A Journey to Remember
A JOURNEY TO REMEMBER
By Hellen Mshilla
Some day in November 2002, I made a unique journey to Uganda. After travelling overnight from Nairobi to Kampala I took a taxi to Gulu. The journey was very long, over 320 kilometres North of Kampala. When we reached Karuma Falls on the River Nile I was so exited to see the beautiful scenery. From Karuma to Gulu, there were so many armed soldiers on both sides of road. There were UN vehicles occasionally zooming past and from the opposite direction with a Red Cross flag. There were so many children walking, majority of them bare footed. I asked where the children were heading to but no one answered me. I did not understand why they never answered my question. There were also many bicyclists, and grass thatched round huts all through the journey. My mission was to visit my husband who had started working at a Hospital in Uganda.
When I finally reached Gulu, the first question I asked my husband was the same I had asked the two strangers in the Taxi. The second was about the soldiers. Why were there so many soldiers everywhere? He postponed the answers because he had never informed me that he had come to work in a war zone. He later explained that he did not want to scare me! I then learnt that I had entered one of the then Africa’s most dangerous places; Northern Uganda, where rebels of the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) had terrorised the community almost 20 years, abducting children as young as seven years old and turning them into child soldiers and sex slavery.
As I type up this article the memory of the suffering in this region that time makes tears well up in my eyes. The I saw walking on my way were night commuters, fleeing from the LRA. They had been doing this ever since they learnt how to walk by themselves.
By then I had for almost ten years edited news at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation Nairobi but I could not remember ever seeing any story about the LRA that reflected the magnitude of the suffering I witnessed that day. I felt useless as a journalist. Useless because part of my moral responsibility was to tell out such atrocities whenever I got the chance, a duty I had performed well to the best of my knowledge. I always would select stories about Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Angola, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Somalia and name all the war affected countries which were always well covered by the International media, but the Northern Uganda story had never surfaced somehow. If it did it was just a short mention that would pass as a news brief, and rare for that matter.
Today I live in Gulu. There are no more night commuters in Northern Uganda because peace now prevails. People are now enjoying their peace, thanks to the 2006 peace agreement between the LRA and the government that the two sides are yet to sign. Even as elections are around the corner there are no soldiers, no gun shots no fear.
I have never stopped to pray that this peace that is so evident today in Gulu shall never be robbed by any one. I still remember the deep pain I felt when I saw children walking for so long distances, and sleeping in verandas and pavements in the cold sometimes in the rain. Many children who were maimed, had their body parts mutilated, and forced into child motherhood at a tender age of as young as 13. (thirteen). Many were still being held in the bush while others had come back with babies they knew not how to take care of or even who their fathers were. Others had returned with psychological an physical wounds that still bite today five years after the relative peace came into place.