The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) is a rebel group that has operated in Uganda, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Led by Joseph Kony, the LRA began a guerilla war in northern Uganda in 1986 with the intention of overthrowing the government. The LRA routinely recruited and kidnapped children in the north to use as child soldiers in the campaign. About 90% of the LRA troops were abducted as children. Although active fighting has ceased since 2006 (the LRA is still active in other countries), the physical, emotional, and psychological affects of the war still permeate the culture in northern Uganda. There are still about 1 million people living in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps, unable to return to their homes.
Peace Camp brought together 80 youth aged 15-19 from four tribes most affected by the conflict in the north: Acholi, Langi, Iteso, and Alur. Being from the southeast of Uganda, I had learned little about the LRA and the conflict other than what I learned from training and my own research. I could not truly understand the impact or the tribal distinctions until I witnessed the interactions among the campers. The campers were placed into camper groups of 10, and each group included a mixture of the 4 tribes, in an effort to encourage understanding and forgiveness between them. The conflict has long been thought of as a war waged by the Acholi and has often had undertones of Acholi nationalism, leaving many of the people of other tribes resentful and angry towards the Acholi as a tribe, so it was important to address this issue throughout the week.
I was a counselor for one of the camper groups, and did my best to foster a safe and comfortable environment for my campers to share and come to terms with their experiences. These people are truly amazing and strong individuals who have overcome horrendous obstacles in their life. For example, I will share an anonymous story of a camper from their camp application. This boy was forced by the LRA to kill his mother with a machete, being told that if he didn't, both of them would be killed. After being freed from the LRA and returning to his village, he was hoping for support by his neighbors and friends for what he had to go through. Instead, all he received was harsh judgement by people who refused to understand how he could have committed such an act, even under pain of death. This young man demonstrated the amazing strength needed to accept his past and seek help from others. He attended Peace Camp seeking skills to forgive and accept the perpetrators of his hellish past, and he plans to return to his village and teach others the skills he has learned. This is just one story, but I have so much admiration for all the camp participants and all the survivors of the LRA's terror.
|Peace Camp 2011|
My group came up with their name themselves: the Black Africans. At first, the wanted to be the Black Americans, but I politely vetoed that idea. All week, I had to get my group's attention by yelling BLACK AFRICANS!! Very strange!
|Our first group meeting of the Black Africans.|
A conflict resolution group from Gulu called Breakdancers for Peace helped open the camp:
|Breakdancers for Peace|
|Our morning assembly - it felt like a real "camp!"|
A participatory theatre group from Kampala called Rafiki theater performed about domestic violence and allowed campers to play the roles of the characters and act out alternative solutions to the conflicts.
|Enjoying some down time|
|A meeting of the Black Africans!|
During the week, we traveled to the Recreation Project, a ropes course established in Gulu by trained psychologists to create a fun and hands-on environment for people to overcome their fears and learn about the importance of teamwork.
|All of us learning about the importance of teamwork|
My group had to work as a team to re-arrange themselves on this log in alphabetical order without falling off!
The culminating experience at the Recreation Project was the zip line. As most of you know, I'm afraid of heights, but after seeing my courageous campers tackle this fear, and after receiving so much support and encouragement from them, I had to give it a try! As I was flying through the air, my campers were running along side me on the ground so that they could great me at the end, hug me, and tell me how proud they were of me. Pretty fabulous :)
|Getting ready to jump off!|
|The Black Africans!|
Each tribe performed a traditional dance from their culture for the rest of the camp and for their own tribal leaders. The campers really got into the performances and were really proud to teach their peers about their culture.
Our brand new Peace Corps country director even came to visit!
|The Peace Camp staff joined by our new Peace Corps country director!|
|Each camper signed a Peace Camp banner|
Each evening, we had nightly rituals to wrap up the experiences of the day.
|A candlelight remembrance ceremony|
Each camper was assigned a peace friend, and they made an art project for their friend with a peace message. Campers also sought out their peace friends to do something nice for them during the week.
|Peace messages made by campers|
At the end of the camp, each group performed about what they learned about peace throughout the week. My group performed some songs and a skit about forgiveness.
|Performing a skit|
|Campers planted trees and created a Peace Garden|
Most importantly, campers had fun! Here's a camper showing off her dance skills to one of the PCVs who organized the camp:
For those of you who are interested in learning more about the conflict in northern Uganda, I recommend that you watch War Dance, a documentary that showcases stories from students in a refugee camp in northern Uganda and their journey to the National Music Competition. There, for the first time, they got to, demonstrate to the rest of the country the tribal culture of the Acholi people. It is a really powerful movie. We showed it to the campers the first night at camp, and though it was difficult for some participants to watch, they said it was empowering to hear others' stories and watch them succeed in Kampala.