For over two decades the genocidal LRA war has brought death daily to northern and northeastern Uganda. The war in northern Uganda has been called the most neglected humanitarian emergency in the world today. For the past 23 years the LRA and the Government of Uganda have been waging a war that has left nearly two million innocent civilians caught in the middle. The Government of Uganda's attempt to protect its citizens from this rebel militia has largely failed, resulting in an entire generation of youth that has never known peace.
Since 1986 the LRA has terrorized northern Uganda to the point where in 2001 after the Patriot Act was established, the LRA and their leader Joseph Kony were officially declared a terrorist organization. This was a huge step in drawing attention to the conflict and the atrocities committed by the LRA. Finally in 2005 the ICC issued arrest warrants for Joseph Kony and four of his top commanders.
As of 2006 active fighting, child night commuters and pillaging has stopped in northern Uganda. Kony and the LRA have moved to the Democratic Republic of Congo and are currently terrorizing the Central African Republic. Though the fighting has stopped and 'peace' has returned to northern Uganda the lasting emotional, physical and psychosocial damage is still present.**
It was due to this last emotional effect on the greater north that some amazing Peace Corps Volunteers in the northern region got together to figure out how they could better help the war effected youth of their area. Building a Peace Camp model off the organization Seeds of Peace which started as a summer camp in rural Maine for Israeli and Palestinian youths and has now expanded to work with youth in many conflict or post-conflict areas, was these volunteer's idea. Luckily, they were able to make their dream a reality and I was fortunate enough to be a part of it.
The camp brought together 80 youths from the Acholi, Langi, Iteso and Alur tribes which greatly represent the people of northern Uganda. The youth were ages 15 to 19 and had been effected by the war in their lives to some capacity. The goal of the camp was to create a safe space for the campers to build their leadership skills, self-esteem and ability to go back to their home communities and become peace makers while learning emotional coping mechanisms and the tools to forgive so that they can have inner peace and be successful in whatever they put their minds to. The camper groups were mixed with youths from different tribes which was a great assets to the success of the camp because the youths were able to make friends outside their tribes and dispel rumors or misconceptions they had about each other.
Each day started with a morning assembly and then moved on to scheduled activities such as group reflection sessions lead by a counselor, arts and crafts project, sports time, ropes course for team building and self empowerment, a theater group preforming socially minded dramas (i.e. about marital issues, rape, bullying in schools, etc.) followed by reflection session and evening reflection ceremonies that fit with the theme of the day. It was a jam packed week for the campers and staff, but by the end of the week we all realized how special this experience was for everyone and the growth we saw in the campers as a whole was astounding.
At the opening ceremony for the camp we gathered all the campers, counselors and staff together to listen to speakers from the surrounding Gulu area about the importance of friendship and moving forward as peacemakers in their home communities. After the speakers the campers from tribal region came in front of the camp to sing their tribal national anthem. We finished up the ceremony with Breakdancers for Peace which the campers loved!
Every morning two camper groups lead the morning assembly. They would help raise the Ugandan flag as well as lead the camp in the national anthem. This was in hopes to help build country unity within the campers which has been missing from northern Uganda for around two decades.
Activities Throughout the Week:
During the first two nights of camp we had cultural exchange night. This is were the campers from the different tribes got in front of the camp to show the other campers their different tribal dances and songs. A cultural leader was also present for these presentations to teach the youth about their heritage. Due to the war a lot of the culture has been lost to the youth and it is now that they are trying to regain a sense of unity within their tribe. Showing these different tribal cultures to all the campers hopefully brought light to how all the campers come from the same place of tradition and can grow to respect each other once again.
Alur Tribal Dance
Acholi Tribal Dance
The Recreation Project:
For one day during camp my group got to visit The Recreation Project in Gulu Town. The Recreation Project brings together many people from northern Uganda, but mostly youth to inspire them to overcome fear and patterns of war through active healing experiences. The Project uses facilitators trained to work with people effected by the war to go through team building exercises and related the experience back to personal growth, healing and moving forward as well as giving the youth a positive self-esteem filled (and extremely fun) day!
End of week Peace Camp Project:
My group the 'Messiahs' decided to do a play that encompassed many skills that they learned during the week about being peace makers in their communities. The play was written and acted out by the group without my or my Ugandan counterpart's help. The play was about a father and mother who did not love each other anymore and created a violent house hold for their children. The father did not want to send his girls to school and he boozed a lot. One night on the way home from the bar he got very sick and passed out on the road. After waking up in the hospital with his wife by his side they met with a counselor to talk about their issues as a family. After a long talk they reconciled and the father agreed to send the daughters to school.
After the play was over my camper group got together to explain what peace meant to them to the whole camp. The turned the word peace into a poem that read like this:
P- ositive people who
E - ncourage
A - citivism against
C - ommunity
E - rosion
Needless to say their play was powerful and even though they did not win the camp competition I was extremely proud of them.
I was very blessed to get to know my group during the week of camp. I had some definite leaders that were very talkative from the start and some campers that came out of their shell throughout the week. It was amazing to see how much each of them grew individually throughout the week.
Most of my campers had been effected by the war in a major way. They had lost their parents and some had walked into their house to find them dead. I had night commuters - children who would leave their homes before nightfall to go to a 'safe house' to hide so that the LRA would not come and kidnap them to be child soldiers. [The LRA kidnapped children because to gain rank in the LRA you had to build what they referred to as a 'big family' or train many soldiers. This is why so many children were taken - to build forces and the kidnappers power within the LRA.] Within my group I had abandoned children and former child soldiers - one who spent 5 years in the bush. I also had two campers who did not feel comfortable telling their stories, but from what I know they were horrific on any humanitarian standard.
One of my campers challenged me the whole week in the sense that he would not talk with me. I would ask him questions and all I would get was a nod or a head shake. When it came time to share within the group he would remain quiet. I let him remain quiet because this week was about his personal growth and I could tell he was following along with the sessions and group work. At the end of the week after the closing ceremony the campers were asked to do a mad-lib poem. They answered random questions that the answers filled into a poem about camp and becoming peacemakers at home. My group picked up on this fairly fast and did a very good job. Before leaving the room at the end of the activity to move to the dance party the camper I could not get to speak came up to me in perfect English and said: "Rebecca I would love it if you read my poem" and handed me his paper. As I read through his poem I realized how much he had internalized and learned throughout the week and how much he had to forgive and wanted to forgive in his life. He expressed the desire to become a peacemaker and stated that he was going to do so. I do not know if it was because I was super hungry or tired, but that moment touched me deeply and brought me to tears. After camp I learned that he went back to his community and lead a session for other youth on trust and forgiveness. I could not be any prouder or honored to know this young man.
I loved my group and this experience. I feel I got so much out of it - almost more than the campers. I believe the people and tribes of northern Uganda are ready for change and peace. Hopefully the youth can be cultivated to create this change. I cannot wait for next year - Peace Camp 2012.
** If you would like to learn more about the LRA conflict in northern Uganda here are some great resources - though most lay heavily on the Acholi Tribe please understand that this war effected the Langi, Alur and the Iteso as well:
- Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda's Children by Faith McDonnell and Grace Akallo [Very focused on Christian Faith - by two authors. I found the personal story by Grace Akallo very moving and worth reading this book.]
- Trail Justice: The International Criminal Court and the Lord's Resistance Army by Tim Allen
- War Dance (documentary film by Shine Global) I HIGHLY RECOMMEND