Notes from Uganda– Gulu

Thursday, July 27.

I’ve been in Gulu for around 28 hours now– and I’ve learned so much in
this time that my head almost aches! I had one piece of  great
luck shortly before leaving Kampala for here– I got an indirect
introduction to a talented younger broadcaster here called Arthur
Owor.  Arthur is also a lecturer in development studies, peace
studies, and gender studies at Gulu University.  Luckily the
university is on break; and unluckily, the government a few weeks ago
closed down the radio station– Choice FM– on which Arthur had been
doing a regular discussion and call-in show.  So he agreed to help
me set up some interviews, etc, in a way that would maximize the
effectiveness of my (admittedly short) time here.

(My other colleague, Corky Bryant, stayed in Kampala because of her
recent ankle injury.)

My most newsworthy interview was the one I conducted this afternoon
(Thursday) with the Hon.
Norbert Mao
, the recently elected chairperson of the Gulu
District Council.  Prior to taking up his present, very important
post, Mao was in the national parliament for ten years.  During
the present peace process between the Government of Uganda and the
Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Mao has played a crucial role in helping
to form and lead the “civil society component” of the peace
process.  For example, he told me that over the past few days he
has been receiving a phone call every day from LRA No.2 Vincent Otti,
in the course of which the two of them finalize the list of names of
people in the big civil-society delegation that is planning to go to a
remote location on the Sudan-DRC border early next week to go and
actually meet with Otti, LRA leader Joseph Kony, and the rest of the
LRA leadership there, in person.

The Gulu District Reconciliation and Peace Team, which Mao heads, is
organizing the whole of this civil society delegation.  This
delegation is a follow-up to the smaller group of northern Ugandans–
including many of Kony’s family members– who have been traveling
(slowly) to meet Kony and his group at the Sudan-DRC border area over
the past couple of days.

Did I mention that Kony, Otti, and three of their colleagues are the
five Ugandans against whom the ICC has issued indictments and arrest

I’ll put more of Mao’s views on the viability of and expectations for
the current peace process later on here.  Bottom line: He told me
“The time is ripe for peace.”

In addition to seeing him this afternoon, since coming here I’ve
visited an IDP camp, Unyama,
and with Arthur Owor’s help held a group discussion with ten camp
leaders and camp residentsm and conducted interviews with five other
community leaders and activists in Gulu town, including Andrew Olweny, the head of
the NGO Forum, James Otto,
the head of Human Rights Focus, the Anglican Bishop of Northern Uganda,
and the Speaker of the Gulu District Council.  (I also took my
first-ever ride on a boda-boda
motorbike-taxi, to Corky’s horror when I told her about it on the
phone… However, the traffic here isn’t nearly as scary as the traffic
through which the boda-bodas
weave their way back there in Kampala.)


Here’s the interview with Chairperson Norbert Mao:

First, I asked how he saw the prospects for peace.

The time is ripe for peace here
now.  Many factors are different now than they were during the
earlier, failed peace attempts.  This is the first time we see a
foreign government [the Government of South Sudan] mediating.  The
Government of Uganda, which was alwaysd previously the “darling:” of
the international community, has been under a lot of pressure recently
from the international community to be more accountable for this
terrible situation here in the north.  The LRA has also come under
pressure.  The Government of [all of] Sudan doesn’t want to
continue supporting them.

    Kony spoke to me on the phone on Sunday; and he said
it’s very importent for him to meet the representatives of the
war-affected communities– including the Lango and the Teso, as well as
the Acholi.  Every morning, you know, I discuss the list of those
going on the delegation with Vincent Otti.  We’re working towards
a final list of 150 people.

    You know, Kony first mentioned this idea of a ciovil
society delegation going to see him back in 2003.  He was angry at
tyhe time.  He said he felt so misunderstood, and he wanted to
meet civil-socoety people and talk to them face-to-face. In 2003,
however, it was hard to meet him.  There was still a lot of
distrust on both sides.

    This time around, the government has been much more
understanding of what we’re hopoing to achieve.  But confidence
building is always difficult!  Someone has to step forward; and
that’s we’ve been doing.

    This Peace Convoy we’re organizing is so
important!  We need to assure the LRA.  They need to know
that it was us in
civil society who prodded the Government to change its policies towards
them.  It was we
who pushed for the amnesty program in the country.  It was we who oushed for the peace
talks.  But we are also the community that bore the brunt of the
war.  So we have enormous moral authority…

    The LRA people really need to hear from us about the
consequences that this war has had.  They also need to realize
that the issues they have raised with the government are not at all new
for us.  I dealt with exactly these issues for ten years in the
parliament: the loss of our assets, our marginalization, the
human-rights abuses, the lack of balance in the army– all of them.

I asked him about the effects of the ICC’s intervention here.  He

As a lawyer, I know the ICC has its
role.  It’s a warning to all the rogues around the world. 
And in general, that’s an important role.  All societies need to
have an accountability system.

But it’s a pity that the ICC has become too political.  In a
normal country, the courts don’t engage in debates with Congress. 
You don’t hear the courts or the prosecutor going to the press, holding
press conferences; but they do their work quietly and steadily.

The essence of the court is to ensure accountability.  But we have accountability systems
here in the north– our traditional systems.  Even the Amnesty Law
in Uganda doesn’t require nearly as much accountability as our systems:
under the Amnesty Law, you don’t have to acknowledge your crimes, or
to show remorse.  The Acholi system is much better.  It
requires both these things, and it also forces people to ask ther community to
forgive them.

Our emphasis is on accountability
rather than punishment.  The weakness is that it has not been
written down or codified, and there’s no-one in the ICC who’s from here
who understands it.  We hope, though, that Parliament here canm
soon codify it and incorporate it into the law.  We could then
hope that these mechanisms would satisfy the ICC that these cases were
indeed being dealt with here?

As a community, we really do put a higher premium on peace than on

You know, I asked Kony why he hadn’t sent a proper commander of his
forces to the peace talks in Juba.  He said he coulodn’t do that
because of the ICC, and because, he said, the Governbment of Sudan is
bigger and more powerful than the Government of South Sudan.  [The
Government of Sudan has assured the ICC that it, unlike the GOSS, will
try to arrest Kony.]  Also, he mentioned the precedent of Charles
Taylor, who was turned over to the international prosecutors by
President Obasanjo’s government in Nigeria– even though Obasanjo is so

If we codify our traditional mechanisms and put them into our Amnesty
Law, and commit ourselves to holding people accountable, I don’t know
what the ICC would do?

Ultimately, though, we are all, all of us, sentenced to a life of
misery if we can’t build peace here.

I believe Museveni might actually be stronger than Obasanjo when it
comes to standing up to the international community.  He did it
over seeking his third term in office!  Also, the community here
that desires peace will stand with him on this.

Did he think the traditional dispute-resolution procedures could be
codified into Ugandan law soon enough for this to be relevant to the
Kony case?

I believe we’ve already done a lot of the preliminary work for
this.  Even Britain’s common law system was never written, you
know!  There, they rely totally on precedent.  We could get
ours incorporated into law fairly rapidly, I think.

Anyway, this would give the ICC a way to extricate themselves from this.

The important thing is to put this whole conflict behind us!  Have
you heard of the ceremony we call “Breaking of the Spears”?  After
the fall of Idi Amin, many of our young men came back from exile and
they went over to burn everything in Amin’s home area, near Arua. 
And then the people from that West Nile District fled from their
homes.  So we did the ceremony of Breaking the Spears between the
people of West Nile and our people, and since then we’ve had much
better relations with them.  Whereas after all our disputes with
the Langi people, we never did it, and relations remain strained.

… You know, Kony believes in this meeting at the Sudan-DRC border
much more than he does in the Juba talks.  The government talks
about offering him a ‘soft landing’– but it is we, the community, that
will have to be the landing ground, not the government.

You know, though, when I compare the Kony of three years ago with the
Kony of today, there’s been a big change.  This time, he really is
very excited about what’s happening.  On Sunday, during my call
with Otti, Kony came on the phone and spoke for about 20 minutes. 
He said, ‘I want our people to hear our side of the story.’  
Otti came on, and said, ‘If you people don’t come and meet us we’ll
never come out of the bush.  They want us to co-own the process.

We are willing to do anything to make this process succeed… And the
people in the government who matter support this.  I explained the
process to Museveni and explained the need for the community to anchor the process. 
We are also working, of course, with Walter Ochora, who’s been with the
first delegation.

He talked a little about the planning for the Peace Convoy, which, he
said, would involve taking 150 people in three buses on the 16-hour
drive from Gulu to Maridi in Southern Sudan and beyond.  “We’re
keeping the costs low by taking buses,” he said.  “We’ll leave
early next week.  He said he had promises of support from Save the
Children, Concerned Parents, and the (USAID-funded) Northern Uganda
Peace Initiative. 

He explained that his current efforts with the Peace Convoy come after
the long involvement he has sustained in peacemaking between the
government and the LRA:

I took a strong stand for peace talks
in the parliament, as long ago as 1997.  There was only me and one
other MP calling for direct peace talks at the time.  Look! 
It only took the government nine years to come round to our point of
view!  Some people never get their dreams realized in their entire

I derive my strength in this from my community.  Our community
believes strongly that peace and reconciliation are better than
punishment.  And each individual, whatever he may have done, has
something of real value in him.

I heard that in the excitement in Joseph Kony’s voice when he talked on
the phone.  He mentioned one of his wives who now lives here in
Gulu– Cecilia Akello.  He talked about Cecilia’s son who’s been
with him in the bush, and said he’s been growing up so strong– and
that the boy is quite free to go home with Cecilia when she comes.

You know, the government would lose a lot by frustrating this
community.  We are the witnesses and victims of all these crimes.

No-one knows the consequences of these meetings.  But I find it
very exciting that a new state is rising in South Sudan, playing a very
good role, and very independent even of Khartoum–

Our conversation got broken off at that point,by yet another in the
long string of phone calls he had fielded while we talked.  I had
heard so much, along the way, about various aspects of this “civil
society initiative for peace” that it was excellent to be able to talk
face-to-face with Chairperson Mao about it.


One other topic much on Chairperson Mao’s mind, in addition to the
peace talks, was an outbreak of incidents of reported spirit possession
among pupils in the primary schools in one of the district’s refugee
camps.  There had apparently been some 20 instances of possession
which had swept through the schools earlier in the week.  When
each child became possessed, it took a number of teachers to restrain
her/him, and the other students meanwhile became extremely fearful; so
eventually the schools had to be closed and all the children sent
home.  Camp leaders brought in “cultural leaders” (i.e.,
traditional healers) to try to deal with the spirits, some of which had
been calling for a human sacrifice in order to end the woes of the

Mao and the Speaker of the Gulu District Council had both themselves
gone to visit the camp the previous day, to try to work with the camp
leaders and the cultural leaders to deal with the possessions and the
disruption and fear that they had caused.  And they were planning
to return there for the same purpose later in the afternoon.

“The cultural leaders are very important in helping to calm things
down,” he told me.  “And we are all absolutely clear that there
must be no human sacrifice.”  He said that if the camp populations
could not be calmed down, there was a real risk that people might just
pick up their goods and leave the camp, returning to their homesteads
whatever the risks of that might be. He seemed to think (probably
correctly) this was a bad idea, and that an orderly return to the
long-abandoned homesteads would be far preferable.


A few quick notes from Unyama camp:

It took less than 15 minutes, along a badly rutted red dirt road, to
drive from Gulu to the camp, which engulfed the road from both sides at
a certain point.  First, there was a bit of bureaucratic fiddling
around in the office, there on the main road, of the Chairman of the
“LC-3” local government.  (That is the third highest of five
levels of Local Council in Uganda’s still-evolving system of local
administration.  What Mao heads, by contrast, is the highest levl:
LC-5.)  The Chairperson explained to me that his LC-3 contains
seven parishes, all of whose residents are now in three IDP
camps.  “Everybody from this sub-district is in camps,” he

Later, the (also elected) Camp Leader of Unyama camp arrived: Odola
Raymond Lamaka.  Both these officials treated Arthur, our driver
Robert, and me with some wariness at the beginning.  But both in
turn seemed to warm up to us; and eventually both proved very friendly
and helpful.

Long story short.  Hundreds of straw-thatched round mud huts, all
placed very close to each other on the hard-packed earth.  There
was a big rain last night, which had carved deep gulleys in the winding
alleys between the huts.  The camp has, as Raymond said,
“20,429-plus” residents– put in the ‘plus’ because more people are
coming here all the time.”

Raymond said he had had 12 children, of whom seven had died.  He
said the emergency health facilities were completely inadequate.

The camp was established in 1996, next to an army post that had been
established in the extensive grounds of a teachers’ training
college.  The college buildings are still there– though the
college is in mid-year recess right now.  The army camp is still
there, too.  And along the way, the entire population of this
sub-district has been relocated into this and the other two IDP camps.

Raymond, who used to work as a receptionist at the college, pointed to
a nearby hill and said that was where his family’s homestead was. 
He also pointed to other places around where, he said, there had been a
couple of notorious massacres by the LRA in 1996– the ones that had
precipitated the forced relocation of the people into the camps:

The government gave everyone in the
area just 48 hours to all move into the camp.  Some people stayed
outside.  In 1997,  the army brought in a big gun and started
shelling their homes.

We had to leave behind everything that we had been cultivating in our
farms, and we lost nearly all our livestock.

Earlier in the day, Janes Otto of the Human Rights Forum had  told
us that though the army said the rationale the army gave for the
relocations was to protect the people from the LRA’s abductions and
other atrocities, in fact, after the population was concentrated in the
camps it often proved even easier for the LRA to carry out abductions
on a larger scale: “One-stop shopping,” as he described it.

The LC-3 chair at Unyama told us that he received fairly regular
complaints from women who’ve been raped by soldiers.  I asked what
scale these compaints wre on.  He said last month he had received
three, and had passed them on to the police for investigation. 
(Otto had further information about rights abuses committed by soldiers
in the camps, too.)

Anyway, we walked along a major thoroughfare through the camp. 
I’ll describe it more, later; but here, I just want to summarize an
interestingf little portion of the discussion we had with ten community
leaders from the camp– the portion about their views of the ICC.

Raymond’s vice-leader Okello Harry had convened this little “focus
group” of, in all, 10 camp residents plus our driver for us as we were
walking along; and finally we were all sitting in a circle on the
ground under a shade tree in a grassy space between the IDP camp and
the army camp.  Though everyone introduced themselves in English,
most of the rest of the conversation was held in Luo, with Arthur
interpreting for me.

During the discussion, Robert (our driver; not a resident of this camp)
and Florence, the deputy leader of one of the “zones” in the camp, both
spoke in favor of the ICC indictments and arrest warrants. 
Everyone else spoke against them.  I found it heartening that
people felt able to express a variety of opinions in a large group, and
that they listened very respectfully to each other as they
talked.  I also found the balance of opinion there–with just two
of the 11 participating in the discussion voicing support for the ICC–
fairly notable.

I’ll deal more, later, with the actual arguments people voiced. 
But I just wanted to give that short summary of the conversation and
the views expressed there so it can stand alongside the description Tim
Allen gave in his book of (roughly speaking) the Acholi leadership
enforcing a sort of code of (anti-ICC) “political correctness” onto the
camp populations; whereas, he claims, a large number of individual camp
residents, when talked with one-on-one will voice real support for the
work of the ICC.

Was such a code of “political correctness” at work in our little group
today?  I really don’t think so.  (And yes, I’ve worked in
enough dictatorial countries to recognize the tone and nature of a
discussion constrained by such a code when I see it.)  
Anyway, I did not, alas, have the opportunity to have one-on-one
discussions with anyone there…


Walking through the camp:  huts tightly packed along each side of
the rutted and often muddy roadway which varied between about 15 and
about 25 feet in width.  Given that the huts are round, and they
are packed together like peas, there were no clear lines of sight along
the alleys that twisted between them.  They looked like fairly
well-established huts, maybe 15 feet or so across, built of  mud
bricks and smeared with dried cow-dung (which has various good
qualities).  However there was no privacy for families, and no
space around them for any kind of a  recognizable family compound
in which the family could live out its traditional life.  One of
the huts along the main route had the word “BAR” scrawled near its door
in chalk; four or five women, apparently inebriated, were talking and
laughing outside it.

We passed a “day care center”, which looked mainly like a huge fenced
corral in which hundreds of pre-school-age children milled and
tumbled.  Under an awning there it did loook as if one group of
them was being given some kind of organized activty by one of the adult
supervisors.  Other children were lining up for food or
water.  The camp leader explained that the center had been
established to provide a safe space for the kids while their parents
went out to do some cultivation on the lands around the camp.

At several places along the roadway there were large stacks of
firewood, carefully cut into metre-long lengths and left to dry in
large rectangular piles.  Raymond explained that this was an
economic project that some of the camp residents had developed. 
They would go out and cut wood from the areas around and bring it back
here to dry it.  Then it would be sold either to other camp
residents or to people in town who would come out here to buy it. 
We passed a small shelter in which a carpenter was showing his
apprentice how to painstakingly fashion well-made plain furniture out
of cut planks, and a diesel-powered grinding mill where millet and
maize was being ground.  Those– and a very forlorn little produce
market that occupied a short portion of the roadway– were the only
economic activities I could see.  Oh, except that some people in
the camp were evidently working on rebuilding their flocks of
livestock, who were corralled further on along the road.  A few
chickens flapped along the road, too.


Well, this might seem trivial, but I’ll tell you a bit about the two
experiences I’ve now had riding on the boda-boda motorbike taxis
here.  The bikes have big soft plastic cushions for the pillion
rider, but women all seem to ride side-saddle on this.  In
retrospect, perhaps I should just have slung my trousered leg over the
seat and ridden like a man; but I didn’t want to shock anyone and
thought I should give side-saddle riding a try.  On both the bikes
I went on, there was a little stanchion you could put at least one foot
onto to help hold you steady, and both had a grip-handle behind the
saddle as well.  But you really need to grip that hard with your
left hand as you go, because it’s the only thing that attaches you
firmly to the bike as it weaves and dodges along to avoid both the
other traffic and all the ruts and potholes in the road.  I found
I could handle the ride just fine so long as I did not look at (or thnk
about) the challenges approaching from ahead, but just looked firmly
out to the side of the bike while concentrating hard on hanging on.

But it’s a great system, in all.  There are boda-boda drivers gathered at most
of the main intersections, and a trip across this small town costs 500
shillings (about 30 US cents.)  There are also pedal-bike-taxis
that work in this town, and in Kampala.  Pedal bikes are widely
used here.  Most are sturdy machines, made in China.

2 thoughts on “Notes from Uganda– Gulu”

  1. Chairperson Mao
    You know, that might be taken as a reference to someone else. 🙂
    Mao’s a good man, though – he was also one of the few vocal opponents of Uganda’s invasion of the DRC.

  2. Helena, is the size of Unyama camp (20,000 people) typical of the IDP camps in northern Uganda? If so, then “villagization” may not really be the word to describe the camps. Most villagization programs at least try to keep communities at a manageable size for subsistence, but Uganda seems to be concentrating large quantities of people for tactical reasons.
    I wonder if this may also be part of the reason for the high mortality rate in the camps – large numbers of people jammed together in unsanitary conditions without sufficient arable land or firewood for sustenance. And if entire districts are being pushed into the camps, how much of the north has gone out of cultivation?
    BTW, five layers of local councils? That seems a lot for a country Uganda’s size. The United States has two and sometimes three layers, and even India only has three. I’m guessing there’s a great deal of patronage and co-option of traditional leaders.

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