep, red lines of scar tissue still visible on the skin around his neck, directly under his chin. They looked raw, like they still hurt and this had happened to him 17 years ago. And then based on what I recalled about the LRA’s tactics, it became obvious to me that the rebels had first given him a severe beating so he could not fight back then tied a thick, course, hemp rope around his neck that bit into his skin as they dragged him along- all the way back to their base camp. This must have been a very painful experience but I did not say a word. Dr. O needed to tell the story his way.

“Once we got to the camp, some of the rebels wanted to kill me right away. They said that I was too old and would not make a good soldier in the Lords Resistance Army. I thought that I needed a strategy – a way to get them to see me as a person so I began to ask them questions about their motives.”

“What is your goal? What are you fighting for?” Dr. O asked. My questions made some of the guerillas only want to kill me more but I managed to get the commander’s attention and he actually listened to how I had phrased my questions.”

“You sound like a very smart man,” the commander said. “How many degrees have you earned?”

“I have three advanced degrees as of this date,” Dr. O replied and began listing the name of each degree and the date on which it had been bestowed. “I am a teacher.”

The leader then turned to the rest of his men and asked, “How many of you have three advanced degrees? How many have earned any degrees at all?”

No one responded so the leader continued, “This man, he is an educated man. I am going to make him the Minister of Education for the New Uganda. He will see to it that primary and secondary schools will be created for the people of the north.” And the commander put him in a house on the outskirts of Gulu with five guards to carry out his orders and see that he was not disturbed.

“I sat in that house for several days and nights- not knowing what to do. I was not sure whether the rebels would change their minds and come back to kill me. But I needed to take care of my family. That was all that was on my mind. I kept requesting to see my wife, children, and my mother and finally after a couple of weeks the commander, the one who had captured me, granted me permission to go back to my village but he also assigned two LRA soldiers to go with me. One of these men I knew because he was my brother’s friend. We left in the dead of night and I had no shoes or socks on so I had to walk through the bush barefoot and my feet became pained when I stepped on sharp things.”

He had greatly understated the situation again. He had had to walk for many miles in order to return home and he could have stepped on a range of sharp and possibly deadly objects such as long, spiked, thorns, sharp rocks, even snakes. His feet were probably broken and bloody by the time he reached his family’s compound back in the village.

“Once I had made it to my mother’s house I told both guards that I would not return to assume my duties as the Minister of Education for the New Uganda. Neither one of them seemed to have a problem with my intention and both left peaceably to return to their own family compounds the next morning.”

“And did the LRA soldiers come to get you? I asked before he had a chance to resume.

“No, but I did not wait around for them to arrive , as soon as I was able I went to find a Red Cross official located in Gulu who I had worked with in the past and he helped me move my immediate family south to Kampala but my mother and my brother lived in the camp for a time.”

“My goal was to move all of my relatives away from the conflict and there was one time in my house in Kampala that I had over thirty-five people living with me, my wife, and my children.” He laughed as he told me this but even the twinkle in his eyes could not mask his heroic efforts to save his family or his profound display of empathy.

Kat Nickerson              Kampala,       Uganda

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