Imagine a childhood like the one George had: Forced, at age 11, to leave his family behind and join the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda. Forced to fight.
“I was given to the group of the commander,” he says. Abducted with a group of children while they were celebrating Independence Day, George (names have been changed to protect identities) and the other children were made to learn how to use and dismantle a gun.
“They said that if we try to escape, they will kill us right away,” says George, also telling the story of a small girl who tried to run away from the rebels soon after being kidnapped. “They captured her back and smashed her head in,” he says. George was 12 when he saw that happen.
It would be easy to think that the suffering of the tens of thousands of children who endured atrocities at the hands of Joseph Kony’s LRA ceased when the war ended in 2006.
The repercussions, though, are huge and ongoing. It takes more than the absence of violence to have a good life. Land and the skills to farm that land are needed for people to be able to rebuild their lives.
Moses spent much of his childhood in an Internally Displaced Person’s camp (IDP). In 1996, unable to stop the LRA, the Ugandan government forced the Acholi people of northern Uganda to leave their villages and move to the government-run camps.
Moses and his family, along with 1.7 million others, were required to live in these camps – spending years in squalid, makeshift houses, in camps rife with disease and violence.
Trapped. Unable to make a living and completely reliant on food aid to survive, Moses knew no other way of life. So, when the war that had shaped Uganda for two decades was over, he thought that perhaps this was his happy ending.
But it wasn’t. The bullets had stopped flying, but a different sort of hardship had just begun.
“I had been in the camp for so long,” says Moses, “and since I went back things have not been easy.”
Returning “home,” Moses, like thousands of others, found people farming on his family’s land – the boundaries had blurred, the landscape had changed, and land wrangles and fights were everywhere.
Having relied on aid and without land or the skills to farm, the problems seemed insurmountable to Moses. “We survive on land,” he says. “The moment someone takes away your land, you see no hope, you see no future.”
“Land is everything here,” says Alex Vickers, BMS World Mission worker in Gulu, northern Uganda.
With land comes the possibility of growing crops to feed your family and pay for your children’s education. “If you have land,” he says, “you have a future for your family.”
But land isn’t easy to come by and there are two big problems.
Editor’s note: Part two of Sarah’s column detailing land-related issues faced by returning Ugandans will appear tomorrow.