From 1986 to 2007, Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) killed about 100,000 people in Acholiland in Northern Uganda, abducted and enslaved about an equal number, and displaced 1.7 million from their villages. About 2 million people lived in 200 displaced persons camps, with the largest holding more than 50,000 Acholi. Yet in our two weeks working in approximately 25 villages all over Acholiland, we did not see a single marked mass grave, see any remaining housing structures from the camps, or see a single marker or monument memorializing the violence and terror…until we went to Atiak
Until January 17, I had never heard of Atiak. It is in the far northwest corner of Amuru District, 30 km south of the South Sudan border. Atiak sits at the end of Acholiland before one enters into the West Nile area, an ethnically and linguistically very different area. One of the female students had done an outstanding job of organizing the community engagement for a well repair there. Two communities were contributing a substantial amount of cash toward the well repair and the exploration program. They would supply and cook for us a goat at each site. They would supply labour. And they desperately needed the water. As a few of us, including myself, were somewhat done with the long, dusty drives, I was looking for any reasonable reason not to go to Atiak. Its remoteness, though, was just one more reason why the villages near the town were good airbenders.
Atiak, itself, had been one massive camp through the last 10 years of the LRA insurrection. If one looks on Google Earth at the 2007 image, you will see thousands of tightly packed mud huts. Today, none of those camp huts remain. The town center sits at the intersection to the road to Adjumani and the South Sudanese refugee camps. I guessed that there would be at least a coffee shop to succor the many NGO workers that must drive through there on the way to the West Nile. We saw neither foreigners nor a coffee shop. But more surprising, and only 50 m from the only functioning public well, there is a concrete monument with a large plaque, and on the plaque is a very long list of names.
In April 1995, a year before the government began to place the Acholi into concentration camps, LRA rebels entered Atiak. The LRA, who themselves were Acholi, and who even had a senior commander from Atiak, accused the villagers of falsely blaming the LRA for ruthless maiming and for not supporting the LRA cause….though that cause was never quite clear. To prove the villagers wrong, and to punish them, the rebels then rounded up villagers, and students and teachers from the technical college.
The LRA segregated very young children, the elderly, and the pregnant. They shot the rest, ordering the survivors to clap and cheer the rebels on. More than 250 were killed that day, with the names from the students of the technical school being on that plaque. The Atiak massacre prompted the Government of Uganda to break off relations with Sudan, as the rebels had found some refuge across the border. This, in turn, further encouraged Sudan to support the rebels, at least for a while.
While for me, seeing the plaque was unique, the story of villagers being trapped in an untenable position between the government and the LRA was not. While Musseveni’s army was preoccupied in a faraway conflict in the Congo, the Ugandan government pushed the creation of village militias armed with bows, called the “Arrow Brigades.” They were no match for AK47s, and the LRA rebels would chop off the hands of these primitively armed farmers. Women were encouraged to blow whistles if they saw rebels in the bush; the LRA would chop off the lips of anyone who would signal their advance. The LRA would even cut off the legs of anyone seen on a bicycle as they might provide warning of an impending attack.
The work went very well in Atiak. We repaired a well that had been drilled in 1986. While trapped in the Camp until 2007, the villagers had neither the means nor the money to maintain the well. The repaired well will provide water to about 100 households (approximately 550 persons) in a cluster of villages near the town site. We geophysically sited another well in a highly prospective location, which we expect to be drilled within the next 6 weeks. Colin Miazga once again managed the exploration group that day.
All the photos are from Paul Bauman, and all are of Atiak.