Inside Uganda’s forgotten disaster

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A CLASS OF 122 children gather in a makeshift classroom.

Gordon Lewis, a Salvationist from the UK, is heading up The Salvation Army’s team in Uganda. Here he writes about the terrible situation he has witnessed and also about how The Salvation Army is attempting to improve the lives of people who have lost everything.

ONE month into my stay in Northern Uganda I can truly say that I am living in the midst of a conflict forgotten by the world’s news agencies and unknown to most people.

Back at the end of July I was aware from the news that there was a conflict in some part of Uganda. But that is true for many parts of Africa, so we pay little attention and perhaps care even less. Even being briefed in August by a member of The Salvation Army’s International Emergency Services, following their assessment visit, in no way prepared me for the reality of the situation and of the emotional and physical hardship being experienced by the internally displaced persons (IDPs).

I stress emotional hardship for the very good reason that not only have many people fled from their villages in fear of their lives, not only have many family members been raped, tortured and killed, not only have many parents had their children abducted for use as rebel soldiers, but this conflict between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan Government has now being going for 18 years.

There are many stories from this conflict that are too gruesome to tell. But, having suffered in so many ways, these people now also live with the uncertainty of when their lives might return to normal or even if their lives will ever return to normal. The emotional stress this creates is unknown to most people. Even those who have suffered terribly through disaster or personal tragedy usually have some sort of hope that their lives will return to normal.

The town of Lira, where The Salvation Army is basing its work, has been a center for large numbers of IDPs for eight years. This has resulted in the town itself being affected. Camps have grown and many more people depend on the limited health, education and other services. The influx of IDPs has deeply affected the very nature of the community and how its people live. There is a sense of lawlessness about the place, despite the huge crowds that pack the churches each Sunday. The community is passionate about its Christian faith, but a seemingly endless conflict can affect the best of people and take away any reasonable vision of the future.

In recent times we have had visits from European politicians who have been here to review the situation. The official view is that there is real reason to hope that the end is in sight and the rebels are about to capitulate. The problem is that it takes only one incident of the rebels getting through and massacring a whole village—as happened early this year, with the loss of more than 300 lives—and the IDPs are again in fear of their lives and, understandably, very reluctant to return home, despite high-level assurances that it is safe to do so.

This, then, is the complex background against which the authorities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the United Nations, and the IDPs themselves are trying to make life bearable within the camps. No one can plan properly for a long-term stay, but neither can they prepare to return home to their villages and a normal way of life.

By “normal” I mean subsistence farming from mud and straw huts, with no water, electricity or any other convenience. It is not pretty by western standards, but for the IDPs it is a dream. They long to escape from where they are now, from the uncertainty and the total loss of any means of providing for themselves, from the hunger, from the charity and from the total aimlessness of their lives. They long to escape from the very real prospect that the generation to come will be even worse off than the current one.

And what about their needs just now? As we speak to people in the camps, there are the issues that you would expect related to food, shelter, health, water and sanitation, many of which are being tackled, with very little resources, by the groups that are here. But there is another factor, and that is education.
Entire generations face losing this basic necessity. Without education the coming generations will have an even greater struggle to survive. To make matters even worse, many of the children in the camps are ex-abductees who have escaped the rebels. They present a very special challenge for teachers. How do you teach a child who is 13 or 14 but has had no education at all? How do you teach children who were abducted at the age of seven, treated brutally, raped and forced to fight for the rebels, forced to attack their own people, maybe their own family? Many teachers in this area are having to learn again how to teach, with new sensitivities and new responses to bizarre reactions.
This is the area that The Salvation Army has chosen to work in. We are attempting to create specific and, it is hoped, lasting relationships within some of the bigger camps, particularly—at the request of the authorities—in the more vulnerable rural areas. Out of these relationships we are seeking to support whatever exists of an education framework and to improve it. Where there is nothing, we are seeking to put in place basic shelter and other support items. We are looking to create vocational training courses within the camps, concentrating on skills that are transferable back to the villages should the possibility of a return home arise.
As part of this process we will have to purchase all necessary tools for courses such as carpentry, sewing, bricklaying and agriculture, attempting to introduce more productive forms of farming so the IDPs may progress beyond subsistence farming. At the successful end of these courses we will allow the students to keep the relevant tools. An expensive option, but without it there is little point in having the skill.
In Bala Stock Farm, about eight kilometres outside Lira, there is a primary school for 5,000 children, though only half that number attend. None of the 19 classrooms is finished and the school is poorly equipped. Children who do attend run a variety of risks to their health. There is a secondary school, built entirely through the efforts of parents in the camp and with the aid of a group of IDP teachers. However, it is built of mud and the end wall is caving in, with considerable risk to the students. This mud-built school has only four classes for a possible 900 students.
There are also wooden posts marking the future site of a kindergarten, intended to be for 1,150 children. Unfortun-ately the people’s efforts could not extend beyond the timber posts so the children continue to roam the camp and put themselves in danger. And amidst all this there are eager students, those who for a variety of reasons are excluded from secondary education, who are wanting to obtain skills that will have some purpose for them in later life. They look longingly at a plot of land intended for the technical school, but which at the moment is covered in long grass.
These people and these projects are the target of the small Salvation Army team currently working in Lira. There are considerable odds that need to be overcome, not least of which is the lack of funding, but all we can do is try our best and take small steps forward alongside these most disadvantaged of people.
—IHQ News release

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