3 December 2004

Uganda: When an American Senator Cried for the Children of War


Kampala — When US Senator Sam Brownback from Kansas State came to visit Uganda on Monday, he said he wanted to go to Gulu, northern Uganda to put a face to the suffering the people there have undergone for the last 18 years due to the war between the LRA and government.

World Vision Uganda coordinated his tour, and the National Director, Robby Muhumuza, invited me to go along and capture the moments.

We met the 46-year-old senator at Entebbe airport on Monday, ready to set off for Gulu.

On the Eagle Air Chartered plane to Gulu, Brownback was watching a video about 'night commuters' on his laptop. The expressions on his face were sad, but what was on the laptop, was as the Baganda would say, " gakyali mabaga." He was yet to see the worst. On the plane were, among others, the US ambassador to Uganda Jimmy Kolker.

Muhumuza first briefed them on the situation in northern Uganda, noting that once the war is over---as it is everyone's prayer, that the peace talks bring this about, the rehabilitation of the region will be the next big task.

"These people will be starting from scratch. We will need to re-open feeder roads, rebuild health centers and schools,' Muhumuza said. He told the centre about the centre on Gulu where former child soldiers and abducted children receive counseling. But you could still see that the story was just a story, and that it hadn't sunk into his consciousness about the magnitude of the problem.

In fact Brownback asked: "So some of the children come out of the bush when they are wounded?" "Yes, yes," Muhumuza replied. He added: "In fact we will see one of them whose jaws were shattered by bullets and we had to take him to Brussels for operation."

The one hour flight to Gulu was with no incidence, thanks to our good pilots, and a prayer we said at Entebbe.

At Gulu Airport, we were received by former child soldiers and returnees from World Vision Children of War Rehabilitation Centre. They danced their favourite traditional show, the larakaraka.

Senator Brownback was amazed to see children who spent years in captivity espousing wide smiles on their faces, with lots of energy and happiness. He joined the dancing and clapping.

After a brief courtesy call at the minister for northern Uganda Grace Akello, and lunch with Acholi Religious leaders at Pearl Afrique Hotel. We drove straight to the children rehabilitation centre.

True to their resilience, the children were at the gate, dancing, and jumping to receive, the Republican Senator, who is one of the most powerful and influential persons in the US Congress.

At the centre, James Otim, the manager of World Vision operations in northern Uganda took Brownback through drawings by formerly abducted children on the wall of one of the counseling rooms. Art is used here as a form of psycho-therapy. Children are asked to draw pictures, and during the initial stages of their reporting to the centre, most of the pictures they draw show people killings each other, with guns and pangas. But as they get counseling and care, they begin drawing pictures of happy people, dancing, smiling and in homesteads. And these were the pictures shown to the senator.

Denis Oruk, the administrator of the centre tells me that they use picture drawing analysis to determine the state of the child's level of sanity and rehabilitation.

While were there, they brought the child who was abducted and had his jaw shattered in the cross fire. The boy could not talk, because his mouth is almost blocked. He greeted us, and a counselor took us briefly through his story. The senator sat in his chair, in deep thought.

Then another boy, Okot Michael told Brownback how he was abducted by rebels on September 1, 2002. He said that he was abducted when the vehicle he was traveling on from Palabek to Kitgum town was ambushed. "Some people were killed in the ambush and two beaten to death with clubs, because they were found putting on gumboots," Okot said. He narrated the story of how he was taken to Sudan for military training. He talked of how he, together with fellow children were ordered to loot and kill people along the way.

'We were ordered to kill any human being we met. Twenty people could be abducted and given to one person to kill, which I did too," he narrated. At this point, senator Brownback was just looking at the boy, straight in his eyes, with a gesture that seemed to say "how can this be?"

What broke Brownback's heart was perhaps when Okot told him of how the rebels forced him to go back to his own village, abduct his own relatives, and forced to kill his own aunt!

"They told me that if I don't kill my aunt, I would be killed, so I used a club and hit her to death," Okot said to the bewilderment of everyone who was in the room. At this point Brownback broke down, and I saw drops of tears fall from his eyes. He took a deep sigh, looked the roof, and said: "Oh my God!"

As said earlier, it was still mabaga. Another child, this time a child mother, who was also abducted narrated her story. She talked of how she was abducted, and given to one of the commanders of the Lord's Resistance Army. Through forceful sex, she conceived and has two children. She bears a very big scar on her head, which she says she sustained during one of the battles with the Uganda People's Defence Forces (UPDF).

These two stories, Robby Muhumuza told Brownback were just a microcosm of thousands and thousands of similar ones, perhaps sadder ones that people who work in the centre listen to everyday.

When he stood up to speak to the children, Brownback said: "I am touched by your pain, experience and suffering. It is my hope that we can help you get out of this situation and have a good life. I know you have all experienced a lot of suffering that I can't even imagine. I pray that God will strengthen you.

That you will go from here and continue to live. I hope we can help to make life for you better." And then he prayed for them thus: "Lord Jesus, even in difficult situations like these, we thank you. We pray you relieve the suffering of the people in northern Uganda. Bring peace from you the Prince of peace. I pray for blessings on the lives of all these young people, that you bring them healing and joy onto their lives. Amen."

Later Brownback was taken to Unyama internally displaced peoples camp (IDP) that has over 20,000 inhabitants.

World Vision intervenes in this camp by assisting people living with HIV AIDS, sponsoring of children to go to school, sanitation and construction of classroom blocks.

He said that it was important that he puts a face to the IDPS he always watches on television screens. He entered one of the huts in the camp, and sat on the stools that our people use.

He listened to a typical story of a mother in a camp, how food is insufficient. How they are scared of moving two kilometers away from the camp for fear of being abducted. How camp life has killed their culture, morals and values. How simple diseases like malaria kill people at will with no medical help.

The last part of our trip was a discussion about the peace process in light of the prevailing ceasefire offer by the government.

We had dinner with the proposed negotiator Ms Betty Bigombe. Listened to her hopes and fears. All our hope was that this time, everyone should do their part to ensure that the peace process holds.

And you can be sure that Uganda will count on Big Brother, the United States of America, and the sole super power to help. And it is people like Senator Sam Brownback who have seen what war really means 'live'; and people like him who serve on the powerful foreign relations committee, that will carry the message to Congress.

Julius Mucunguzi is a Senior Communications Officer with World Vision Uganda. He can be reached on: Mucunguzij@yahoo.com OR 078301107

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