Over the last few days I have learned to always carry a sharp knife with me in Acholi land. The students, one or two of the IsraAID staff, and myself have been traveling well outside Gulu town, from village to schools to small family compounds, siting wells. And wherever we go, especially the small family settlements, we are offered guava, oranges, jack fruit, papaya, or cassava. Thumbs up for the first four, but the uncooked cassava to me tastes like what it is, a woody root. And with typhoid especially common lately, I am always insistent on peeling and cutting my own fruit. If it was a couple months later, it would be mangoes galore on offer. I have only encountered generosity wherever we have traveled in the Gulu District.
Wednesday, we traveled through an area where several of the students indicated there had been a large number of camps. I pressed them a bit to get a better sense of what the Camps were like, as I still had scant idea of whether they were tents or barracks or Kakuma-like shoulder high mud brick walls with tin roofs. And where someone would point to an area of tall grass or maize and say that there, in 2005, were 10,000 people, I would see only vegetation.
The common narrative seems to be that when the NRM (National Resistance Movement, the ruling political party of Museveni since 1986…..and no, there being no real opposition here the name is not fitting) could not effectively defeat Joseph Kony and the LRA (generally understood to be a few hundred field commanders and a few thousand child soldiers), Museveni coerced 90+% of the Acholi population into the “Camps”. The UPDF (Ugandan People’s Defense Force) claimed the only way to effectively defend the people was to move them into centralized IDP camps where they could be protected, and in this way the countryside would be more conveniently transformed into a battlefield where Kony and his army could be starved out and quickly defeated. Most Acholi would say that Museveni used the LRA as an excuse to destroy their villages, culture, and economy.
Kony was never caught or defeated. Beginning in 1996, 1.7 million people were moved into the camps. The camps were poorly protected. The actual houses were hastily built versions of the typical circular, mud plastered, thatched Acholi houses….except, over an area where typically a village might have 50 houses widely spaced, in a Camp might stand 1000 houses spaced one next to the other. Food and water were scarce, and work even more so. Alcoholism, sexual violence, child abuse, and all the other problems that occur in IDP camps exploded. Not only was the UPDF of little use in protecting the IDPs, but UPDF soldiers returning from interventions in the Congo brought with them HIV and Ebola. Malaria, cholera, and other diseases were epidemic. The IDP Camps in the Gulu area had one of the highest mortality rates in the world. Beginning in 2005, people started to gradually return to their villages. As camps were vacated, the mud brick walls were toppled, and melted back into the African red clay landscape.