Sunday, June 20, 2010


Gulu has gone nuts for the World Cup. The colour and sounds of football in South Africa have made their way here, including the vuvuzelas that are blasted in front of tiny tv screens and by people walking down the street. Strangely when you ask anyone which team are supporting they will say England, Spain or Argentina, yet when the games are being played they are shouting and dancing for their continental brothers in Ghana, Ivory Coast and SA.

The joy, unity and community of football stands in stark contrast to the brutal violence that tore this place apart and the trauma that still bubbles under the surface. We could never have imagined the breadth and depth of trauma that we would find in the children in the school we are working at. It is the combination of this normality with the depravity of their past that is difficult to process in our own thoughts. These children, in their neat uniforms, banter and laugh as they kick around a football or rugby ball like children in every playground in the world. Yet their stories reveal a previous life of such wicked violence that cannot be easily conveyed. Inhumane, evil, demonic, sadistic are words that are not powerful enough to describe the actions of the LRA and the suffering of these kids.

I have been torn over whether to document the children’s stories on this blog. The details are extremely disturbing and macabre. While the children want their stories to be heard the sheer scale of the conflict and the horrific details have often meant that they have been simply told to forget the past and move on. However this is often not possible. The suppression of these memories has resulted in nightmares, flashbacks and the other symptoms associated w
ith PTSD. This war, like so many in Africa, was ignored by the world. The illusion of a prosperous and peaceful Uganda was conveniently conveyed in order to allow the aid to continue flowing into the hands of a corrupt government. The stories of 30,000 child soldiers were ignored.

So below I have pasted Paul's writing about some of the kids he has met this week. Their words were spoken directly to him and translated by a local counsellor who is assisting. They are disturbing so you may not wish to read any further. However these experiences have been the reality of life for thousands of people in Northern Uganda.


I pray that this new generation of Acholi will never have to live the lives of their older brothers and sisters

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Children of War

Laroo Boarding School for War Affected Children is home to some of the most traumatised children in the world. We are screening all of the children in P5,6,7 and vocational with a view to determining how best to help these children. This numbers around 300 children all of whom were abducted by the LRA or in other ways directly affected by them.

The children have witnessed
killing, rape, dead bodies and body parts, beatings and assaults, looting, houses being torched, ambushes, abductions, severe hunger and mutilation of ears, eyes, noses and breasts. Some of the children have stated that they experienced every one of these atrocities. Many have had these directly inflicted on them. Others have been forced to to inflict these on others.

Almost every child we have asked so far has seen a family member or close friend killed. The LRA abducted children from the age of 7. Often they would force these children to kill their own father and mother. They did so to ensure that the children wo
uld not try to escape home. From this early age young boys were brainwashed and beaten until they became desensitised to killing. The favourite words of rebel leaders were 'kill or be killed'. Often this involved killing their own best friends. The young girls were served out as rewards to LRA commanders and became their porters and sex slaves.

When the school opened in 2006, 14 girls fell pregnant in the first year. Many of the former boy soldiers that had been born in with the rebels knew nothing else than simply taking whatever girl they wanted. We were told about one of the girls that had been born in captivity to a rebel father and abducted mother. Every night the girl would run away from the boarding school to sleep under the stars in a bush or under a pile of gathered firewood. Sleeping indoors in a school dormitory with other girls her age was just too scary for a child born in the bush and accustomed to life on the run with the rebels.

These children ha
ve seen more death and brutality in their early years with the rebels than most soldiers witness in a life-time in the army. Although we still have many children to measure it is becoming clear that many (perhaps the majority) are suffering from clinically significant levels of PTSD, anxiety and depression. Even four years after the war has ended many children state that they are still suffering constant flashbacks and nightmares. Many state that they do not have a future and do not care whether they live or die.

In the evening
s we put are putting all of the data into our computers. This is long and tedious process. The children's symptoms become numbers and thoughts and feelings become statistics. This is toughest part of the project. The sheer scale of pain is difficult to comprehend and truly feel. When we are in the school it can seem so normal. The uniforms, desks and sound of infectious laughter from the playground. But the physical and psychological scars of war are evident. While some of the children's eyes glisten with hope, many are empty and lifeless. I try to look into their eyes and fully understand their pain. I try to travel vicariously with them to the life that they have lived, the atrocities that they have seen, the guilt and shame that they carry. But I can't.

The saddest part is that these are only 300 of the estimated 30,000 children that were abducted in Northern Uganda. Most of the other Acholi people (1.8 million) were forced by the government at gunpoint into IDP death camps. At the time the world did not know it was happening, or simply ignored it. UN High Commissioner Jan Egland called the situation 'the world's most forgotten humanitarian disaster'. But the war is over here for now. The
NGOs have arrived. Joseph Kony and his LRA have moved into Congo and Sudan and the whole mess is repeating itself there.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010


While there is resilience there is pain and trauma everywhere. At times I wish that I had just come to document the stories that people share with us over a meal or a drink. Stories of abduction, escape, injury or lost family and friends. It is difficult to imagine what many of these people have seen and experienced. As a local doctor stated today the aftermath of war is tougher than the war itself. Trauma paralyses as does years of being forced to live in the IDP camps totally reliant on western aid.

Belief in the role of spirits in this conflict is espoused by everyone who gives their version of events. From village pastors, teachers, highly educated psychotherapists and researchers, everyone believes that Kony is guided by spirits and that the fields of the land are haunted by the spirits of the bones that were unburied. We

have asked many if whether it was a religious or political war but the two seem so intimately entwined it is impossible to separate the strands. The brutal role of the government and the army in the persecution of the Acholi is whispered in every conversat

ion. There is a willingness but a nervousness in talking openly indicating that these people still feel under threat.

It is storm season here. The storms are beautiful. Distant skys all around are lit up with lightening like a war zone. The air becomes heavy with static before unleashing torrential rain and turning streets into rivers. Paul’s room was flooded with 2 inches of water which enabled us to get upgraded rooms at half the price! Electricity and water (in spite of floods) are sporadic which adds to the interest of academic work in Africa.

We are working late on our questionnaires before starting work with the children. We've meeting with people to decide on culturally appropriate issues to look at. Questions have been formed from our research combined with discussions with local professionals and lay people. These then need to be translated to Luo (numerous times), back-translated, validated in a focus group and piloted with a few children before we start working with the school. The language here is Luo but there are so many variations it seems everyone speaks their own language. This is making the translation process long and tedious. Its important though as we want to measure the things that are an issue for the people here not people in the West, and therefore can plan appropriate interventions.

I’m conscious that it’s easy to romanticise working in a place when we've only been here a couple of weeks but it feels like life to the full.

ps I washed my own clothes for the first time and they came out smelling worse that they went in. Any suggestions??

Thursday, June 03, 2010


Not sure if the blogging idea is going to work out due lack of internet and the business of the life here that I want to experience every minute of. Anyway our first week has involved 2 nights in Kampala, 3 in Gulu and 1 in Lira. We’re back in Gulu now to stay, which is great. Feel more alive here than I have in a long time.

This is my 6th trip to Africa but the first to work. I had always dreamed that the first time I came here to work it would be with a my beautiful wife that would be admired by all the africans....Instead I'm with this red-headed lad from Dublin! He's great craic and smarter than me so all good.

We're staying at Jojo’s palace which is far from a palace but is cheap. I'm becoming an expert at showering from a jerry can. We’re right in the middle of the town and hence the people here which is amazing. Living close, traveling, eating and shopping like the locals has already resulted in conversations and relationships both with the Acholi and the plethora of NGOs that are based here.

Pastor Felix (proudly sporting his norn iron top) has joined forces with us and is determined to be our guide/spokesman/story-teller/pastor/friend. This week has involved meetings and conversations with people in schools, lecturer at the university, UNICEF, the district officer and others.

We have decided on the place (Laroo Boarding School for war-affected children) and the aspects of our research. This week will be spent building relationships in the school as well as forming focus groups to discuss and translate our questionnaires and gain cultural validity and reliability. This involves a great deal of ‘psychobabble’ which is not of much interest to anyone reading this but will hopefully be of help to the children and the school.

It isn’t difficult to find people here that have been affected by the war….everyone has. These people have seen, been afflicted by and at times become the worst of humanity. Murder, rape, mutilation, slavery, sacrifice and child abuse were once daily threats. However the best of the human spirit can be found here also. Everyone here who has not been war-affected seems to be working with the war-affected. There are so many charities and NGOs doing great work at great cost but there seems to be frustration at the lack of cohesion and the fact that things are not really improving.

In a month you could write a book of stories about the situation here that would be stranger and more graphic that the imagination of any fiction writer. As with Palestine, living with the people reveals a story which is so different than its portrayal in the media and the safety of other parts of the country. The situation is full of such deep spiritual, political and tribal complexities that it cannot be explained by the simple notion of the madman Joseph Kony and an army of child soldiers. The vitriol of most people is reserved not for Kony and the LRA but for Museveni and his government’s army who have persecuted these people, inflicted many of the same atrocities as the LRA and forced 1.8 million people to live in squalor and dependency in the disease and death-infested IDP camps.

The spiritual pervades every aspect of life here. A curious blend of Catholicism, Evangelicalism, Islam and traditional beliefs pervade every aspect of life. Spirits ('jok') are lie underneath the surface of every story. Kony isn't seen as mad or bad by many but simply being involuntarily controlled by spirits. Pastor Felix speaks of bones and trees talking to people as normally as talking about his family or church. He is amused by our surprise.

No war is simple but this one is particularly complex with roots stretching back from British colonialism, through the brutality of Idi Amin, Museveni and Kony, to the current status quo. The very fabric of this society has been torn to shreds and stitched back together so many times it is hard to determine how any clothes can ever fit. But the people are tired of war and suffering. There is no frame of reference in the western world for the resilience of the people here. They are the survivors. While we came to look for trauma, depression, anxiety our early observations and conversations have been infused with perseverance, resiliance and hope.