Friday, September 14, 2012

Peace-building where “Peace” is a Dirty Word

Working in the West Bank and Israel afforded me an opportunity to test out my hypothesis that peace is what our world needs most, and empowering and inspiring children to believe in and work for peace will help us get there.

In the West Bank, I worked in what was once “the eye of the storm,” the largest refugee camp in the region known during the Second Intifada as a hotbed for the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade and infamous for the number of suicide bombers it produced.  Today, the Balata Refugee Camp houses nearly 30,000 inhabitants in .25 of land. The narrow streets of the camp are alive with the activity of shop owners, street venders, young men and children, making a walk through the camp a crowded and chaotic event.

When I first expressed interest in partnering with a local organization to bring a peace curriculum to the children of this camp, the idea met resistance. “If you pacify the youth, you will crush the Resistance.” I was told. “How can you work for peace without first working for justice?”

I explained the basic premises behind my work with children. I believe all children deserve to know peace. I believe children growing up in particularly chaotic and violent environments are in need of special attention to help cultivate their own peace, and I believe the actions of children can lead to more peace in their communities and the world.

With an explanation my partners deemed satisfactory and weeks of curriculum negotiation, I was allowed to begin my work.

The first day of any Kids for Peace meeting begins with the simple inquiry “What is peace?” I typically ask children what peace means to them, when they feel the most or least at peace, and what they do to create peace for themselves and others.  When I asked the attentive group of children how to create peace, a little boy’s hand shot up in the air. “Fight the enemy!” he shouted, bursting out of his seat. Trying to redirect my line of questioning, I continued, “What do you do to create peace for yourself when you don’t have any, for example, when you’re feeling angry?” I paused, waiting for my typical answers of “Read a book,” or “Go for a walk.” A little boy enthusiastically replied, “I beat my little brother.”

It was going to be a long and bumpy road to cultivating peace…

As the days went on, I worked with the children participating to develop skills to prepare them for facing future challenges. We learned and practiced nonviolent communication, conflict resolution techniques, and ways to ease anger and experience peace personally. They planned days of service and prepared to make a recycled trash herb garden as a project to improve their community’s environment.

The happiest day for me was The Great Kindness Challenge-Balata Camp Edition, a day dedicated to blanketing the camp with kindness and altruism. For three days preceding, the children made preparations for their day of kindness. Guided by a checklist of kind acts translated into Arabic, the children wrote thank you cards, made “Kindness Matters” posters in English and Arabic, designed “Pinwheels for Peace,” and strategized about how they could reach the most people possible with their good deeds. I proudly watched the seriousness with which they pursued service to others, and shared in their delight when the clock struck 5pm and they ran out into the camp’s streets, marking the start of their 24 hours of kindness by sharing smiles with at least 20 people.  

The Great Kindness Challenge was a beautiful day which left my heart full of hope. The next day, however, I was confronted with the realities of promoting peace in a sometimes hostile environment.

A photographer had visited my children’s group a few days before the day of kindness, documenting the children’s work. Unbeknownst to me, the photos were posted on a Facebook page with a sizable local audience under the simple title, “Peace-building Project in Balata Camp.”

The response was immediate from furious viewers.

“How dare you allow a white girl to teach our children about peace. All Americans think Palestinians are terrorists,” one angry commenter wrote. “If her goal is achieved, the resistance to occupation will be over,” wrote another outraged individual.

Quickly, I saw the fragile threads upholding the fabric of my peace program unwind before my eyes. Was that it? Was my chance at working with children to promote peace in the refugee camp over?

I immediately responded with a PR campaign, believing that the outrage arose from a misunderstanding. People were not against the values of kindness, respect, and altruism, but rather, they were afraid of the word “peace.” I drafted a carefully worded explanation for the photos posted on the internet describing the groups’ goals of providing children with a safe space to foster peace for themselves and serve their community.

The storm fortunately passed, and the peace work was permitted to continue.

My experience working with children in the Balata Refugee Camp was equal parts inspiring, educational, and frustrating. The program was very popular with the children who loved the crafts, fun, and games of the Kids for Peace curriculum and confirmed my belief that all children desire to be good and to do good. At the same time, the realities of working in an ongoing conflict zone necessarily transformed my work.  The reason Kids for Peace targets children is because of the deep biases that sometimes inform adults. With one simple word--“peace-building”—months of work was nearly derailed, underscoring the fragility of peace in tense environments.   
A young boy draws his idea of peace for our Peace Puzzle. His image include the Al Aqsa  mosque, the symbol of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade and a continuing point of contention between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the Palestinian flag and the word "hope."

Girls write the script for a skit on conflict resolution, sitting in front of the boards made with the  Peace Pledge in English and Arabic. 

In preparation for The Great Kindness Challenge, a girl shows of her thank you card to a camp volunteer. 

Me helping girls make "pop-up" thank you cards for The Great Kindness Challenge.

Kindness Matters

Pinwheels for Peace

The West Bank's Refugees

Refugee camps are designed to offer a temporary home to individuals rendered homeless by crisis or conflict, or for whom insecurity requires evacuation. Ideally, camps serve as a safe space to offer solace to the vulnerable until they can return to their homes.  

For those living within the West Bank’s camps, there will likely be no return. They are permanently displaced people. Many had family members who first left modern day Israel in 1947. Since then, they have lived through several wars and incessant confrontations, witnessing few signs of progress toward finding a sustainable solution to end the land dispute that has long plagued the region.

In May and June, 2012, I worked in the West Bank’s largest refugee camp leading a peacemaking group with children. Simultaneously, I listened, asked questions, and read. I learned about the UN Resolution 197 which guarantees uprooted peoples the right to return; I spoke to people who explained that allowing this would mean the end of Israel; I read the opinion of Alan Dershowitz who accuses Palestinians of not integrating refugees in order to perpetuate anger and foster terrorism; and I learned firsthand from the children of the camps how their life experiences inform their understanding of the conflict that impacts nearly every aspect of their daily lives.

When faced with an uncertain future, humans tend to lose hope or commit themselves to an idea and work tirelessly towards its fruition. In the camps I worked in and visited, I saw a people who were tired, but hadn’t given up hope in their conception of justice, met individuals with regrets about tactics used in the past, but who ultimately wanted what would bring their people peace.  

I saw firsthand how life within the camps might impede a sense of personal peace. Most camps are over-crowded with schools strained to their maximum. “Palestinians are the most paranoid people in the world,” I heard several Palestinians joke, a sentiment rooted in the distrust that develops after decades of warfare and instability. During my time in the West Bank, periodic security missions by IDF forces took terrorist and opposition suspects out of their homes in the middle of the night, further contributing to the pervasive sense of unease within the camps.

As much as meeting Israel’s settlers is critical to understanding the complicated dynamics of the West Bank’s wars, so too is meeting the land’s landless, the refugees who persist without a home. 
Murals on the walls of the Balata Refugee Camp describing the camp's history

Mural in a Bethlehem refugee camp

Coming Face to Face with the Men on the Walls

Martyrs'  Square in Old City, Nablus

Upon the walls of the ancient corridors of the West Bank’s city of Nablus hang banners of young men pictured holding machine guns. These are Nablus’ martyrs, men—often only months out of adolescence—who died for the cause of establishing a Palestinian state.

To many Palestinians, these men are heroes, making the Ultimate Sacrifice in hopes of establishing a free and just land, bidding a final farewell to this world with the pull of a string and the detonation of a belt. Some see their cause as noble, affording them a special place among God’s chosen.

In my country, government leaders have shown no hesitation in calling the acts of violence committed by these men “terrorism.” Their targets were usually civilians, their tactic to breach security at the Israeli border and find a crowded place with the goal of killing as many civilians as possible. Terror reigned. Men, women and children died.  

Yet in the streets of Nablus, I met some of the most hospitable and kind people I have ever known. I was daily beckoned by shop owners to share a cup of tea and discuss life in the West Bank and beyond. From the people I met, I developed a nuanced understanding of terrorism and terrorists, peaceful Muslims who want to live a righteous life, as well as those who explain “just” warfare in religious terms—a tactic utilized by different religious peoples for centuries. I learned that many Palestinians see the actions of the Israeli military in the West Bank as “terrorism.” I looked up the definition of “insurgent”—the term most often used by the U.S. media to describe Iraqi and Afghani militants—and realized that in these countries, rebels probably justify their behavior by calling U.S. efforts "terrorizing" as well.

Terrorism does not arise out of nowhere. It has its basis in ideas, ideas formulated over time that inform the way one views the world.

As I left Nablus behind to begin my work in Israel, I wondered what ideas informed those young men pictured on the posters. What did they grow up hearing? What ideas informed their thinking?

It took me a while to post my final entries from my time in the Middle East in part because I needed to process all I had seen, experienced and learned. I realize the issues I am discussing in my blog posts are controversial, and that no one is without biases in how they interpret "the facts." My primary aim is to introduce those reading this blog to some of the complexities of the conflict, ideas espoused by locals and the international community, and—ever important to me—the prospects for peace.

I left the Middle East with more questions than answers, as I imagine you will notice in this short essay and the ones to follow. I hope these entries will provoke thought and discussion rather than offer generalizations about complex problems. I traveled to both sides of the Israel-Palestine debate, worked for peace with Christian and Muslim Arabs and Jewish Israelis, and made friendships that I hope will last a lifetime. This was a unique opportunity afforded by my American passport, and one I do not take for granted as most living in the midst of the conflict never get to experience “the other side.”

Monday, June 25, 2012

Peaceful Resistance, One Pitcher at a Time

On a rocky hillside in the ancient village of Taybeh, the fragrant smell of roasting barley emanates from an inconspicuous factory.  Inside, the Khoury family is busily overseeing several tanks of brewing liquid which will eventually be bottled and packaged as the Middle East’s only microbrew.

The brewery occupies an interesting position in Palestinian politics, history, and economics. Its founders, David and Nadim Khoury had escaped the violence and instability of the West Bank to attend college in Boston, Massachusetts. There, David fell in love with brewing beer. When the Oslo Accords were signed in 1994, the brothers decided to move back to their home village of Taybeh and support Palestinian people by bringing business: beer business.

Alcohol is forbidden under Islam making Taybeh’s position in the majority-Muslim West Bank a precarious one. The beer is produced in Palestine’s last remaining entirely Christian town, but this fact alone has not dissuaded extremists from targeting the Khoury family and the town of Taybeh in acts of violent protest. David’s car has been torched, someone has shot at him, and the factory was nearly burned down in 2005 during a period of religious riots following the honor killing of a Muslim woman from a nearby town after it was discovered she had engaged in a relationship with a Taybeh villager. Fourteen homes were destroyed and the West Bank nearly lost its only brewery. 

Explicit violence is not the only challenge the family faces. The occupation of the West Bank results in stringent regulations and policies that dissuade business and make life particularly hard for beer brewers. The water for Taybeh comes from only two miles away, but this water source is under Israeli control. The water is prioritized for the Israeli settlements built on the hilltops surrounding Taybeh who receive a constant flow, while Palestinian villages in the region are pumped water half of the week, and only after they purchase it from Israel. After the production of the beer, it must be transported through several checkpoints to reach distribution sites within the West Bank, and particularly stringent checkpoints to enter Israel for local use and export abroad. Brew Master Madees Khoury explained that several times, shipments have spoiled while awaiting inspection or have been refused entry into Israel, impeding all foreign export.

Despite the many challenges facing the small operation, the family produces one terrific set of beers earning their moniker “The Finest in the Middle East” (my personal favorite is their “Dark,” a rich and smooth stout). The business remains viable, surviving its greatest challenge yet during the Second Intifada and becoming a point of Palestinian pride in more liberal cities where alcohol is legal. Their billboards often read: “Drink Palestinian, Taste the Revolution.” 

More than anything, the Khourys see their business as a form of civil resistance. Born in a moment of hope after the historic Oslo Agreements, the family dreams to someday see a free and prosperous Palestinian state.
“The Christians of Taybeh have lived through countless occupations since the time Jesus entered this town,” Maria Khoury explained to me, “and they have always responded through peaceful resistance. This is a matter of great pride in our village. We are not a violent people, and we will support Palestinian independence not by strapping on bombs, but by brewing beer, providing jobs, and investing in Palestine.” 

Cheers to that.

Apartheid’s Witnesses

 “When I was young, I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand seeing the injustice of apartheid in my home country of South Africa. It became so bad that my husband and I decided we had to leave. We didn’t want to be a part of a country that oppressed its own people. That was 1968,” Rosemary told me. 

“So you decided to come to Israel?” I asked.

“Well, we considered many places—the United States, Europe—but my husband thought it was important that Jews have a state to live peacefully and prosperously. Even then, we were pretty secular, and I felt less strongly about it than him, but we decided to give it a try for a year. We left South Africa, had our first daughter here, he started a law practice…and we stayed. Now, my grandchildren are here and I couldn’t even imagine leaving.”  

Rosemary and I sat on the porch of a Palestinian souvenir shop and sipped sweet tea the shop owner brought us. Across the street, we watched one of Hebron’s 16 urban checkpoints as Israeli soldiers repeatedly turned Palestinians away, forbidding them from crossing into the Israeli part of town where we now sat. Rosemary played with her glass with a forlorn face. 

“It’s awful,” she said, “It makes me sick. I came to Hebron today because I felt I had to see it for myself, and it’s even worse than I’d imagined. People in Israel just don’t know. They don’t allow themselves to know."
Rosemary was one of several Israelis I met during my time in Hebron who felt the military presence within the city, the presence of sometimes hostile settlers, and the imposition of road blocks and checkpoints unnecessarily oppressed Palestinians and infringed upon civil liberties. Another woman, Rebecca, played with the golden charms of the Star of David and Hamsa Hand dangling from her neck as she told me why she regularly visits Palestinian families in the city to check in on them and draw attention to abuses that occur. Despite her conservative religious and Zionist beliefs, she felt a moral obligation to bear witness to the violent abuses committed by Hebron’s settlers.  Her decision has drawn great criticism from her religious community in Jerusalem, yet she still visits Hebron twice per month, sometimes accompanied by a friend, often alone.
Rosemary and Rebecca are part of a larger movement by Jewish Israelis to oppose the most blatant abuses of Occupation. Several Israeli organizations work to draw attention to human rights abuses in the West Bank, including B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, yet the number of open Israeli dissenters still remains a minority. In many parts of the West Bank, Palestinians have still never met a Jewish person who wasn’t working for the Israeli Defense Forces or living in an illegal Israeli settlement,* perpetuating mischaracterizations of all Israelis as unjust aggressors.
As was the case in segregated America and apartheid South Africa, Occupied Palestine has created 2 distinct classes of people with different laws determining freedom or oppression. Resentment seethes in the archetypical city of Hebron, and patiently waits for the right moment to boil over.

*All Israeli settlements in the West Bank are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes the International Court of Justice’s ruling.
Note: All names in this post have been changed.

Aisha, Alive and Well

Aisha watching a game of soccer belo
From behind a barred window, chained for added protection, seven year old Aisha watched outside. In the small sports gymnasium two stories below, young boys wearing kippa with face-long payot played a game of soccer, surrounded by high walls and barbed wire. 

The boys are children of Jewish settlers living in Hebron, a city with roots predating the biblical era and archaeological records as old as the Bronze Age. Their parents are some of the most extremist Zionists in the West Bank, choosing to live in the only Israeli settlement located in the heart of an Arab Palestinian city. In order to discourage violence between the 500 settlers and 165,000 Arab Palestinians living in Hebron, Israel maintains a presence of an estimated 4,000 soldiers who oversee 116 roadblocks, closures and checkpoints and man several military stations for each home inhabited by settlers (TIPH). The enforced segregation of the city has resulted in the closure of 1,829 Palestinian businesses located near settlements, 77% of the Old City’s Palestinian-owned markets (ACRI).

Aisha’s walk home through the Old City requires her to pass through two Israeli checkpoints where armed soldiers have the choice to question her extensively or allow her to pass. On this day, joined by her foreign friend, travel was a breeze. 

The Old City’s ancient corridors are full of life, with vendors beckoning passersby to buy their fresh produce, fragrant spices, colorful ceramics and tapestries. Above the open-air market, Palestinians have installed a roof of nets and fencing to protect themselves from propelled objects and waste thrown by settlers living in apartments above. 

Aisha running through a checkpoint
Aisha held my hand while flitting through the market, propelling me quickly through the ancient streets and tunnels, dodging food carts, donkeys, and pedestrians. 

As we neared Aisha’s house, her older sister Sundus pointed out their uncle’s home, located in the shadows of a Palestinian home illegally taken by Israeli settlers who have ignored Israeli eviction orders for months. Her uncle’s roof now serves as a permanent home for Israeli Defense Forces who have built a watch tower over the family room. Sundus whispered to me that two days ago, the soldier in the tower yelled explicit profanities at her. 

Without warning, little Aisha picked up a stone and threw it toward the tower.

“Aisha, what are you doing?!” I screamed, knowing how many children are shot and killed in the West Bank for throwing stones. 

For a moment, I thought she had understood the fear in my voice. Then, I saw her bend over again, pick up another stone and throw it. 

“Aisha!!” I yelled, as I saw the soldier turn toward us with his gun, “We have to go now!” 

 As we retreated from the soldier’s post, Aisha closed one eye and formed her arms in the shape of a rifle. “Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop,” she mimicked, pointing her arms back toward the soldier and the settler’s home behind.

When we finally made it to Aisha’s home, her mother greeted us, “alHamdu lillah,” “Praise God.” 

In Arabic, I later learned, Aisha means “alive and well.” Born during the Second Intifada and raised in an environment of incredible tension, everyday Aisha makes it home safely is a day worthy of giving thanks to Allah.  

Friday, May 25, 2012

Remembering Rwanda

"If you must remember, remember this...the Nazis did not kill 6 million Jews...nor the Interahamwe kill a million Tutsis,  they killed one and then another, then another...genocide is not a single act of murder, it's millions of acts of murder."

-Stephen Smith, Executive Director of Aegis Trust, 2004

During the days preceding April 10, 1994, women and children crowded into the Nyamata Catholic Church, 35km south of Kigali. Since April 6, when Rwandan President Habyarimana's airplane went crashing down, hateful messages filled the radio waves encouraging Hutus to find and kill their Tutsi and moderate Hutu neighbors.  Rwandans listened carefully as lists of names were read, knowing that minutes after hearing their own, roves of armed militias would come hunting for them.

Families of Tutsis crammed inside Nyamata Church just as they had before during periods of ethnic violence. So many arrived this time, however, that the small church's capacity was overloaded. Two thousand women and children hid within the sanctuary, while several thousand more gathered on the grounds surrounding.

On April 8, the Italian priests at Nyamata were evacuated along with thousands of other foreign diplomats and expatriates throughout the country. Those within the church knew this made them more vulnerable to the chaos, but they imagined that as in years past, the angry mobs would fear committing acts of violence under the gaze of the crucifix.

As the days passed, Hutu militias became emboldened and hate overcame fear of God.

On Sunday, April 10, gunfire was heard in the streets surrounding the church. Mothers clung to their babies and tried to calm their young children. The armed men of the Interahamwe militia approached, carrying guns, machetes, and clubs, sending those gathered outside the church’s main sanctuary running in all directions. Within the church, women attempted to stay the iron doors as rapid gunfire surrounded them, but their efforts were useless against the grenades and jackhammers of the genocidaires.

Within hours, over 10,000 women, children, and civilian men lay dead within the sanctuary and on the grounds surrounding. The church is particularly noted for the extent of torture and sexual violence that accompanied many of the killings. Men who were known to have HIV were chosen to rape women, and others experienced long and torturous deaths chosen specifically for the protracted pain they would cause their victims.

I visited Nyamata on a quiet Sunday morning. As I toured the grounds of the memorial site, church bells rang nearby.

The church has remained largely untouched since the massacre 18 years ago. Inside the main sanctuary, the Virgin Mary looks down from her perch above the altar. Below her gaze, the bloodstained clothes of thousands of the massacre’s victims rest in heaps upon the sanctuary's floor. Bullet holes riddle the tin roof, and only shards remain of the church's stained glass windows.

A massacre of the most appalling kind occurred here, and was replicated in churches, homes, streets and hillsides around the country during the 100 days of Rwandan genocide.

At the Kigali Memorial Center, built on the grounds of a mass grave housing the remains of an astonishing 250,000 individuals, the Aegis Trust has done an impressive job of remembering the lives of the genocide's 800,000-1.1 million victims. In the children's exhibit, large photographs of children murdered during the genocide--some smashed against walls, others hacked by machetes in their mothers' arms--are accompanied by placards telling each child's favorite game, food, and personality characteristics. In the main exhibit, video testimonies of survivors accompany the historical information, giving disturbing and often harrowing accounts from some of the few Tutsis who escaped the unprecedented violence.

Genocide is a type of murder which does not discriminate between innocents and combatants, making equal victims of babies and adults. It’s an act of incredible violence and inhumanity which makes people, even years later, uncomfortable to imagine. We shudder at hearing how ruthlessly an infant—unaware of ethnic distinctions, religion, or politics--can lose its life, yet few times in history have international leaders shown the bravery necessary to save the lives of those caught in the middle of genocidal plots.Visiting the sites of massacre and mass violence in Rwanda made clear the true definition of genocide as the act of thousands upon thousands of individual murders. No matter how much study I could have done before, no one is prepared to witness some of the worst acts committed by humanity.

The mass grave on the grounds of the Kigali Memorial Center.

The Nyamata Church which now serves as a memorial place for the 10,000 victims murdered within the sanctuary and on the grounds surrounding.

Monday, May 7, 2012

A Clinic in the Hills

Uganda’s nickname as “The Pearl of Africa” undoubtedly comes from its lush and hilly Southwest. Along its western border, the Rwenzori Mountains separate the Baamba and Bakonjo people and their cattle herding from the majority Banyarwanda of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Further to the south, the Virungas Mountains and their crystalline lakes are shared by Rwanda, DRC and Uganda.

I met my friend Alexi during a weekend trip to Jinja. Also from the coastal North County of San Diego, we talked about our shared friends, life at home, and the trials and triumphs of our work in Uganda. As a public health Peace Corps volunteer, Alexi had been assigned to work in a government health clinic in a small, remote village called Kazo in Southwest, Uganda. 

Home to the Banyankole people, Kazo is a beautiful and peaceful land, but one battling the vicious plague of HIV/AIDS.

I arrived at the health center having very little experience interacting with HIV/AIDS patients. On my first day there, Alexi showed me around the different wards and then introduced me to the clinic staff who welcomed me into the lab and walked me through the process of HIV testing, result delivery, and counseling.

One by one, patients came in and sat down to have their fingers pricked by a small needle. A drop of blood was placed upon a reactive strip of paper and within minutes, results would appear. 

In the span of an hour, I watched as six patients extended their hands and winced as the needle went into their finger. Of the six who came through on this Tuesday morning, half would find out they were infected with HIV.  Perhaps the most tragic of cases was a young girl barely 17 years old. As the clinicians read the positive results, they talked amongst themselves about the unfortunate case: with all of the outreach efforts to educate the community about the risks of unprotected sex, how did this girl become a victim so young?

As each patient returned to the lab for results, they were counseled. Two young men under the age of 21, both negative, were reminded of the risk of sex and warned that a negative test did not necessarily mean they did not have the virus in their bloodstream. Those who had positive results were sent to a trained counselor who explained their options for treatment and offered advice on how to continue living as fully as possible with the virus. 

During my second day at the clinic, I was taken to a room where tubes of HIV-positive blood were entered into a CD4+ analysis machine. The machine was in its first week of use at the clinic, a celebrated recent addition provided by the Ugandan Ministry of Health. I watched as the machine counted the CD4+ levels within each sample, essentially determining how able the body’s white blood cells are to respond to viruses and diseases. While a healthy person has a CD4+ count ranging from 800-1300, the lowest CD4 count of the day belonged to a 21 year old girl whose blood cell count was only 23, well below the threshold of 200 that makes one highly susceptible to opportunistic infections. Below 50 CD4+ cells per micro-liter of blood, the immune system becomes too weak to fight off normally harmless illnesses that can rapidly cause weight loss, blindness and death.

I was amazed by how the clinicians casually handled each result which affected me deeply. Minutes after recording a patient’s personal information and extracting their blood, they would be forced to play the role of God, informing a patient about their status and estimating how long they had to live.

After some time, one clinician suggested I receive an HIV test. At first, I refused, sure I was HIV-negative. But as I sat there in the lab and watched patient after patient enter, I started to think: in the past few months, I had cut my hand open with a knife in a kitchen shared with an HIV-positive woman; I had been pricked by a used, but supposedly sterilized needle when I was sick with malaria. I sat beside the lab worker and my heart raced as he prepared the needle. While I knew my chances of infection were much lower than those who had knowingly engaged in risky behaviors, I suddenly understood the uncertainty and anxiety present in a world where roughly 13% of the population has the deadly virus.

My results appeared quickly, and luckily were negative, but the experience of receiving the test in such a setting shook me to the core.

For the past 30 years, AIDS has ravaged Africa, debilitating families and prematurely ending lives. I realized early in my visit to the Kazo Clinic that the life of a medical health provider in Africa is incredibly noble, but ill-suited to my compassionate nature. For Alexi, an aspiring MSF doctor (Doctors Without Borders), dealing with such cases had become the norm. Over the past two years, he had witnessed countless patients come in with weakened, skeletal bodies, suffering from infections like pneumonia and tuberculosis, who came to the Kazo Clinic to die.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Feasting on Ants and Folktales at the Feet of a Chief

For several days, I thought about what gifts to present during my weekend visit to the chief of the Kabala clan. From experience, I knew the occasion would be highly ceremonial and that a typical guest would bring a couple of live chickens or a young goat. 

I dreaded the thought. As a longtime vegetarian, I wasn’t fond of presenting animals for slaughter and perhaps most honesty, I’d developed a disdain for chickens that made the notion of a several hour motorcycle ride carrying the restless, squaking birds by their feet less than appealing. 

Finally, I settled on a mix of local items and favorite American treats:  Pader honey, sugar, and tea combined with coffee, popcorn, and packs of chewing gum my parents had sent from home.  I boarded the motorbike hopeful that the chief would accept my inanimate offerings.

By late morning, after hours of motorbike travel on the pitted and puddled rainy season roads, I found myself at the base of a mountain surrounded by the lush greenery characteristic of Northern Uganda this time of year. While I was expecting a homestead of several mud-brick and grass circular huts, I found instead a four wall, small home with embellished windows and glass panes.  The chief’s house, I would later learn, was a gift from the government of Uganda, an offering given to every chief of every clan in the country in recognition of their ceremonial and judicial significance. 

Rwot Okot Francis Lafyet became chief in 1968, inheriting the position as the youngest son of his dying father. Long before Europeans came to Uganda, chiefs and kings ruled supreme in matters of material, judicial, and spiritual affairs. When disputes arose between clan members, chiefs were solely responsible for determining the truth and administering justice, often weighing material evidence alongside the readings of oracles. Today, the role of chief remains a mix of judge, spiritual leader, and sage.  

For several hours, I sat upon a grass mat at the feet of Chief Okot listening to a description of his official duties which ranged from officiating over twin ceremonies (slaughtering a white goat and white hen and sprinkling the bodies of newborn twins with the blood as a blessing) to settling cases of murder (bringing together members of each clan and deciding the number of cattle that must be paid to the grieving family). As respected criminal arbiter and bestower of blessings, the chief received certain remunerations for his services.  “That tree there, I can never pick from it myself. Others must bring me the fruit,” he told me, pointing in the distance to a mango tree with loaded branches. “I also must never dirty my hands working in my garden. It is to be the first planted every season and the first harvested, and the whole community contributes.” 

Most fascinating to me was his historical account of the conflicts and wars that plagued his land during his 45 year governorship.  First, there were the Karamojong, the warrior tribe inhabiting Northeast Uganda famous for cattle stealing and raids that often resulted in “bride prizes” and burnt Acholi huts. Chief Okot recounted three major conflicts with the Karamojong that began just after his coronation as chief, including one scuffle that resulted in the loss of his entire cattle herd, the mark of his once extensive wealth. “They left us completely poor,” he told me, “and we never recovered. As you see even now, I am a chief that cannot afford more than rags for my children or to welcome you with due honor.” 

During the most recent protracted conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), chiefs played an important and unique role as peacekeepers. Respected by the Ugandan national military forces, civilians, as well as LRA militants, Chief Okot often found himself leaving the IDP camp to meet rebels “in the bush,” negotiating the return of abductees, relaying important information, and attempting to broker peace. “Many of those coming back from fighting would come to me first. I did cleansing ceremonies and sometimes arranged meetings with their victims’ families. Afterwards, they could be fully welcomed back into the community.”

With the patience one might expect of an elder and story teller, Chief Okot answered my questions one by one, using his son as a translator. After listening intently to stories about his role as chief, I couldn’t help but ask him to indulge me a little further. “Baba (Father), I have read many folktales through the years from throughout Africa, but I have yet to know of those most central to the Acholi tradition.” Chief Akot’s eyes sparkled as a wide, checkerboard smile spread across his face.

“Let me tell you the tale of the hare and the elephant,” he began. “We have so many stories about the hare.” For the next 30 minutes, I listened attentively from the mat at his feet as I heard how the hare tricked the elephant, lion, hyena and leopard in a series of clever maneuvers. 

As the story drew to a close, the chief turned to me and asked if I would permit him to ask his own set of questions. He asked about my home, my family, the logic behind my names, and my experience in Uganda. “How would you compare life at home to life in this place?  Why don’t you make your permanent home here?” I answered carefully but truthfully as I explained the major differences in social services between the two lands and the benefits and shortcomings I perceived in the two very different ways of life.

Satisfied by my answers, he told me it was time for us to take our lunch. With the guidance of one of his eighteen children, I was taken into the home, separated from the elders who would eat outside together.
We feasted on greens cooked with peanut butter, beans, and mashed white ants, a delicacy of which I could only bare the smallest taste. At the end of our meal, I returned to the mat outside, kneeled before the chief and presented him with my gifts.  After he had accepted each one, he responded delightedly, “today, I am a rich man!”

Chief Okot blessed my journey and I bid his family farewell. 

As I looked behind me from the seat of my motorbike, I thought of the life this man had traveled, from newly ordained chief, powerful and rich to where I met him today, sitting on the porch of his government-constructed home with few possessions, listening to stories of his leadership and sharing tales of my own. Though he had no phone or computer, the chief insisted I leave him with my contact details in the United States, hoping that we would someday share again.

A meal of mashed ants, beans, and greens with peanut butter.

 Sitting with Chief Okot and one of his children.

Stranded, Running Barefoot in the Rain

Rainy season in Northern Uganda means the near cessation of reasonable transit options. Roads often become so poor that buses cannot pass, tires sink in quicksand, and only the most daring or determined attempt to journey long distances by bicycle or motorbike.

On the morning of my expected arrival to the home of Chief Okot, I searched long and hard for a driver willing to brave the roads in a hired vehicle. With no takers, I weighed my remaining options: cancel my visit and thus, resolve to never meet the chief, or brave the several hour journey from the back of a boda boda—a cross between a Harley and a bicycle, less sturdy than a motorcycle, but with an engine and long saddle making it decidedly more than a bike.

I climbed aboard behind two riding mates and braced myself for the helmetless ride along the soggy and pitted road. At times, the bike slipped and slid along, as the driver walked his legs on the ground to steady us and regain balance. At others, the road became entirely impassable, forcing my friend and me to wade through the muddy waters while the boda driver found an alternative path through the grasses.

After more than two hours, we arrived at our destination.

By late afternoon, thunderclaps could be heard in the distance as dark clouds engulfed the nearby mountain.  I hurriedly said my goodbyes to the chief as his family ushered me off before the storm. Francis, my driver, knew as well as I did that if we were to have any chance for safe arrival back to Pader, we would have to beat the approaching storm.

He sped off down the dirt road at reckless speed, sending us flying over bumps and swerving to avoid pot holes. After only thirty minutes, we came to an abrupt stop.

“What is it?” I asked, looking behind at the now black clouds quickly racing towards us. His gaze directed mine toward the tire below me, now flat with no hope of carrying us the rest of the way to Pader. Our options were few: stay together, stranded on this deserted road, or proceed by foot as he attempted to bring the motorbike back to the village we came from for repairs.

I nearly leaped with each long stride as I tried to gain distance walking down the road away from the storm. My friend and I lasted about 10 minutes before being struck by heavy wind against our backs so strong it propelled us running forward. The wind was soon accompanied by rain, hitting us hard enough to sting.

I laughed as I registered the entirety of our circumstances, taking off my sandals as I ran, soaked, feeling the squishy earth beneath my feet. Of course I should find myself stranded on a deserted road in the middle of a torrential storm running barefoot on the same day as listening to folk stories at the feet of a tribal chief!

My friend worried. “Daniela, I am so, so sorry I have placed us in this terrible situation. Let us look for shelter and if need be, we can stay until a bus passes at three in the morning.”

I suggested a large tree, but my friend thought that would make us even greater victims of the harsh wind, rain, and striking lightening surrounding us.

Finding no suitable covering, we continued running along the long road to Pader.

Eventually, we saw a homestead in the distance, likely the only structure we’d see for miles. My friend and I hashed out a plan: she would approach a hut first while I hid at a distance and would give me a signal if the inhabitants seemed safe and welcoming.

She bent low and entered the hut. A few seconds later, her hand gestured out, telling me to enter.

Karibu! [Welcome!]” A woman within greeted me. Inside the hut, it was nearly too dark to see, but the aroma of homemade alcohol and wooden embers sent a sudden feeling of warmth through my body.  The woman sat upon a mat on the dirt floor, removing pebbles from a basket filled with large white ants which she would eventually fry. On a mud oven, she boiled a container of waragi, a local alcohol made from sorghum.

My African dress, now soaking wet, weighed heavily upon my body. The woman’s husband offered me their only stool as his wife poured me a steaming cup of her brew.

My friend Nighty used to make this alcohol and once refused me a sip, claiming it makes muzungus sick. I now held the warm drink cupped between my hands and sipped from it as I watched my sandals float outside the hut’s entrance and ducks swim by. 

My saviors seemed delighted by their surprise visit and entertained me with Acholi music played on a battery operated radio. I began to plan my next move.

I called my landlord in Pader—no answer.  I called again, still nothing. On my third try, I heard a voice. “Daniela, what is it? Where are you?” She asked. I explained my situation and asked if she could find someone in town willing to pick me up.  In about a half hour, my phone rang. A Land Cruiser was on its way, and in a few more hours, I would be home.

With the end now in sight, I reveled in my good fortune. I swayed to the music with my new friends as we listened to the rain falling outside.  The man and woman urged me not to drink too much from the cup they had given me. Drinking a whole cup of waragi would make me drunk, or at least, so I gathered from the charades of the couple within the hut.

When the ants came off of the fire, crisp and golden, I cringed. “Ants, twice in one day?” I thought to myself. For weeks I had avoided the flying white ants offered to me by people in Pader, and here I was, taking one gingerly from the smiling woman in front of me, making it dance in my hand instead of my mouth.

They don’t taste like chicken, nor do they taste anything like the firey, acidic Argentinian ants I sampled in the raw as a child.  I do know that locals warn against eating too many, as they are famous for causing bad diarrhea. I exercised restraint as the rest crunched on them by the handful.

After a couple of hours, my phone rang again as the driver of the Land Cruiser approached.  I found my sandals and waded barefoot through the waters to the side of the road.

Unlike the motorbike, the Land Cruiser barreled down the road at high speed, crashing through the puddles and sending water splashing as high as the roof. I held onto the side bar of the passenger’s seat as we shifted steeply left and right.

In no time, I was in my room again, sipping hot tea in my warm, dry clothes.  In only a couple of weeks, I would be far from dirt roads and rainstorms, mud huts and white ants, reunited with my parents in the Tuscan countryside. 

“Do you think you made a difference?”

Since October, one aspect of my life has remained consistent: every Sunday afternoon, I could count on a call with my parents.  They would worry immensely when I wouldn’t make our scheduled chat, but more often than not, they would listen to stories of my work and life in the village and offer encouragement when I needed it.

On one of my last days in Pader, my father acknowledged the elephant in the room (as he often has). “So, do you think you made a difference?” he asked.

I paused, quickly recounting my first and last days in Pader. Over the last few days, I had said goodbye to each of the groups of young people I worked with as a Peace Club patron. At Friends of Orphans, I hosted a celebration of the student leaders’ accomplishments after escorting them to meet NGO staff and local leaders with whom they could partner after my departure. At the Pader Girls School, news of my coming absence was met with tears. Several girls refused to pose for a photograph, crying until I reassured them that their Peace Club would continue and that I would not forget them. After convincing the girls to do one last “Let there be peace!” cheer, the mood lightened, and I managed to say my goodbyes. The girls escorted me home, singing the words of Matisyahu’s “One Day” the whole way.

My last official day at CCF coincided with the organization’s anniversary celebration, recognizing ten years of service to war-affected women and children. I had worked hard in the preceding weeks to help organize everything from the exhibition tents to the final program of speakers and presenters. After the exhausting five day event, I was met in the kitchen of my home by the organization’s Executive Director who expressed genuine gratitude for all of my efforts.

So, did I make a difference?

In future resumes, my experience in Pader may be summarized by a list of achievements: the creation of a Kids for Peace curriculum for war-affected populations; training over 400 Peace Club members in Pader and Agago Districts; directly leading four peace clubs whose members organized service days, human rights trainings, peer counseling sessions, and shared their Peace Pledge with international ambassadors, local leaders, and members of the Ugandan Parliament; developing the capacity of two local NGOs through technology training, monitoring and evaluation, and documentation; teaching English and computer skills to formerly abducted children; etcetera, etcetera...

From the reactions of my students, I do hope it is not too far of a stretch to imagine that for some, I had the kind of impact upon their life that the best teachers of my youth had upon my own. It may not be an earth shattering revolution, but from small but meaningful interactions, the course of one’s life can change.

Led by Northern Uganda’s youth, I hope a culture of kindness, peace, and environmental awareness continues to develop. The youth have learned new skills, exercised leadership, and seen that “it feels good to do good.”

I am leaving Pader satisfied with what I have accomplished in my short time here. I won’t miss all of the challenges of daily life I faced, but I will miss working with others every day to do “all the good we can, by all the means we can.”

Thursday, March 15, 2012

To Combat Future Security Threats, World Leaders Must Prioritize Development

“We can't just stop with a single terrorist or a single terrorist organization; we have to go and root out the whole system. We have to go after poverty.”
-Colin Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State and retired 4-Star General of the U.S. Army

Every week, I teach an English lesson at a vocational school for war-affected youth in Northern Uganda. One day, as most of my students concentrated on answering their writing prompt, a new student asked if he could practice his English with me through conversation.

Otim began by telling me about himself. He shared about how the war in Northern Uganda had affected his family and how he was abducted by the LRA for two years. When he returned to his village, he found his father had been killed by the militia and his family was now too poor to pay his school fees.

When it came time for Otim to ask me questions, he began by inquiring about the Peace Club I lead at the center, a group he heard about from his friends. “What exactly do you do?” he asked. I explained that I aim to empower the youth with tools to help them create peace for themselves and their community, and I gave examples of the kinds of projects we undertake and skills we develop.

“Excuse me, Madame, I understand what you are saying, but you see, for me, I cannot have peace for myself until I know I can have a future. And I cannot know I will have a good future until I find a way to afford an education. Without an education, the children I will someday have will suffer just like I did. So how can you help me find peace?”

His inquiry was profound.

In a war-affected community where the economy was devastated by 20 years of insecurity, education suffers, and without education, the prospects for a productive peaceful, future are bleak.

How could I expect Otim to feel peace if he does not believe he stands a chance at making a livable income to afford his own needs and those of his dependents? If another terrorist militia swept through the North with promises of a better future for Acholis who chose to join, would Otim pick up a weapon?

When I co-founded Kids for Peace in 2006, I was highly influenced by my own upbringing during the period of fear following 9/11 and the wars against terrorism that followed. At 12 years old, I learned something that changed me, and which I still think of often today: many of the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks were war orphans or living in extreme poverty resulting from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (Bhutta 2002). When war-affected populations—and in particular, children—are left with memories of violence and few chances for improving their circumstances, a culture conducive to terrorism, extremism, and violence can form.

For years, foreign policy leaders have recognized this connection, yet little has changed in the way we approach national security. We continue to spend a relatively minute portion of our federal budget on creating security abroad through development relative to defensive spending. In 2010, the United States federal budget allotted 19% of its total expenditures to the U.S. Department of Defense, while only 0.39% went to poverty-focused development assistance (Borgen Project). According to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the federal budget for 2012 proposes the greatest spending on defence since World War II (Business Insider).

In the absence of strong government-led development efforts, NGOs have attempted to fill the gap, with many organizations working to empower violence-affected communities. One effort recently featured on Kristof's New York Times blog is led by Jake Harriman, a former US Naval Academy graduate who spent 7 years in the U.S. Marines. After two deployments to the frontlines of the War on Terror, Harriman decided to enroll in Stanford Business School to develop skills to enable him to create an organization aimed at combating terrorism through poverty alleviation.

Harriman’s story is moving and his efforts are worthwhile, but his impact will inevitably be restricted by the same limitations of capacity nearly all NGOs face. With limited time and resources, Harriman's organization, Nuru International, has chosen to focus its current efforts on the Kuria District in Kenya through an ambitious plan to create social change in that community. Other organizations with similar missions are chipping away at the problem of extreme poverty in other regions of the world, but the reality persists that NGOs simply lack the capacity to solve global poverty alone.

Campaigns for ending poverty like ONE and Make Poverty History have lobbied world leaders and created the economic case to demonstrate that the resources exist for improving the futures of the world’s poor if only the international will existed to make necessary changes that would allow them to do so.

Without a fundamental restructuring of the way powerful countries think about national security, poor communities will continue to breed the type of ignorance that serves as a barrier to peace and an incubator for insecurity. Without access to education for young men like Otim, warlords like Joseph Kony will continue to be able to indoctrinate militias in world views based upon irrationality and violence. Organizations like Nuru make an important step in the right direction, but for the kind of widespread change necessary to create cultures conducive to peace, foreign policies of the world's most powerful nations must adapt to offer greater assistance to the world's most poor.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Countering the Headlines: A Response to Kony 2012

By now, Facebook, Twitter, TV and newspapers have been full of reactions to Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video for almost a week. The video has received 71 million views on YouTube and has been the number one trending topic on Twitter since its release.

Some have heralded the short film for making Joseph Kony a household name, while others have sharply criticized Invisible Children for oversimplifying the conflict, misrepresenting the LRA’s dwindling influence, and offering a flawed strategy by suggesting viewers spend $30 on publicity kits to decorate their neighborhoods in posters and stickers. Some headlines have suggested Ugandans are “outraged” by the video, while others have claimed making Kony famous will harm efforts aimed at his capture.

Amidst all of the confusion and discussion, what are we to believe? Should we click “re-post?” Is our money best spent on a publicity kit?

As many articles have mentioned, the LRA left Uganda six years ago (a fact Kony 2012 points out in minute 15). In the beginning of 2011, the last remaining internally displaced people camp closed, and nearly all northern Ugandans have returned home or relocated, resuming their lives in relative peace. Children no longer trek at night to find safety in Uganda, and they probably don’t in the regions the LRA has relocated to either.

It is estimated that the LRA now consists of only 400 or fewer militants spread throughout a vast region of Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and Southern Sudan. Their decline does not diminish the heinous nature of their war crimes, with children still returning from “the bush” with horrifying stories of forced violence and abduction, but the magnitude of their continuing threat is overstated in Kony 2012. With juxtaposed images of children sleeping in safe centers with maps of the LRA’s current presence, the video seems to equate the violence and instability which occurred in Uganda in the early 2000’s with ongoing LRA operations elsewhere in Central Africa, a gross overstatement of the LRA’s current capacity.

While this may be misleading, the video does make an important contribution by highlighting the affect roving militias have on several regions of central Africa today by drawing attention to one such group and suggesting that all humans have a responsibility to care about and take action for peace. In over 25 years of terrorizing populations, never before did 70 million people talk about Joseph Kony in one week, and that fact alone means the creators of Kony 2012 are on to something.

Ugandans are also talking about the video. Over the past week, several people—from Directors of NGOs addressing the needs of Kony’s victims to international diplomats—have discussed the video or its contents in my presence. Never once have I heard “outrage,” but rather, a general sentiment of support for any effort aimed at finding Kony, some trepidation about the strategy suggested by Invisible Children, and a general feeling of “a little too late” for Uganda.

The video has resulted in some positive international attention for Ugandan NGOs. Over the last few days, the main community-based organization I work with in Pader has received several inquiries about how donations can be sent for Kony’s victims who continue to be in need of educational assistance and livelihood support.

I do not believe the video will create more harm than good. Even the Ugandan military has acknowledged the video’s overwhelming popularity and has restated its commitment to finding Kony at any cost. Reminding governments that citizens care is almost never harmful and keeps pressure on governments to be accountable to their people.

Raising awareness about the hardship caused by conflict and violence can make a difference. Surely, Congress won’t order the withdrawal of Obama’s 100 advisory forces now that millions of Americans know about Joseph Kony and the LRA.

“Making Kony famous” has now been achieved, and I thank Invisible Children for increasing awareness. A persuasive—if flawed—video has resulted in many more people knowing about the impact of ongoing violence in Central Africa.

This was all accomplished at zero cost to the public thanks to the capacity of the internet to spread ideas rapidly and for free. The video’s popularity likely surpassed what Invisible Children could have imagined, eliminating the need for publicity kits all together. Unintentionally or not, creating a controversial video shot by a controversial NGO has managed to keep the spotlight on Kony and this video well past the initial days of salience from its release.

So go ahead and talk about Kony, tell your congressmen you care, and keep sharing any material you find interesting about the LRA because the Ugandan government has listened to you and responded that it won’t give up. But please, don’t spend $30 on a goal that has already been achieved for free. That money can be much more effectively spent addressing the needs of those living in areas affected by Kony and the LRA to whom $30 can mean nearly a year of education or life sustaining tools for income generation.

About the blogger: After graduating Harvard in 2011, Danielle began working on post-conflict reconstruction projects in Northern Uganda focused on research and service delivery to LRA-affected women and children. During her undergraduate studies, Danielle researched human security and mass violence with a focus on the history of recent conflicts in Central and East Africa.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures: Celebrating Girl Child Education on International Women’s Day

The individual’s name has been changed and her photo is omitted to protect her privacy.

Four years ago, Francine could have never imagined she’d be speaking on International Women’s Day in front of a crowd of hundreds.

In 2008, Francine lay in a coma in a hospital in Nairobi. Doctors rushed to repair a severe fistula wound while Francine fought to stay alive.

At the age of 11, Francine had been abducted from her home in Northern Uganda and forced to become the wife of an LRA commander. After suffering severe complications from pregnancy in an LRA camp in Democratic Republic of Congo, Francine was airlifted for medical treatment in Kenya.

Francine’s story is one of remarkable wisdom, determination, and service. Knowing that medical care was inferior in her home country, she hid her passport in her Kenyan hospital room so that she could remain in the country until fully recovering from her surgical operation.

Reunited with her family back in Uganda, Francine was determined to return to school. After eight transformative years living in the bush where she was forced to give up her childhood for all the duties of a wife, Francine was too old to attend a normal secondary school. At 19, she walked through the gates of Pader Girls Academy for the first time, where she would spend three years catching up on the education she missed.

Francine was a natural leader. Out of 300 students, she was chosen by her peers to lead the girls as Head Girl of the Academy, serving as the primary representative of student interests at the school. With persistent study, she also excelled academically, earning one of the top scores in the District on the country’s academic assessment exams.

Francine’s success was remarkable, and she never took for granted the opportunity she had been given, nor did she forget the thousands of other girls who returned from captivity without access to education. In 2010, Francine traveled to the United Kingdom to speak to the House of Lords as a representative of all of the girls in Uganda suffering as a result of the war.

For her outstanding performance at the Academy, Francine was one of five girls in her class awarded a scholarship for advanced study in Uganda’s capital. For the first time this week, Francine dressed in a new school uniform as she entered A-level (equivalent to 12th grade/1st year of university in the U.S. system), an achievement of a small and proud minority of Ugandans.

Today, I sat beside this outstanding young woman as she prepared to speak at Uganda’s National Women’s Day Celebration in Kampala. Out of all of the charity’s focused on women’s issues in Uganda, the Pader Girls Academy was chosen as the sole beneficiary of the event’s fundraising activities this year. Beneath a banner that read, “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures,” the theme of Women’s Day 2012, Francine shared her future goal, to become a human rights lawyer and advocate for other girls affected by war.

Amidst an environment that often seems absent of hope, Francine's future is inspiring. With educated women leaders like Francine—strong, determined, wise, and dedicated to serving others—communities really can change, individual lives can change, and the persistence of violence can change.

Happy Women's Day to women everywhere!

Tabling on behalf of the Pader Girls Academy at the International Women's Day celebration

A trailer for a new documentary on providing education to war-affected girls.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Peace-building in War Torn Northern Uganda: A Success Story

On a hot, dusty Saturday morning, I climbed into the front seat of an NGO 4x4, prepared for a bumpy ride. Together with my driver and translator, we set out for Acholibur, a small town in Northern Uganda located about an hour’s drive from my home in Pader. I was told I would be meeting with war-affected youth who had helped start a peace club in their community.

As we pulled up to the tall chain-linked fence surrounding the community center, twenty dirt-covered children left behind the car tires they were rolling and ran to the gate to see their visitors. My typical greetings ensued: young ones jumping up and down, chanting “mono, mono, mono” (the Luo word for “white person”), kneeling down to shake my hand, and begging for pictures when they saw my camera.

Inside the main building, fifteen youth waited to speak with me. They knew a foreigner was coming to listen to their stories, learn about the club, and share their messages of peace more widely. What I heard over the following hours were incredible stories about children’s experiences during war, and how youth can work together to accomplish amazing feats for peace.

The club began in 2007 when a group of former child soldiers came together to discuss how they could help others returning from Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) captivity. Since then, the Peace Club has grown in membership and purpose, from twenty girls and twenty boys at its start, to an informal community group that now serves more than 200 war-affected youth.

Members of the club donate their time to work in landowners’ gardens, tend livestock, keep bees, and raise seedlings. The Club uses these proceeds to help war-affected young people when emergency cases arise: when a child mother cannot pay for medicine for her baby or a war orphan lacks the means to pay the parental contribution component of primary education.

Leaders of the group have partnered with local NGOs to receive training in psychosocial counseling. There are now peers on hand to discuss issues affecting young people in Acholibur like HIV/AIDS, child abuse, and domestic violence. They have worked hard to learn about the resources available to them, and the club now serves as one of the main locations for youth to go for counseling and referrals.

The young people support one another because, in the words of one member, “without each other, we’d have nothing.”

The following posts are stories shared by Peace Club members about their experiences with war and how the Peace Club has changed their lives. The content deals with themes of violence that may be discomforting and not suitable for all audiences.

Tell the World: A Child Soldier’s Story

Bosco, Age 25 (A pseudonym has been used and his photo is omitted because of the sensitive nature of this story)

“Tell the world, so they may hear our voices and help us,” Bosco told me as he shook my hand and began to stand up from his seat at the interview table. I took a deep breath, making a concerted effort to contain my emotions. I thanked him for his willingness to share, and forced a smile when I wished I could offer a hug to him and the several other youth I would talk to over the course of the day.


When I was twelve, I was awoken one night by the sound of angry voices outside of my hut. A man with a gun forced his way inside and ordered my two older brothers and me to march into the bush. With the sounds of our mother wailing behind us, we disappeared into the tall grasses surrounding our family’s compound, each carrying upon our heads the massive load of cargo we had been given by LRA fighters.

By the early hours of the morning, tiredness overcame my two brothers. When one whispered to the other that he could not go on without rest or water, a commander spoke up: “it looks like two people among us need to be laid to rest, for they have shown they are too tired. Kill them!” I looked away, as my two siblings were beaten and then cut to death.

As the brigade moved on, we spotted another homestead. “Now it is time to see if you have the strong heart of a soldier,” my commander told me. I stood at a distance as other boys were sent in to raid the group of huts. Within minutes, they returned with a man—about forty years old, by the looks of him. I was ordered to beat him to death with a stick. At first, I wanted to refuse, but I knew what would happen to me if I did.

After a while, we left our homeland behind, escaping Ugandan government forces and finding refuge in Sudan. In the land of the Dinka [the cattle herding warrior people of Southern Sudan], we struggled to survive. Hunger and thirst were everywhere. Many boys died and I was sent with eighteen others to loot a Dinka encampment for food. We knew the order would result in a fight.

As we approached the Dinka’s mud brick settlement, gunfire rang out from in front of us. Eleven of the boys were killed and the rest of us fled in all directions from the soaring bullets.

Eight of us returned to our camp with no food. Six had lost their guns in the process, and were ordered by our commanders to be killed for the mistake. I escaped death only narrowly by agreeing to join a brigade returning to Uganda.

My new company received strict orders from Joseph Kony [the LRA’s mystic leader]: “when you reach Uganda, anything that is found living should be killed.” Under this command, we gathered and murdered one hundred thirteen civilians as we marched from Gulu to Pabo Sub-county.

The killings in Pabo were the final straw for me. I became quiet, distant, and unresponsive. My superiors noticed my changed behavior and commanded me to eat from the flesh of our next abductee so I could gain the strength of two men. I was spared this fate when another commander decided this would take too much time. Instead, I received 100 strokes and marched on.

I knew that night, I must escape. I no longer feared death and knew I could not continue as I was.

In the middle of the night, I faked the need to use the restroom. I grabbed my gun and thirty-two bullets, and set off running into the bush.

Six soldiers chased after me. When I had gained some distance, I climbed a tree, grabbed my gun and shot the rounds until each of the six fell below the grassline.

I threw my weapon and prayed I would never use one again. I found a shallow well nearby and crawled within, waiting quietly for sunrise.

Local leaders received me with apprehension, turning me over to the Ugandan government’s army. After being handed from one barracks to another, I was finally reunited with my parents after five years in captivity.

My happiness and newfound freedom lasted only a short while. Days after returning home, I was in town when members of the LRA went to my homestead looking for me. When they didn’t find me there, they killed my father and left my mother badly beaten and unconscious.

My road to recovery has been long. Some people in town bully and torment me, telling me to call on my dead father for help, or fight back like I would have done in the bush.

After the death of my father, I lost all hope to live. I preferred to remain quiet, spending most of my time alone… until I heard of the Acholibur Peace Club.

I wanted to know peace myself and to create it for others. Now, when I start to feel un-free, burdened by anger or sadness, I go to the Peace Club. It is helping me forget about my past experiences and create a new life rooted in peace.

Members of the Peace Club helped me talk to my mother. Now, we understand one another and have a good relationship.

We [child soldiers] lost out on our education along with our youth. Without skills, we will always be poor.

My story is really like so many others. Around here, you will hear the same thing over and over again. The youth need the world’s support so we can continue our educations and work to rebuild our lives.