I have agonised over the post for a while, because it’s a subject I want to address very carefully and in sufficient depth to do it justice. I have now been photographing in Adjumani District for three days, and those three days are minute-by-minute clear in my head. Just three days, a toe in the ocean.
Adjumani is a forgotten patch, part of West Nile but sitting on the East bank of the river and bordering Amuru. Its native people, the Madi, have their own language and culture distinct from that of either the Lugbara or Acholi. When people talk of the LRA war, they speak about Acholi, Lango and Teso. Those were the regions hit hardest, while West Nile, thanks to the river, remained relatively calm. But nobody ever really mentions Adjumani, which suffered both in the war and the aftermath. During the war it was treated by Kony’s troops as a sort of larder and recruiting ground. They would camp in the Zokar Forest and strike villages in Ciforo and Ofua, or raid across the border from Amuru into Pakelle and Dzaipi, and during those raids they would murder and terrorise civillians, steal livestock and abduct children for use as soldiers. The actual death tolls are unknown, but most villages in the east and south of the district have their sad line of concrete tombs, the words “killed by LRA” scratched into the surfaces.
Nobody was safe from the rebels. The Redeemer Children’s Home, an orphanage on the outskirts of Adjumani town, was hit one night in June 2003. 16 orphans were kidnapped and two are still missing today. After the attack, the orphanage was moved west of the River Nile and the buildings turned into a school which is now flourishing, with over 600 pupils. The orphanage remains in Moyo, many of the children refusing to come home out of fear.
Kidnapping occurred with terrible regularity during the long war. The LRA used child soldiers for many tasks, and were ruthless in their treatment of them. Returnees tell stories of forced marches, beatings and summary executions.
For many parents in Adjumani and throughout North Uganda, though, there is a worse situation. Their children have been kidnapped and nothing has ever been heard of them again. They are simply disappeared, and that is all they know.
Some of the kidnapped children have returned, however. Lily Unzia, a Ciforo resident, was also kidnapped at 14. She was given as a wife to a rebel commander, and bore three children during her captivity. She fought throughout North Uganda and South Sudan, and escaped with her children from Sudan back to Uganda. She is quiet and reserved, and closes her eyes when she talks. She remembers beatings and battles, unbelievable hardships for a slight young woman who is now 25, living with her parents but newly married and settling into rural life. She is happy, she says, but still gets scared if she has to collect firewood on her own.
Survivors of atrocities are found everywhere too. Some were chased, others beaten, others shot, raped or burned. The LRA used fear as their greatest weapon, subjugating civilians through constant maintenance of their brutal reputation. They would attack at any time of the day or night, moving in small, mobile groups to surprise villages.
Life for civilians was a constant nightmare, with attacks not only on camps but also on IDP settlements where villagers had moved to try to find safety. The grass-thatched huts of the camps burned easily and the rebels would torch the huts as they moved through the camps, forcing people to flee in terror. Anybody caught would be killed.
But the war is over for these people now, and Kony is a memory which they are trying their best to move on from, The camps are slowly emptying as people return to their home villages, and even within the camps themselves there is a feeling of peace, with IDPs commuting out to their fields daily as they prepare the ground for their eventual return.
Some IDPs have had problems with returning home, with some complaining of land being designated as nature reserves in their absence. Others want to return, but must wait for the re-establishment of roads and services, a reduction in the number of tsetse flies and, in many cases, assistance with the resources necessary to re-build their homes.
There are deep scars in Adjumani District, and only time will help them to fade. There is a lack of NGOs in the area, with many choosing the more high-profile Acholi region, and I would talk about politics if I were not employed by USAID, But as you drive through the low hills of the region and marvel at the beauty of it all, you see new grass thatch roofs appearing over the elephant grass. UNHCR and the Danish Refugee Council have made great strides in promoting the return home. There are teams out digging the fields, women walking alone along new paths. Things are changing here, and the wounds are beginning to heal.