Gulu and LRA history

After leaving Murchison Falls on Sunday, we traveled next to Gulu. Gulu is the second largest town in northern Uganda. The Acholi people are the predominant ethnic group, and I saw dances from their region at Ndere Centre as noted in an earlier post. Refugee movement into Gulu largely accounts for its large size.

Before going into my trip, let me recount some history of the Lord’s Resistance Army and its impact on the region. All historical information following comes from Ian Leggett’s “Uganda” Oxfam Country Profile series book that my brother gave me before I came here.

In 1987, Alice Lakwena (a woman without military experience who had a vision) became the leader of an armed opposition group called the Holy Spirit Movement, a movement against the current NRM party headed by the current president, President Museveni. The movement integrated elements of Christianity and traditional belief systems and drew people through the use of a sort of “Prosperity Gospel” message. The Movement was quickly stifled by the NRM’s army (the NRA – National Resistance Army), and the NRM offered amnesty to the rebels. Gulu and Kitgum were focal points of the HSM.

Around the same time, warriors from a neighboring region, Karamoja, started attacking cattle in Gulu and Kitgum, thereby destroying and cultural and economic liabilities for the Acholi. Enter Josephy Kony. He brought together a cohort of rebel groups under the umbrella of the “Lord’s Resistance Army.” Similar to Lakwena, Kony claimed to be possessed by religious powers enabling him to be a medium. Having no known agenda or direction, the violent, unpredictable, and impulsive LRA movement began terrorizing the Acholi people.

The LRA would abduct children, maim people in grotesque ways, and raid schools, health centers day and night. The descriptions of the crimes need no introduction here. Suffice it to say, they constitute some of the most vile ways of treating fellow humans, not unlike what is currently going on in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in North and South Kivu regions at this very moment. Ironically, the LRA claimed to be protecting the Acholi people as it terrorized them. Northern Sudan began giving aid to Kony and his followers for its own short-term strategic reasons against the southern Sudanese group Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). (Southern Sudan now suffers from LRA actions, as the LRA has relocated to the forests of southwestern Sudan/northeastern DRC).

Estimated abductees exceed 20,000 people, with over 2000 in 1995 alone according to Amnesty International. Children killed children under LRA direction; children wielded weapons brainwashed to kill indiscriminately; children were sexually abused, and childred were forced into mind-altering drug use. I use the past tense, but it still occurs in the LRA areas.

According to a 1999 Amnesty International report, over 400,000 persons were internally displaced in Uganda in Gulu and Kitgum. We were told by our doctor hosting us in Gulu, Dr. Croule, that the refugee (internally displaced persons) IPD camps ranged in size from a few thousand to 60,000.

We arrived in Gulu, again seeing green but drier land compared to Kampala area. It felt hotter here than in Kampala as well (and my neck showed it). Non-governmental organization (NGO) signs appeared on EVERY corner. Over 200 NGOs have been doing work in Gulu over the past 2 decades. World Vision, CARE, Save the Children, UN [insert the name of any branch of the UN], Rotary, and the list continues… I wish I would have taken a picture of one particular intersection that probably had 30 organizational signs alone.

On Sunday afternoon we walked about the city, visiting mostly local markets and stores. Nothing was tourist-oriented whatsoever. We still had fun, but unless one was a worker here, one only needs 24 hours to experience the town itself. After guys and gals both tried on some clothes at different street side shops, we had a rendezvous back at Jojo’s Palace, our guesthouse (quasi-motel).

View out of my Jojo's Palace bedroom

Jojo's Palace

 We had a dinner – buffet style – of Ugandan food with Dr. Croule at a local restaurant. We barraged Dr. Croule with questions about Gulu, the IDP camps, infectious disease issues and resource constraints at the hospitals in town. Good conversation continued, and we discussed end-of-life issues in general given the research one of the Yale medical students had done comparing Holland and USA. It made me miss my graduate school days in ethics.

Then a brilliant walk home. The number of stars we saw – utterly breathtaking. The Milky Way rode the sky and constellations glittered, pulsed, and gave me pause to step back for a moment. We arrived at the hotel and Jesper, Brendan, and I continued excellent conversation about our being akin in some ways to a type of minority group in the country, infrastructure and efficiency issues, and the next day’s visit to Unyama.

Monday morning we had breakfast at Kope Cafe.

Kope Cafe - Jesper and Brendan

Kope Cafe - Jesper and Brendan

 The cafe is colorfully painted, and its profits go to an arts therapy program for children affected by displacement.

The crew enjoying breakfast and GOOD coffee

The crew enjoying breakfast and GOOD coffee

Dr. Croule picked us up around noon and 6 of us traveled with him to Unyama, a former IDP camp that recently lost official camp status, but continues to house people and receive some aid. During the drive from Gulu (around 7km), I was amazed by the gregarious friendliness shown by people we passed. Uganda is incredibly friendly, but in Gulu it was even friendlier. Brendan, Jesper, and I were squished in the back of the truck bed, but waving to kids and adults ameliorated the awkward positioning pains!

Unyama housed thousands of people, but Dr. Croule did not know the exact number. A series of constructed huts surrounded by barbed wire, except for entrances, dotted the landscape. The camp is now about 2/3 emptied at this point. People here generally speak Luo, so we could not communicate in either English or Luganda. Our driver, Richard, did translating for us, and we walked through the camp a bit. The little kids called us the equivalent of “mzungu” in Luo: it sounded liked the Spanish word “mono.” I asked what the biggest problems are in the camps.

Unyama IDP Camp (latrine foreground)

Unyama IDP Camp (latrine foreground)

 Dr. Croule said sanitation is the biggest problem, followed by domestic violence and drinking. Guards would patrol the camp’s border when it was official. The children and adults we saw wore very dirty and tattered clothing and generally beamed bright smiles at us.

Unyama IDP Camp

Unyama IDP Camp

Mental health issues, not surprisingly, are paramount concerns here along with infectious disease. (There is an ongoing hepatitis E outbreak in the region, much malaria, wild polio virus north of Gulu coming in from a Congolese outbreak currently, nearby Ebola outbreak last December, and an unknown ailment causing very distended bellies in children featured in a national paper the day we were there.) As to mental health, a psychotrauma unit recently opened at one of the hospitals. Post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression afflict many here. The unit is not enough, but it is part of a more comprehensive program that is being rolled out currently. Mental health parity is not present in most resource-constrained settings. I see it in Kampala. In Gulu, it’s starting to become more addressed thankfully.

It is a fair assessment from one angle to say we were “disaster tourists,” something about which I am not particularly comfortable. When I was in the squatter settlements of Nairobi, I often felt like I did not belong there. Conducting needs assessment with the aim of raising awareness, interventions, and programmatic development made my rationalizing easier at the time, however. After going to Unyama, a place I will not return to, a place I provided no clinical care (side note: Jeremy, Tracey, and Jesper stayed to work in hospitals there for a few days) or research, the only rationalizing I can do is bring awareness to the reader and provide links to organizations that serve those affected by the LRA’s madness.

I am thankful for the opportunity to visit Unyama and Gulu. I was surprised with how organized it seemed (knowing there’s always a Janus face to what you see and experience in a setting like this) and even more surprised how generously accepted our presence seemed to be. It’s hard to paint a picture meaningfully having not talked with the residents of Unyama or knowing its history more. I pondered these things and others with Brendan as he, Sadia, and me rode the 5 hour bus ride from Gulu to Kampala that evening. Chalk another group of people to keep in your thoughts and/or prayers with the burden of knowledge hopefully to guide awareness and advocacy.

Here are some links to organizations below:

Invisible Children Project: (you can use Google video to watch a near one-hour film from the creators of the project) [My knowledge of ICP courtesy of friend Andrew Thomas, high school teacher, Crystal Lake IL]

CARE, World Vision, Save the Children, Rotary International, Oxfam and many others all have field stations in Gulu if you are interested in supporting a broader organization doing work there.

Link to NGO Forum in Gulu: 

"Pray for Us" - Unyama IDP Camp


2 Responses to “Gulu and LRA history”

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  2. Kennemer Says:

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