After being relentlessly pursued by the Ugandan military for more than a year, eight-year old Aling – a daughter born of forced marriage to one of the high commanders of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – was tired and scared. One morning after a particularly deadly attack, she turned to her mother and asked, “Mama, why can’t we just leave this army?” Her mother had spent 14 years as a forced wife. She knew the risks involved in betraying the rebels, yet she could not refuse her child. They left that night.
The commander was enraged. He sent 20 of his best soldiers to bring back his daughter and kill his wife. As they went, one of the soldiers said to the others, “Aling’s mother is a good woman. She has helped us many times when we were injured or needed comfort. Why should we not follow her instead of the commander?” They too escaped, joining Aling and her mother at a rehabilitation centre in Pajule, Pader District.
Some days later, having heard that his soldiers, wife and daughter were in the nearby centre, the commander dispatched another 70 soldiers to attack the place, ordering them to kill everyone. As they got nearer, the soldiers surrendered their guns to the local officials. They too followed the lead of Mama Aling, the mother of the child who asked if it was not time to go home.
Since the early 2000s, the Ugandan initiative, the Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP), a Ugandan initiative, has recorded some of the worst human rights abuses that have taken place during the war, and the efforts of people like Mama Aling to stop them. JRP documents the stories of ordinary people caught between the warring parties - of those pressed into fighting against their will, and those who are born of circumstances not of their choosing. The organization got the help of dozens of persons in displaced camps who, for years, volunteered to keep track of, and record, what was happening there.
At the height of the war, the original JRP team walked, rode bicycles and boda boda (motorcycles), and travelled in the backs of trucks to reach areas that no international journalist or advocate would go to. At the time, people weren't permitted to travel even a few kilometres our to town after curfew.
Members of the JRP team – who are about the same age as Jason Russell, the maker of the Kony 2012 film – document the memories of massacre survivors. They record stories of sexual violence and the ways women and men resist armed soldiers. They speak to parents whose children are still missing. They listen to commanders who surrendered and who regret the atrocities they committed. They try to move beyond the good-guy-bad-guy model, recognizing the extraordinary circumstances in which soldiers commit violence against others, as children who grew up in war and were forced to fight.
Sometimes this work is overwhelming. It often feels like documentation and advocacy is not enough. At some point, each member of the team has held heads in hands and wept following an interview, or after meeting a community. After the tears, they gather courage and write it all down. Then they go and talk about it with local officials and request a resolution.
They publish reports and news articles, do tours and hold radio programmes in order to bring the voices of communities to national and international debate and attention. This isn’t always an easy task.
In 2007, Boniface Ojok, the project’s coordinator, met with the LRA and government representatives to the peace talks. He sat in between the heads of the two delegations and told them what he has seen and learned about justice from people on the ground.
Co-founder Michael Otim put his life on hold for more than two years, attending each and every peace talk between 2006 and 2008 as an advisor to a delegation of cultural and religious leaders.
JRP’s advocacy is not just with officials and leaders, however. It also engages the communities most affected by the war. JRP's members utilize oral history, dance, song, drama, poetry, radio programs, community dialogues and public marches to share what they have learned at national debates, and to promote ownership of advocacy. They help survivors found their own advocacy groups, and when resources are available, they bring survivors to meet with officials and leaders.
For example, JRP supports storytelling sessions among a group of war-affected women Gulu, a town in northern Uganda. These sessions provide a space in which women can speak freely about their memories of war and the challenges of daily life. As word spread about the group, so many women wanted to join that new groups started to form. On International Women’s day this year, IRP formally launched the Women’s Advocacy Network, with over 200 members. The group's chairperson, Evelyn Amony, spent more than 10 years in captivity. She believes she survived the war to tell her story, and to help others tell theirs.
This is courageous and exhausting work, but JRP is not alone. Hundreds of local and national organizations work to document and remember, and to insist on justice. There is Human Rights Focus (HURIFO), for instance, which operated as the only human-rights organization in the region for many years. There is also the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, an interdenominational group (Catholic, Presbyterian, Anglican and Muslim) that has repeatedly met with the rebels and government in attempts to persuade them of the need for peace talks.
There is Alice Achan, who rallied her community together to build a shelter for the hundreds of children who escaped rebel captivity but had no where to go, and no way to find their parents. In the shelter, she loved and nourished each one of them until they could be reunited with their families. Then there is the Concerned Parents Association, which formed after 139 girls were abducted from St. Mary’s College in Aboke. Women like Angelina Atyam travelled the world over and back (she even met Oprah!) to find their children.
During the nearly 10 years I have worked in Uganda with advocates, survivors and researchers, I have never heard them lobby for military intervention. In fact, the opposite is true: Ugandans have consistently insisted on an amnesty process for rebels, recognizing that many soldiers were forced into combat as children. Most prefer to talk peace rather than wage war. It is common knowledge that the first to be killed in military raids are the most recently abducted kids.
This is not to say that Ugandans do not want to stop Kony, or that they do not want justice. Nor is it to say that local leaders are perfect and know all the solutions, or that they speak with one voice. This is not the case.
The point is, Ugandans, along with people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Sudan and many other countries around the world, are working for peace in both extraordinary and ordinary ways that are often off “the grid”.
They do so that the world is a better place for their children – so that it is better for Jason Russell’s children – and they do it without ever being called a hero.
So alongside the current media hubbub around Kony 2012, how about celebrating the heroism of thousands of Ugandans like Aling, Boniface, Evelyn, and Alice, building peace and working for justice despite the war. How about #Ugandans2012?
Photo courtesy Reuters.