This is the fourth time I have visited Northern Uganda, and it is the fourth time I have been amazed by the lack of visual evidence of the trauma that was inflicted on the region by the LRA. There are no burned out buildings or large monuments erected to force remembrance or to honor those who suffered. There are no empty IDP camps that serve as ghost-town evidence because they tore down the camps when the LRA left to force people back into their villages. Yes, the LRA burned villages and destroyed homes. But mud brick and thatch roof easily slip away to simply become land, and dense tropical vegetation grows fast hiding what is left behind.
But the trauma just ended – the camps were emptied 2 and 3 years ago. There is something inside of me that wants something, some relic, to reconcile this reality with this place that flows with life and laughter. Sometimes my colleagues here talk as we drive or walk.
That school over there – that is a girls school where the LRA abducted all the girls and the nuns walked for days to get them back. This house, this yard, is where the LRA made a boy walk in circles endlessly after he had walked with a suitcase on his head for kilometers. They left him for dead, but he lived. That camp, it began at the wall of our compound and it went so far – it could house 10,000 people. There used to be two lines for them to use our hand pump. That teacher training school – in the middle of the night someone ran from door to door making noise because the LRA had come – we all ran to town and were safe. Do you remember the days when there were 20 people sleeping under one roof?
I was watching the team do a hand pump repair, and saw a building missing its roof and falling apart. It was the visual image of destruction, pain, and abandonment that I have been looking for. Then I found out it was just part of a former leprosy colony that no longer exists. A few of the other buildings have been absconded to be a nursery school, but this one was left to slowly deteriorate. And so my visual image is really that of a bygone era when leprosy was more common and treatment colonies were the norm. Not a word about the recent history of the region. Not one.
I was asked to lead a mini-workshop on storytelling last week and tonight sat down to read stories that were written by the handful of participants. The goal was simple: write one or two true stories. Make sure that you have included the critical parts of the story and describe three photos you would take to help tell the story. The purpose was to learn to write better stories for grants, reports, and fundraising.
I thought I would get stories about kids with diarrhea, wells being drilled, and latrines being dug. About a third were like that. The rest were heavier. Much heavier. Villages being raided for cattle followed by standing in a stream all night to save your life. A boy being orphaned and always being sick only to find out he has AIDS. But, he received treatment and help, so the future looks good. A friend being killed by the LRA. A story of struggling to forgive the man who tried to kill his mother. I asked for stories and that is what I received. While I am honored to have read these stories, I am thankful that this workshop contained only a handful of people because there is only so much heaviness I can handle in one night.
There are no visual reminders here that an outsider can understand. But the story is fully alive in people’s minds. The empty field tells of where the camp used to be. Buildings and trees and houses hold specific stories. No person was left untouched and each has a story. I am humbled to have been told a piece of a few stories. I think I am going to stop looking for that relic, that visual image. Maybe someday there will be a monument to honor those that suffered and died. Until then, the only thing I know to do to honor the living is to listen. No hunting for a photo to abstractly show the history and no prompting for a dramatic story – just listening to what is told. Maybe then these buildings and tress and houses will hold stories of the past for me too.