We drive north to Fort Baker. Abitimo is anxious to show us the sights—and there aren’t that many to show in this war ravaged land. We bump over dirt roads for an hour then pull up in the little yard of one of the brick storefronts that are so common here: one story, with a façade that reminds me of the Alamo, or the old frontier towns, and a corrugated steel or cloth awning to provide shade in front for whatever business is being done. These and the little round mud-plastered brick houses with conical thatched roofs that are the traditional houses are the only kinds of buildings that we see in the north. This is where we pick up our guide.

The fort is nearby. It was built on an outcropping of rock, unusual in this flat land, that had certainly been used for defense over the ages. Our guide’s story starts with the Arab slave traders of the mid-1800’s, who came down the Nile from the Sudan to work this profitable trade. The heroes are the British, Sir Samuel Baker in particular, who drove the Arabs out in 1872. We get a detailed tour—of the out-buildings, restored by the dictator Idi Amin in the 1970’s, of the moat, the storage areas, places where the slaves were herded, sorted, made to sleep, the bloody horror stories of how and where those who were unfit or troublesome were slaughtered.

I’m distracted by the sun. I burn so easily, it’s midday, and there’s not a cloud in this bright equatorial sky. Each time we come to a new place and pause for the next chapter, my first thought goes to where I can find a bit of shade—a tree, or an overhanging rock that I can crouch beneath.

I’m also distracted by what I’ve been reading on the colonial history of this area. One author has mentioned the Arab slavers and Sir Samuel Baker. He identifies the former as a scourge, but points out somewhat acidly that after chasing them out, Baker set up an administrative system under Egyptian rule, that was equally as harsh and oppressive to the local population.

I am touched by the earnestness of this guide. In a country without a traditional written language, stone building materials or metal implements, history can feel elusive. It’s easy to see how something as concrete as this pile of rock and a record of what happened here 150 years ago has value to him. And I’m made acutely aware, once again, of the bias against the north in the national government since the 1980’s. This site has had no government support. Rather, it is the local district, reeling from war and with hardly any resources to call its own, that has taken on itself to preserve and tend to this bit of Uganda’s history.

But the glorification of the British sticks in my throat. Having them as the heroes seems to just add weight to the myth of the white man’s burden, to the lost glory and goodness of the days when Britain ruled the world. I’m willing to give local pride in Fort Baker its due, and always ready to condemn slavery, but I stand firm in my anti-colonial point of view.

Later in our stay I have the opportunity to read more East African history. The expanse and nature of the Arab slave trade of the 1800’s is laid out in more detail. It is a chilling story. As an American, everything I had learned about slavery focused on the West African coast, and the Atlantic slave trade. Yet that of the East African coast was equally extensive, cold-blooded and devastating. Villages were burned to the ground and all the inhabitants enslaved, with high percentages dying on the grueling trip to the coast. Merchant ships from France and the Arab countries made enormous profits from this trade, and slavers penetrated ever more deeply into the interior (with this part of what is now Uganda being among the latest to be reached). As far as I can tell from what I read, Britain actually seems to have played a principled role through diplomatic and economic pressure, in standing against and slowing this process.

The alternative in East Africa in the late 1800’s was not between European colonialism and indigenous self rule. Somebody was going to take advantage of these small loosely-organized communities without modern arms. The alternative was between European colonialism, with all the consequences we know, and increasing dominance by powerful Arab forces, the consequences of which we can only imagine. I am humbled, my easy ill-informed prejudice exposed.

I think back to our trip to Fort Baker. We look out from this pile of rock to two even bigger hills on either side. On a clear day, our guide says, you can see all the way north to the Sudan. The rebels used this place as a lookout, till the government realized its strategic importance and flushed them out. At this point it is peaceful. Looking the other way, we can see the cluster of round huts of the IDP camp, then empty land stretching all around. On the trip up we saw signs of people beginning to move back—piles of fresh thatch by the roadside, a few new foundations.

History has been hard here. There have been many oppressors, few heroes. Perhaps this very lack of heroes can be of use. My heart goes out to these people who are not interested in winning wars, having dominion over others, or wielding power. They know the cost. They are interested in cultivating their land, and living at peace.

The Legacy of Wars; The Challenges of Livelihood

The effects of war here are not the strong visuals we’ve come to expect from the media: the charred wreckage of buildings, tanks and overturned military vehicles by the side of the road, twisted metal, gaping craters. It is what can’t be seen here that is the most telling sign: mango trees dotting the countryside with no little round house underneath. This very emptiness is the heartbreak: over two million people who depend on the land forced to leave, cut off from their means of livelihood.

Some have tried to stay on the land, but the soldiers want them out of the countryside, so they can be free to shoot anything that moves, and the rebels have roamed freely, coming in the night to abduct children for their army. Others have tried to continue to farm their land from the IDP camps, but with military restrictions on the camps, they have limited freedom to move, limited hours to get to their fields and back. (Even in town, life is still organized so that people can get home before dark.) Much of the good land in northern Uganda has been lying fallow for twenty years—and a congested, relief-based, idle, vice-ridden camp life has taken its place.

Some people have moved out of the region entirely, to areas south of the Nile where the rebels were not able to penetrate. They congregate in hastily constructed buildings lining the side of the road, trying to scrape by. It was startling, when we traveled south and east, out of the civil war zone, to see little houses scattered around the countryside, and see people pursuing their normal everyday work. What a contrast to the vast emptiness of the north, punctuated at long intervals by the clogged mass of huts of one of the camps.

The only growing sector of the economy in the north is the NGO sector, the non-governmental organizations that have sprung up in the region in response to growing international awareness of the humanitarian crisis of the civil war. They say there are 300 NGOs in Gulu town alone. Almost all the vehicles in town, aside from the ever-present motorcycle taxis, or bodabodas, are NGO cars—big powerful white 4-wheel drives. The neighborhood we live in is full of NGOs. It used to be a wealthy part of town—there was even a golf course for the white folks, Abitimo says. But the well-to-do had the option of leaving when security broke down, and most of the buildings have been taken over by NGOs: UNICEF, UN High Commission on Refugees, groups working on malaria reduction, child health and welfare, vocational training, rehabilitation, microfinance.

The big old buildings and occasional NGO cars are the only sign of the wealth that used to be here. It took me a few days of walking to realize that some of these back roads used to be paved, back in the time when money was spent on infrastructure. There is still a ragged dusty strip of pot-holed macadam in the middle, but the sides have worn steadily away. (Thoughtful pedestrians walk down the middle of such a road, since cars are a rarity, and the bodaboda boys prefer the relative smoothness of the dirt at the edge.) Another eerie reminder of a more affluent past is the set of two-story western-looking buildings with satellite dishes sticking out the sides that used to house military families. After no maintenance for twenty years, they look like the worst of our public housing.

Many of the enterprising young Ugandans we have met are working with the NGOs. While lots of good work is being done, we wonder at some of these outfits. The skill of some seems to be more in raising money by pulling heartstrings at home than in tapping into the local community infrastructure to spend it usefully here. The NGO sector has the feeling of a boom town, sprung up quickly in response to unusual circumstances, liable to sudden collapse. I worry about what other work the bright and dedicated young people we’ve met will find when the crisis is over and the NGOs go home.

Then there is the question of livelihood for ex-soldiers. From the beginning of colonial history, this region was seen as backward, and identified as a source of migrant labor and army recruits. The ethnic groups of the more highly centralized kingdoms of the south, in contrast, were groomed to run the machinery of colonial administration and rise in its ranks. So Acholi men served in great numbers in World War II, and through a series of ethnically-charged coups and counter-revolutions, thousands of career soldiers from the north had periods of power and times of being on the losing side. Since the Acholi have been out of favor with the central government since the mid 1980’s, these ex-soldiers have been seen as the enemy. What do such people, used to money and power and coercion, do when they return home unemployed? They violate the local population and foment civil unrest.

The Holy Spirit Movement of the mid 1980’s was a creative indigenous response to this crisis in northern Uganda. Through a tradition of spirit mediums, Alice Lakwena raised an army to fight a holy Christian war against the twin evils of predatory soldiers in the north and an oppressive government in the south. Her plan, or the plan of the spirit Lakwena who spoke through her, was to purify the soldiers and send them into battle without intentional killing, believing that the pure ones (on either side) would be protected. While the Holy Spirit Movement was ultimately wiped out, it had many unlikely successes. It can also be credited with a rigorous morality for its troops, and an equally rigorous protocol of treating civilians fairly and with respect. Westerners can easily scoff, dismissing the whole movement as a bunch of charlatanism and magical nonsense, but the goodness of the intention, in the face of a very real problem, shines through.

Abitimo has her own story to tell about idle and violent returned soldiers. A little later than the Holy Spirit Movement, some of these men were causing trouble in the Gulu district, attacking women as they walked to town, stripping them naked, taking their things. She gathered some women together to speak out against these attacks, carried out by people in families that they knew. These women gathered others and organized a big march through town, calling out the names of those involved. Evidently the negative publicity was sufficiently unwelcome that the attacks stopped.

But it was a small victory. Northern Uganda is facing an even more challenging situation now, with the return of child soldiers, taken when they were young, many forced to kill or be killed, spending years in the bush before escaping or being returned. Some of the young men that I spoke with said that it really made a difference how long they were in the bush. If it was just two or three years, and they were still young, you could get them back, but after eight or ten, it was a real struggle. One guy said that a friend of his, who had been in the bush for eight years returned and tried to make it back in the village. But he had been badly damaged, and was so stigmatized and targeted for what he had done that he ended up going back to the bush. There are thousands of returned child soldiers who have gone through a rehabilitation process, but still bring significant residual trauma back to the families and camps and villages to which they return. Several thousand more are still in the bush, the questionable attraction of civilian life not great enough to lure them back.

We have our own issues in the US. The armed forces are being heavily promoted to young people with few other prospects for livelihood. And we have yet to get our minds and hearts around the human costs, not only of the waging of war, but of the trauma and violence that our returning soldiers are bringing home.