Monday, August 15, 2005

In the early 2000s I lived in northern Uganda. And during this time I started writing down my impressions of daily life in the Acholi sub-region. I just wanted to put into words some of the things that surrounded me. Over the months the writing turned into a small collection of snap-shops of life in East Africa. Some of these snappies recall nice experiences, others focus on the things that still boggle my mind.

Over the coming weeks I want to share them with you. Most of the bits and pieces originate from the years 2003 and 2004.

Bits and Pieces – Impressions from Uganda – Part I

They have been around for thousands of years. Birds. But I have never really been interested in them. Well, one reason might be that I haven’t been around for all that long; thousands of years I mean. But even after 1971 my interest in feathered animals was very limited. They have been there. Sometimes I have noticed them, more often I didn’t. That was it. But over the last couple of weeks something has changed. Probably because there are just so many of them here. You see them everywhere. During my last two trips to Murchison Falls National Park I really got spoiled. Bird-lovers heaven I would say. One time I saw thousands of Abdim storks – first circling like big clouds in the sky; later on they came down, landed on dead trees and occupied the grass patches between them. A great scene. And just a short while later a pair of saddle billed storks with their carnival like masks walked up to the car. Beautiful creatures. And these were not the only big birds catching my attention – and using up lots of my film. From giant goliath herons over kori bustard to picturesque crested cranes, from African darter to hamerkop and majestic African fish eagle – with a fresh catch in its claws, and from tiny colorful sun birds over shiny bee eaters to huge Abyssinian ground hornbills. It is great fun watching them. And a great challenge to try to take good pictures of them. I find it very relaxing to get my mind focused on something out of the ordinary, often nasty routine of the life in Gulu. And taking wildlife pictures is one of these relaxing activities. A kind of outdoor meditation.

A SMS at 1:30 in the night. From Fr. Cyprian, the Chairperson of the Justice and Peace Commission and vice rector of Lacor Seminary, a secondary school for boys. ‘Sem. being attacked. Sens. taken’, it reads. Just during the course of the next day I get more details. Lacor Seminary is about 10 kilometers out of town. Rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have been in the area for weeks. Places within the municipality have been attacked over and over again. So were the roads. So was church property and others. Within two weeks, a residence of the Comboni Missionaries and four houses from parish priests have been targeted. The attack on the school is not just the last incident in a worsening overall situation, it is also by far the worst during the last couple of weeks. One night commuter, a child of 8 years, was killed. It came to the church ground in order to seek protection during the night. Thousands do so in these times of insecurity. During the day the life seems normal. Even in more remote areas. At least at the surface. But when the sun is setting and nightfall is near, people migrate to trading centers and towns, to hospitals and churches, to everything that seems to offer some kind of protection and a few hours of safe sleep. During this very night thousands have been away from home. But for the people in Lacor Seminary security proved to be an illusion. It just doesn’t exist in northern Uganda. One child was killed, more than forty others were abducted and taken to the bush.

Rainy season has started again. What is often a horror for the roads up here – even four wheel drive has its limits when the mud reaches almost up to the doors -, is a blessing for the vegetation. Within days, the bare brownish soil shows fresh green. Flowers pop up everywhere. Whatever seed is put in the soil will germinate almost immediately. People are out in their fields, digging, weeding and planting all day. The range of stuff you can buy on the market is getting bigger every week. Green beans, cucumbers, carrots – suddenly everything is available again. And soon we will add from our own garden. Lettuce, more cucumbers, herbs, zucchini and probably even some butternut. Let’s hope the bigger variety will help me to put on some weight. Well, call me naïve.

Back to Lacor. A boy of 15 takes me around and explains what has happened the previous night. It looks like a group of around 20 rebels came from the northern side, cut a whole in the fence of the seminary and entered the compound. The four soldiers normally guarding the school took off immediately. The LRA fired some shots to see if there is any resistance and was pleased that there wasn’t. So they could move quickly to the dormitories of the students. Alarmed by the firing the children were hiding under their beds, hoping not to be detected from the outside. And hoping that the metal doors and the metal bars at the windows would be strong enough to keep the intruders out. They weren’t. With an axe one of the bars at a window was bent, the space to the next bar widened and an LRA child soldier slid through. Others outside the window watched his back with guns at hand. This child opened the doors’ padlocks from the inside and let the rebels enter. Over 40 teenage boys were taken. Others managed to flee in the turmoil and spent the night somewhere in the bush. The lives of another 40 families have been ruined.

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