What words do you have to say to them?

Patrick turned to me and asked,“What words do you have to say to them?” What words did I have to say to them? Any words I could say seemed terribly inadequate. It seemed like they would be mere words. I could say them and then leave, but the men I was talking to would be left to try and find meaning in a near hopeless existence.

Patrick turned to me and asked,“What words do you have to say to them?” What words did I have to say to them? Any words I could say seemed terribly inadequate. It seemed like they would be mere words. I could say them and then leave, but the men I was talking to would be left to try and find meaning in a near hopeless existence.

The last two days had had a tremendous impact on me. Even after having worked in Africa for over 14 years and having witnessed and experienced a wide range of conflicts, disaster, droughts, etc., I felt overwhelmed and was trying to process all that I was seeing and experiencing. I had heard of the conflict in Northern Uganda for many years, and I had heard the recent statement made by a United Nations official that the humanitarian situation in Northern Uganda is the worst in the world. So when I was asked by the World Council of Churches and the All Africa Conference of Churches to go to Northern Uganda to do an assessment of the situation with a view to seeing how best the international ecumenical community could respond I was expecting to find a bad situation.

I had heard that 1.8 million people are displaced in Northern Uganda and that 90% of the population lives in camps for internally displaced persons. I had heard that over 30,000 children had been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). I had heard of how these children were tortured and forced to kill others (sometimes even their own family members). I had heard stories of how the girls were raped and forced to serve as sex slaves. But hearing statistics is different from seeing things first hand and hearing people tell their own stories.

Driving from the capital city, Kampala, to Gulu, a town in the north, I was accompanied by Joseph Oneka, from the Uganda Joint Christian Council, and his cousin, who is the deputy principal of a high school in a camp in the northern part of Uganda. On the way there Joseph told me to ask his cousin about the situation in the North, and I was moved by his story. What do you say to a man who tells you that three of his children (two sons and one daughter) had been abducted by the rebels? They had all escaped after being held captive and undergoing “training” for periods up to a year. One of the sons was recaptured after he escaped, and he was killed. The other son had escaped a little over a year ago and is still trying to adjust to a normal life. As he was telling me about all these he mentioned to Joseph that a nephew of theirs, a young man in his early twenties, had been killed only two weeks earlier. I struggled to find words to say after hearing his story. This is a conflict that has been going on for 19 years, and has basically been ignored by the rest of the world. What do you say? Mere words of sympathy and “I’m sorry” seem inadequate. This is the reality they live with, and I will be gone in a few days back to my comfortable life.

On the drive to Gulu, not long before we would cross the Nile River and enter into the area in which the rebels operate, we pull off the main road onto a small dirt road. About 50 yards along this road we come to a small gathering of three circular mud brick houses with thatch roofs. This is where some of Joseph’s extended family lives, and we stop for a brief visit. They have fled here to escape the fighting in the north. They are unable to return to their family homestead. It is too dangerous. Their nephew, the one mentioned above, was killed because he and some others tried to go and quickly harvest some sesame seed crop. He was shot by the Ugandan military. The government has forced people to move to the camps. This is done partly to protect people, but they also don’t want the rebels to be able to gather food from people’s field. If you prevent people from planting fields, then the rebels have less food they can take to support themselves. So if you go to your fields you risk getting attacked or abducted by the rebels, or you risk getting shot by the military, as they might regard anyone in the fields as rebels.

As we enter rebel area it is an eerie feeling as we drive past mile after mile of deserted fields, houses, shops and schools. Everyone in the rural areas has had to leave their homes to live in the camps. When they were ordered years ago by the government to move to the camps, they had only 14 days to do so. Every so often we drive by the camps. I see thatched roof after thatched roof going off into the distance. The mud brick circular houses are spaced only a few feet apart, and most of them house up to 10 or more people. They have been living this way for years as the war has gone on and on. I also see numerous groups of soldiers on armed patrol.

As we enter into Gulu night is falling. I see quite a bit of activity of the streets and many young people. It is explained to me that there are over 18,000 “night commuters” in Gulu. Families from around the outskirts of town have been sending their children into town at night to sleep in order to avoid having them abducted by the LRA. There are many problems that these children (especially the adolescent girls) face in town at night, but it is better to have them sleep in the streets of the town than be abducted by the LRA.

The next morning, accompanied by Rev. Lumumba Patrick, a Development Officer for the Diocese of Northern Uganda, and Joseph, I visit one of the camps for the displaced persons (90% of the population!), Parabongo Camp. It is the dry season and fires are a serious hazard in these overcrowded and congested camps, especially since the homes have thatch roofs and are only a few feet apart. A few days earlier there had been a fire in Parabongo and hundreds of homes and all their possessions were totally destroyed. Fortunately, no one was killed in this fire. But nine children were killed in a fire in another camp a couple of days before this fire. Walking through the ashes of the burnt homes was sobering. Some people were trying to rebuild. Others were just sitting there. We came upon a group of men in their late twenties or early thirties who were drinking some beer. They were a bit drunk and we began talking to them. Joseph asked them (politely, in a non-accusatory way) why they were drinking. One man began speaking for the rest of them – “What else is there for us to do? Everything we own is gone. There are no jobs. There is nothing for our children. We can only sit here day after day. We cannot go to our homes. We cannot go to our fields. What can we do? What else is there to do?” Joseph and Patrick spoke to him about God and God’s love for us. The man then began to sing a church hymn in a sarcastic way as if to say, “Where is God in all this? Why has God forsaken us?” After he stopped singing and we were preparing to go was when Patrick turned to me and asked,“What words do you have to say to them?” What words did I have to say to them? I said I could see the terrible suffering they endured. I said I was greatly saddened by the conditions they had to live in and the destruction caused by the fire. I said churches around Africa and around the world prayed for them. I prayed that the current mediation between the government and the LRA would succeed this time, a cease-fire would be signed, a peace agreement would be reached and finally peace would come to Northern Uganda. But as I was saying these things, I thought these must just sound like meaningless words to them. I will leave and go back to a comfortable life, but they will still be here day after day.

The situation seemed hopeless. Where is hope in all of this? I found hope in the witness of the church and the lives of some of its leaders in Uganda. I found hope in Joseph, his cousin (who stills continues to teach in a high school located in one of the camps), and Patrick. As we were leaving Parabongo Camp Patrick pointed to some hills a couple miles away and told us that was where his home was. He had not been able to go there for nine years. He then said the following:

‘One time a black American Pastor, Martin Luther King, cried out, ‘I have a dream! A dream that one day America will be united! Similarly like Pastor Martin Luther I want to say ‘I have a dream! A dream that one time peace will come to Northern Uganda. When it will come I still don’t know, but I think how it should come is our role and the role of the world at large. But the church must remain relevant through giving hope to our people and being the voice of the voiceless.’

David Owen

David and Roxi Owen are missionaries with the World Council of Churches located in Nairobi, Kenya. David serves as the Program Executive forEcumenical Focus on Africa. Roxi works with the Rosslyn Academy located in Nairobi, Kenya. She serves as a teacher.