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Finding a voice in northern Uganda

Uganda, September 27, 2009

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Once christened as “The Pearl of Africa” by Winston Churchill, Uganda was once seen as a success story in Africa. However, more than 20 years of warring between two groups — the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and government-supported Uganda People's Defense Force (UPDF) — wreaked havoc over the land and its people, debilitating several generations born and raised in refugee camps, and causing a once-beaming nation to fade from sight.

Yet, along the same fault lines that once divided communities across northern Uganda, hope is beginning to surface in regions that are home to both the Acholi and Karamojong ethnic groups. It is here that the formation of “peace committees,” piloted by the Pader Peace Program (PPP), has fallen on fertile ground. It’s in these areas that people who were once bruised by conflict and battered by neglect now seem open to engaging in collaborative dialogue that allows them voice and access to power that few of their fellow Ugandans have ever known.

Much of northern Uganda was previously under LRA occupation and, during that time, human rights abuses such as killings and mutilations were frequented upon the civilian population as a method of deterrence from speaking out against injustice. But now, in this post-conflict Uganda through the peace committees that have taken shape, Mercy Corps is stepping forward to champion one of its core beliefs: to empower people to “stand on their own and live in dignity.”

With or without a formal peace agreement, the people of Uganda are becoming change agents and creating the change that they desire.

This is being achieved on several levels, from all areas of civil society — including those most vulnerable such as women, former child soldiers and the growing population of young Karamojong men known as the karachuna. It is through empowering marginalized groups like these that the capacity to mitigate conflict improves.

From conflicts that arise between neighboring communities, such as cattle wrangling and land disputes, to community-based issues like domestic disputes, the problems are discussed by all stakeholders — large and small —with the hopes that solutions will develop that are home-grown and sustainable. Resolution is not always achieved, but the practice of true empowerment has its benefits. The payoff is beginning to become apparent.

Through trust building and the forging of improved relationships, peace is no longer a utopian dream, but something that is becoming more in reach.

Today’s field visit to the village of Nakaplemoru is to facilitate the formation of one of these peace committees. As I sit waiting in the shade of a tree, I gaze out amongst the crowd that has already settled into their places. The circle is beginning to take shape and more people are slowly arriving.

Some are elders and some are women. There are karachunas and many children sitting quietly in a group to the side. As I study the faces of the crowd, I search for clues as to what they are thinking or feeling. There are a mix of expressions, some poised, some stern, some curious and some just plain tired.

There is also a definite sense of anticipation in the air from both community members and PPP field workers who will be working together in this venture. Both want success and, as the last people take their places, a prayer opens the meeting followed by greetings. "Maata” is bellowed out as each person stands and makes their introduction. This is the customary way to greet in this area of the Karamojong.

In this particular meeting, 11 peace committee members are chosen. There are rules to picking members, which encourages diversity and discourages marginalization of those who may not culturally be accepted as leaders or power holders.

The process may not be without challenges, and at times spoilers may attempt to delay peace, but one thing is for certain: the people of northern Uganda are once again finding their voice, and using it.

Maybe…just maybe…true peace and reconciliation in northern Uganda is on the horizon.