The civil war in Uganda lasted more than two decades from the 1980s into the early 21st century. The conflict between the government and rebels displaced over 1.5 million of Uganda’s 37 million inhabitants into internally displaced people’s (IDP) camps. However, the burden of the conflict was not spread evenly throughout the country. Instead it was concentrated in the North, wreaking havoc on the lives of many like the Acholi people here in Gulu.
The official conflict ended in the late ‘00s, and since then the international aid community has lost interest as the region has moved from a post conflict crisis zone to one in the midst of rebuilding and resettlement. As the foreign money and energy has begun to dry up, the legacy of the conflict remains unavoidable as it permeates most aspects of life in Northern Uganda.
After two years of working with GWED-G from back home at Columbia, I thought I had a rough picture of the conflict and its impact, however, after a week here in the field listening to stories from Pamela (the Executive Director of GWED-G, and an all-around powerful source of inspiration and knowledge), it’s clear that my tenuous understanding of the conflict didn’t even begin to scratch the surface.
Characterized by omnipresent insecurity and large-scale displacement, the conflict itself was immensely complex and trying to reduce it to digestible facts or simple narratives is an injustice to those who experienced it and a disservice to those trying to understand it (I encourage anyone interested to actively seek out recollections of the conflict with a critical eye to whose story is being told). It, however, remains important to relay the sheer scope of its impact on Northern Uganda to this day. While the conflict has a role to play in understanding almost every aspect of life in Northern Uganda to this day, my conversations here have led me to focus looking at the legacy of conflict on family life, land, education, and the economy.
The conflict forced 1.5 million Northern Ugandans into IDP camps, many for two whole decades. Life in these camps has had an undeniable effect on post conflict society in terms of gender relations, family structure, land ownership, and disease prevalence.
The quality of life in the camps was poor, and economic opportunities were few. The lack of employment created extended periods of idleness and a pervasive sense of helplessness. This situation often led men to perpetrate acts of gender-based violence (GBV) as an outlet for their sheer frustration, and a mechanism to exert power over one aspect of their lives. While gender based violence in Uganda did not originate with the conflict, the insecurity increased many of the factors that contribute to GBV. To this day, years after the conflict has ended, many of these factors still exist outside of life in the camps, including the lack of economic opportunities.
In addition to the disruption of family life in the camp, sexual assault and the birth of illegitimate children as a result has torn at the fibers of the traditional Ugandan family. The current generation of young adults in Northern Uganda is one of children of conflict, without many of the traditional family structures to support them.
Land- What has come up above all else in my conversations with Pam and the GWED-G staff is the issue of land. Before the conflict this region of Northern Uganda operated with customary law over the land. Each clan or family had a plot of land that was open and available for use by the family to cultivate and lived upon. Land was passed down generation to generation, without official documentation. With the conflict and displacement, this land was left vacant. When it came time for resettlement, much of the land had been claimed, seized, or reappropriated. With the death of many elders and the lack of an established land ownership documentation system, there were few authorities remaining who could arbitrate land disputes. Even several years after the conflict, as the population resettles outside of the IDP camps, these land wrangles and disputes persist and continue to cause economic disruption. Without land to cultivate or a strong educational background, many Northern Ugandans are left with few opportunities to generate income. The lack of access to economic opportunities deepens the poverty and inequality within the country.
Education- During the conflict the education system of Northern Uganda was decimated. Most parents pulled their children out of school because the concentrated groups of students were frequent targets of LRA raids and abductions. Pamela has told us stories of the large-scale abductions that occurred while she was in school, and how she was spared by a stroke of fortunate timing. The teachers and nuns often hid the girls in the ceiling boards, and an errant cough could be enough to tip off the rebels to their location.
Because the insecurity prevented access, the current generation in Uganda in its prime economic productivity years missed the opportunity to get an education. Those that were fortunate enough to remain in school were forced to sit for exams and compete for university acceptance and scholarships with southern children living with the luxury of studying without the constant threat of insecurity. With the large part of a generation lacking an education, the Northern Ugandan labor market is not currently well equipped to fill emerging high skilled opportunities. Instead it is the people from Kampala and the South that come to the North and take the higher salary positions. While Northern Uganda is rich in natural resources, the conflict has stripped the community of much of the capacity to capitalize on these resources, leaving a vacuum, which the South has risen up to exploit. The lack of education attainment or investment in the future of the education infrastructure overall ensures that the regional inequality fueled by the conflict will persist.
Economy– A two decade long conflict has, of course, a direct impact on the economic performance of a country. The omnipresent insecurity and violence led to the destruction of resources and a lack of investment in future economic ventures. As mentioned before, the issues of land ownership and access have disrupted agriculture, the sector which employs over 80% of Northern Ugandans. The continued disputes over land trigger a continuous cycle of economic insecurity and poverty. Outside of the more direct effects of conflict on the economy there are also more nuanced disturbances that have come as a result.
One of these less obvious disturbances is the economic influence of Western aid workers. Because of the complex humanitarian emergency that persisted for over two decades, there was an influx of aid workers from around the world. While the work done by these professionals has been crucial important in filling many of the gaps left by the conflict, their presence has also led to some unintended negative consequences.
According to Pam, Gulu is one of the most international cities in Uganda, and by far the most friendly to foreigners. She recounted that in a recent census there were more than 5000 whites living in the district with around 400,000 people. Along with the positive impact of the aid they have provided, these new residents have also driven up prices in local markets, and disrupted the natural flow of the economy. The influx of these foreigners also created a situation in which rebuilding was driven by the philosophies of international interveners who were focused on short-term solutions. As these foreigners begin to withdraw from Uganda, the capacity and local infrastructure to continue this rebuilding process is burdened by the sheer size of the work left to be done.
These three highlights again can’t do justice to the people here and the stories I have heard from Pamela and others about the current state of Northern Uganda. It is important to me that I continue to actively seek a deeper understanding of how the conflict unfolded and how life in the camps changed the projection of the nation, the nature and incidence of disease in the country, left many of the survivors traumatized or disabled, and took the lives of tens of thousands of individuals. The memories and legacy of conflict are everywhere: they permeate familial, societal, and economic relationships.
The international community is losing interest in the situation as Uganda takes steps in time past this horrifying period, but while the fighting may have stopped and the crisis dulled, ahead lies a path full of obstacles deeply rooted in the conflict. The legacy of conflict is everywhere and any responsible intervention must move forward with an understanding of the past and its effect on the present situation.