Lessons From the Field: Don’t Look Away

The Acholi people of Gulu and Northern Uganda are in the infant stages of a renewed peace and security, but the realities of the horrors they experienced remain just beneath the surface. Its true that the vicious LRA hasn’t struck with violence here in several years, but the trauma from seasons when bloodshed was a constant threat may well continue to haunt a generation of Ugandans.

Areas in Uganda Impacted by LRA

At the height of the conflict, the UN estimates that the war displaced nearly 1.8 million people. Most of them lived in IDP (Internally Displaced Person) Camps for years at a time, struggling for life on every level. A milestone of sorts was reached last month as the UN officially ended its assistance to Northern Uganda. The fact is that people have largely returned to their former homes in Gulu and across the Acholi region (the UN says 98% have returned home, and nearly 250 IDP camps are now closed). But while many emergency aid & relief organizations pack their bags to leave this area, the question remains: What happens next for these people?

I journeyed to Gulu for a second time this January as a part of TCON’s new efforts to offer support in this region. While Gulu is still crowded with a variety of NGO’s and relief organizations, there is a surprising lack of programs directed towards the most vulnerable population.  This includes the elderly, women with AIDS, widows, and those who were brutally abducted by the LRA but managed to return from the bush. Many of the towns and villages in Acholi were left like ghost towns for over a decade. Now, with entire populations returning home to essentially nothing, everybody is struggling to establish a way of survival. The net result is poverty for most, and unthinkable poverty for those marginalized groups at the edges of a new civilian life.

Caroline- Gulu Widows Leader

This was never more clear as in a meeting we had outside the home of Caroline in Gulu town. Caroline is the leader of a widows group here that TCON is beginning to work with. To properly plan our work here, we wanted to profile some of the women Caroline reaches on a daily basis. So as the sun went down in Gulu, we talked with Lilly and Filda, two women whose stories shook me to the core. There were devastating details: being abducted by the LRA as children, having entire families murdered, being violated sexually and bearing the children of the rebel commanders. But the hardest part was seeing their present state, years after these events took place.  Lilly commented at one point that she believes it would be better to be back in the bush with the LRA- at least she would know what to expect. Such unfortunate thinking speaks to both the level of PTSD these women have and the unthinkable challenges associated with reintegrating into society as women who were also abducted. And most people living in Gulu want nothing to do with these women.

Meeting with Lilly and Filda

What happens next for women like this?

My colleague Shauna Gauthier (TCON Program Director) was also in Gulu, and her professional training in psychotherapy gave her a more grounded perspective on Lilly and Filda then I could ever have. (which I hope she’ll elaborate on more in a future blog post!) Shauna commented on the level of shame that these women have about their stories. The challenge when you’re sitting face to face is to not look away; not to give them the impression that you are somehow ashamed of their story. They’ve experienced so much stigma in their return to society that they expect that kind of reaction from everybody they encounter. Instead, you want to reinforce the message of their courage and humanity. I did my best.

Shauna’s recommended response points to TCON’s broader approach: We refuse to look away. In truth, as physical security is more and more the norm in Gulu, the battle for the victims of war in terms of reintegration and healing is just beginning. We are planning to be involved. Next month, TCON is initiating a first phase of support for around 30,000 Acholi widows through seed gifts for agricultural development. Establishing a base level of food security and relationship with these ladies opens the door for more focused programs moving forward. We are sincerely excited for some of the plans we have that will specifically target women like Lilly and Filda in the area of psycho-social support and trauma processing. We hope you’ll continue to follow our progress as we fight poverty and cultivate hope!