Ugandan Region Recovers from Decades of War Acholiland, an area of northern Uganda, has suffered through decades of fighting. But the region today is a place where most people seem interested in producing anything but war.
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Ugandan Region Recovers from Decades of War

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Ugandan Region Recovers from Decades of War

Ugandan Region Recovers from Decades of War

Ugandan Region Recovers from Decades of War

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Acholiland, an area of northern Uganda, has suffered through decades of fighting. But the region today is a place where most people seem interested in producing anything but war.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand.

There's an area of northern Uganda that has produced some of that nation's fiercest warriors. It's called Acholiland. During World War II, when Uganda was still a British colony, the Acholis fought the Germans as part of the king's African rifles. And after independence, the Acholis fought in Uganda's five-year civil war.

CHADWICK: And over the last 20 years this area has been a battleground in an internal conflict there that's killed tens of thousands of people and displaced more than a million. Still, Acholiland today is a place where most people seem interested in producing anything but war.

NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Uganda is roughly the size of Oregon, but it looks more like the Deep South. The soil is red or burnt orange, really, the color of peeled sweet potatoes. And there are magnolias, ficus, and pine trees, too. Southern Uganda looks like southern Georgia or east Texas or central Alabama.

The capital city of Kampala is laid out over a series of hills like Birmingham. Sometimes, Uganda even sounds like the Deep South. The radio stations here play country and Western music. Here's a favorite.

(Soundbite of song, "Islands in the Stream")

Mr. KENNY ROGERS and Ms. DOLLY PARTON (Musicians): (Singing) Islands in the stream. That is what we are. No one in between. How can we be wrong? Sail away with me to another world, and we'll rely on each other...

THOMPKINS: But there are some important differences. There are cows here called Ankole with horns so big, they would make a Texas longhorn feel somehow inadequate. There are also monkeys and banana trees and coconuts, and tons of elephant grass. And then there's the Nile River. In the 1970s when Idi Amin was president, dead bodies floated in the Nile, just outside Kampala, and sometimes collected on the banks near the Nalubale dam.

That happened during Uganda's civil war, too, from 1981 to 1986. Follow the Nile northward and Acholiland lies ahead. Reagan Okumu knows that area. He's a three-term legislator in the Ugandan Parliament from Acholiland.

Mr. REAGAN OKUMU (Legislator, Uganda): It is full of savannah grassland and savannah woodland. And as it moves towards southern Sudan, the woodland turns into tall savannah grassland. And definitely, as you enter you're going to see some places with very tall, tall grass that even you - tall as you are - you may not be able to be seen if you walk in it.

THOMPKINS: That would be nearly six feet. Remember the tall grass, it will come up later. But for now, consider what else Okumu says about Acholiland this time of the year.

Mr. OKUMU: When the sun heats up, you may not like it.

THOMPKINS: Acholiland in the dry season. Think of a yellow, glowing, radiant heat like your ears are up against the heartbeat of the sun. And dusty, put a kerchief around your neck and by the end of the day, your collar still looks like you dragged it on the ground.

(Soundbite of burning foliage)

THOMPKINS: That's the sound of earth, wind and fire. In the dry season, people up here burn the foliage along the roadsides. The burning apparently clears the way for all that tall savannah grass to grow into the thatch that the Acholis need to make their huts.

This is the time of the year when everybody and everything in Acholiland is burning up.

(Soundbite of burning foliage)

THOMPKINS: Now picture soldiers moving through the smoke in the elephant grass up here. Picture armed rebels moving even more quietly than the soldiers. And both sides finding shelter from the sun under the canopy of the mango trees or the tall pines. For the past 20 years, that's what's been going on up here, a rebellion that won't be put down against a government that won't be deterred.

Somewhere in the middle are the civilians of Acholiland, 300,000 of them cooped up in camps for internally displaced people. The camps are packed so tightly that the humanity in some areas is more dense than Manhattan.

Ms. SARAH AKONGO(ph) (Resident): Twenty years is not a joke.

THOMPKINS: Sarah Akongo wants to go home to her 100 acres. She is a 58-year-old farmer and the daughter, granddaughter and great granddaughter of farmers. If the rebel army and the Ugandan government signed a peace deal today, it would still take her ages to grow papaya, known here as popo, or any of the fixings of a good dinner.

Ms. AKONGO: It is only the popo, which can grow within one year. And the bananas, the yams can take more years. And the mango can take about three to five years also.

THOMPKINS: These days, the Acholis mostly reap heartache. They are at the mercy of two groups whom they do not trust - the Ugandan military, which enforces policies from Kampala that the Acholis believe delay their exodus from the camps, and the Lord's Resistance Army, a much feared homegrown rebel group led by a self-proclaimed religious prophet.

The Lord's Resistance Army began its rebellion in the late 1980s, to unseat President Yoweri Museveni. The rebels said they were fighting for Acholi rights. But the Lord's Resistance Army has never succeeded in taking Kampala, and the government has never succeeded in stopping the rebels. Instead, the civilian population has been brutalized by both sides - robbed, raped, and battered. That leaves the Acholis right here in what international aid workers call some of the worst living conditions on earth.

Mr. BRADFORD ADAMS(ph) (Head, International Rescue Committee, Kitgum Office): When you walk in, it looks better than camps in Darfur for example.

THOMPKINS: That's Bradford Adams of the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian group that has been on the ground here for the past nine years. Adams heads the office in Kitgum, the regional center of the war.

Mr. ADAMS: That being said, you'll see it is so congested that many of the basic indicators, such as mortality, access to water and sanitation is worse here or has been worse here, than it is in other camps which look worse at first at first glance.

THOMPKINS: At the root of the problem is that the camps are mandated to be within two kilometers - that's a little over a mile from just a smattering of army encampments.

At Labuje Camp, or half a dozen other sites outside Kitgum, the thatched huts are so Lilliputian that they look like a stand of mushrooms.

Ms. AKONGO: Terrible.

THOMPKINS: Again, Sarah Akongo.

Ms. AKONGO: In the camp, there is nowhere the children can play easy. And also the animals we are used to, like the goats, the sheep, and so forth - you cannot keep them in the camp. And they are nowhere to be seen ever. So all those make the camp life very difficult.

THOMPKINS: To add insult to injury, the Lord's Resistance Army isn't even in northern Uganda anymore. They moved to southern Sudan, months ago, when peace talks were ongoing there. The Acholis feted them along the way, glad to see the back of a rebel group that had turned on them with unspeakable violence and cruelty.

Since then, the peace talks have broken down and the rebels are threatening to return to Acholiland. But for now, 300,000 Acholis are living in the equivalent of poorly sanitized panic huts, waiting for - they don't know what.

They rely on elders like Okaine Tuberio Atwolman(ph) to keep track of their farm land.

Mr. OKAINE TUBERIO ATWOLMAN(ph) (Community Elder): These I know it, perhaps. I knew it.

THOMPKINS: Okaine has avoided the camps. At 83 years old, he lives in a village just outside Kitgum. He and men like him are duty bound by clan and culture to keep a living record of who owns what in these parts.

Mr. ATWOLMAN: The landmarks that people used to have, have been destroyed. And of course, we human - you know there are some people who would like to benefit out of this confusion. They would like to shop other people's land, and so forth.

THOMPKINS: Okaine says that if the Acholis can stick together, there's a future in one of the world's oldest cash crops. If you listen closely, you might be able to hear it.

(Soundbite of a mountain of raw, handpicked cotton being pushed)

Even people who live below the Mason-Dixon Line might not remember that sound. That is what it sounds like to push into a mountain of raw, handpicked cotton.

There's a gin as big as day in the village where Okaine lives, and it runs all night.

Mr. ATWOLMAN: These are piecemeal cultivation by the people when they sneak out from the camps, go a little bit of digging for business partner.

THOMPKINS: The same Acholis who live in some of the worst conditions on earth somehow managed to farm commercial cotton in their spare time. Imagine what they could do if they lived on their farms full-time. Imagine if there were peace in Acholiland.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Kitgum, Uganda.

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