Uganda: Tragedy Hits Home
by Gordon Lewis
RETURNING to Uganda in early 2007 as part of the International Emergency Services team I expected to witness a fair amount of tragedy. What I didn’t expect was that the first tragedy would be very personal and that my first duty on arriving in Uganda would be to attend the funeral of a close friend.
Back in August 2004 I went to northern Uganda to commence a Salvation Army programme to assist the 1.6 million Ugandans who had fled their towns and villages and were residing in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs). Many camps had more than 30,000 inhabitants living in overcrowded, disease-ridden, temporary – but not temporary enough – conditions.
|International Emergency Services team member Damaris Frick with some of the Ugandan children who could benefit from the planned education projects|
|Gordon Lewis and Captain Davies Wafula, pictured in 2004 inspecting newly-dug latrines|
|The faded blackboard is the only sign that this wrecked building used to be a school |
|Lack of teachers and other facilities means children have to be crammed into classes|
|Damaris Frick and Ugandan Salvation Army team members speak to returning community members to discover their most pressing needs|
|The remains of a pit latrine, destroyed by the rebels|
For the next three months a Ugandan Salvation Army officer named Captain Davies B. Wafula and I shared an office, living accommodation, meals and devotional periods. We were thrown together and trusted to devise and manage programmes that would be instrumental in easing the suffering of large numbers of IDPs living in Lira District. In the event, we were to focus on the desperate education needs of the children, many born in the camps.
Following my departure from Uganda, and after a further brief period of support from International Emergency Services, Captain Wafula spent the next
two years managing a rapidly-expanding programme, funded by UNICEF and the United Kingdom Territory. It reached out with both compassion and excellent management to 26 IDP camps and especially to vulnerable children growing up in them. Captain Wafula became a symbol of what can be achieved by people of any background if they put their trust in God and use their God-given abilities.
Following an urgent plea from the United Nations for humanitarian organisations to look again at the plight of Ugandan IDPs, it was decided that International Emergency Services should send a new team of workers to Lira in 2007, building on the foundations laid by Captain Wafula and the Uganda Command leadership. The work would expand to assist the IDPs who were now returning to their homes but finding that everything had been laid waste.
On the day the new team of Jerry Larsen (USA), Major Robert Tuftstrom (Sweden), Damaris Frick (Germany) and I were due to fly out to Uganda we were told that Captain Wafula had been killed the night before in a tragic road accident, also involving two of his brothers. Our first task in Uganda was to attend the captain’s burial and to offer what comfort and support we could to his widow, Captain Peruth Wafula, and their four children.
This tragedy was not how we envisaged beginning our new assignment. However, it was perhaps a timely reminder that our deployments are about real tragedies and not about personal excitement. Particularly poignant for me was the reminder that in all tragedies real people suffer. Emergency relief workers sometimes need to understand this more clearly because we often cope with our work by recognising the suffering in terms of thousands of people rather than individuals.
Emergency deployments rely on flexibility and adaptability, so the team had to move forward and, while supporting Captain Wafula’s family in their grief, we also had to begin the task of not only continuing to manage the existing camp-based programmes but also beginning to deal with people returning to wrecked communities.
Preparing for this new phase of our work, I visited a range of locations which were the original homes of the Lira IDPs. Thousands of people had returned home already, many more would go home during the day but return to the safety of the camps to sleep, and the remainder, still numbered in many thousands, were not venturing anywhere near their home communities because of the fear that still exists about the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army.
To the north of Lira District I found roads that were no more than tracks. Driving down them took a great deal of faith and no little skill. There were water-harvesting tanks and school buildings that had been torched by the rebels and deliberately damaged water boreholes. Everything was overgrown and even relatively undamaged schools were in desperate need of maintenance. The traditional mud and thatched homes of the returning IDPs no longer existed and they all needed to be replaced in order to provide shelter.
One great tragedy in all this is that after all the efforts to address education needs through the provision of temporary schools in the camps, the region is nearly back to square one with respect to the education of the majority of its young population. I saw schools that exist as bricks and mortar, sometimes damaged and
on other occasions in a reasonable condition. However, whatever the condition, there is a great deal of work to be done in ensuring that these schools can function as before. The supply of teachers is chaotic. Accommodation is hard to come by so some have to travel unacceptable distances which means they teach for very little of the normal school day.
In the schools themselves books and furniture are scarce and school grounds are overgrown and even more dangerous than before. Sanitary facilities are either non-existent or in a deplorable condition. Even roads leading to the schools are overgrown.
There are numerous other challenges that face these fragile communities as they return to their lands. There is very little in the way of health facilities and those that exist are often not staffed. There is currently nothing in the way of community facilities or jobs outside of subsistence farming and few opportunites for young people, especially those who have missed most of their formal education.
Lack of access to clean water is always mentioned as a severe hindrance to normal living – the few boreholes that remain are damaged and produce a fraction of the water needed.
In addition to the obvious practical difficulties and shortages there are serious challenges for communities to face. Trust in the authorities and faith in the legal process are rare and, unless you have resources, resolving disputes is a lengthy and often futile activity. Additionally, the atrocities experienced and witnessed and the brutality of the rebels have had a traumatic effect on the local population. We met large numbers of people who showed a desperate need for personal and group counselling.
There are difficulties in supporting a population that has spent a considerable time living in IDP camps, where any ability for people to support themselves and their families was extremely limited. Communities have become institutionalised to an extent and have become dependent on others to provide for their basic needs. It has created a ‘hand-out’ mentality in many who have become dependent on various non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
This situation, though apparently simple to overcome in theory, is proving very difficult for many, especially as they do still need assistance and, in reality, the NGOs continue to have a role to play in the overall recovery process.
This then is the picture facing our team in Lira and one they are planning to tackle through a wide-ranging package of measures. The focus on education, which we have worked on in the camps for the past 30 months or so, is being expanded to consider the issues of health, vocational training for the educationally disadvantaged, community counselling and reconciliation where necessary and the provision of multi-purpose community facilities designed to hasten the healing process for a population damaged by years of brutal, vicious conflict.
To achieve this there needs to be considerable networking with the UN and other mainline funders as well as with other NGOs working in the area.
Initial assessments have indicated that the most positive way forward, and perhaps that which is most in keeping with Salvation Army traditions, will be to select a couple of communities we can work with closely, seeking to identify their specific needs and enabling them, as far as is possible, to provide their own solutions.
Once this type of support can be offered and tested in a couple of communities, it is hoped that we will source funding to roll out the approach in other Lira parishes. This will offer the best possibility of providing the war-torn and damaged communities with an all-encompassing support that embraces as many aspects of their needs – body and soul – as possible.
Gordon Lewis works for The Salvation Army’s International Emergency Services