Cecilia: A Harvest of Hope


November 9, 2006

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

Ogonyo Camp, Uganda - Cecilia Lamunu remembers life before the war. As she sits inside her tiny mud hut and lights a kerosene lamp against the coming darkness, you can see the past flickering in her eyes.

Twenty years ago, she was a 28-year-old mother of six children - four boys and two girls - living with her husband near the village of Apuu Kampala. Like others from northern Uganda's Acholi ethnic group, Lamunu's family lived close to the land. They drew their sustenance and livelihood from their small family farm, just like generations before them.

It wasn't an easy life, she recalls, raising a family while tending crops like cassava and groundnuts. But it was an honest, hardworking life that she knew - and loved. There were sometimes bad harvests that made things more challenging, but Cecilia Lamunu always knew things would eventually get better.

All of that changed one night.

A mother's pain

As Lamunu, her husband and children slept inside their family home, rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) - a marauding group that's been terrorizing northern Uganda since 1986 - attacked the nearby village of Apuu Kampala.

Lamunu awoke to the horrifying noise of gunfire and screaming, and immediately knew what was happening - and what she had to do.

"I told all my children that they had to run - as fast as they could - away from the racket and into the bush," she recollects. "As they ran away, I didn't know if I'd ever see them again."

Soon afterward, a group of LRA rebels found their way to the Lamunu household. They broke down the door and dragged both Lamunu and her husband out into the shadowy darkness.

"They demanded to know where our children were," she says. "We refused to tell them, so they beat us and kicked us until we were unconscious."

When she finally awoke, bloodied and bruised with broken bones, her worst nightmare was realized: two of her sons, aged 11 and 13, had been abducted. They had become two of the newest forced recruits of the LRA, two of more than 20,000 children abducted during the 20-year conflict.

She spent the days to come in a frenzy of fear, will to protect her family and, of course, searching for her lost sons. And then, when things didn't seem like they could grow any more bleak for Cecilia Lamunu, her husband died from the injuries he sustained during the rebel raid on their home.

So, with heaviness of heart and uncertainty of what the future held, she left the home and life she'd made in Apuu Kampala. With her remaining children at her side and carrying a few scant belongings, Lamunu set off on a long, painful walk to a place where she'd have to trade the life she knew for safety from the LRA.

The "mother camp"

The Puranga displacement camp, situated several miles from Apuu Kampala, is the antithesis of the traditional Acholi way of life: rather than the rural tranquility of a family farm, there are hundreds of tiny huts crammed within five feet of each other. Instead of verdant crop fields and grasslands, there is bare mud gashed by open sewers.

And, with thousands of families crowded onto just a few acres of land, there is no land to farm.

Camps like Puranga, established by the Ugandan government, were meant to be temporary solutions to provide strength in numbers and protect Acholi families from random, brutal LRA attacks like the one Lamunu suffered. Instead, these camps - and the families within them - have now languished for nearly two decades. The camps are plagued with problems - poor sanitation, lack of jobs and no schools, to name just a few.

Perhaps the biggest indignity to the Acholi people, though, is being forced to subsist on donated food rations. Farmers like Cecilia Lamunu, once proud of their self-sufficiency, must now to accept handouts to feed their families.

Lamunu's time in the Puranga camp - called the "mother camp" by local families - was plagued by lingering health problems from the injuries she suffered in the LRA attack. She thought constantly of her sons.

"Not a moment went by that I didn't wonder where they were," she says, "or if they were even still alive."

Two years after that terrible night in Apuu Kampala, however, one of her sons came to find her in the camp. He'd somehow escaped the LRA's clutches. A year after that, her other son returned, too.

Both of them had been forced to serve as porters for the LRA troops. Every day - and often in driving rain or scorching heat - they had to carry more than 100 pounds of supplies on their backs as they marched across northern Uganda and South Sudan.

"They talked about horrible things they'd seen," Lamunu explains. "Fellow children being beaten and killed, villagers mutilated. Things no one should have to see."

The memories of those atrocities, and fear of being caught and punished by the LRA, were too much for the two boys to take. As a result, they soon left the Puranga camp - and their mother - to go live in southern Uganda, far from the conflict.

They have both vowed to never return to northern Uganda. You can see the hurt that has caused Lamunu, as she bows her head when bringing it up.

Lamunu lived in the Puranga camp for five years after seeing her sons return and then depart once again. Over that time, the rest of her children grew older and, in time, also left.

The wounds from her injuries never quite healed.

But then, a few months ago, Lamunu saw a way to go back to part of the life she'd once known.

Closer to home

The beginning of peace talks between the Ugandan government and the LRA in July 2006 - followed by a ceasefire in September - has given almost two million displaced people in northern Uganda renewed hope. That optimism - although tempered with the reality that the negotiations are fragile - has led to an exodus of families from "mother camps" like Puranga.

Since the possibility exists that war may still reignite, however, families are not yet returning to their original villages. Instead, they are seeking refuge in places known as "return camps" - smaller displacement camps that are less crowded and offer more opportunity for farming and other traditional activities.

And that's how Cecilia Lamunu came to live at the Ogonyo camp - just over a mile from where she once made her home in Apuu Kampala.

"I needed the land," she says earnestly. "I needed the land to heal me."

Today, Mercy Corps is helping her and thousands of other Acholi people by collaborating to re-establish agricultural systems in return camps like Ogonyo. The centerpiece of Mercy Corps' program is the establishment of community seed banks, which are managed by committees formed by local villagers like Lamunu.

These seed banks offer families who have moved from larger camps like Puranga the opportunity to borrow seeds to plant staple crops like cassava, millet and sesame. Then, come harvest, families pay back the seed "loan" with seeds from their newly-collected crops.

It's a sustainable, simple program with a far-reaching goal: to return a generation of displaced Acholis to farming.

There is a surprising grace to Cecilia Lamunu's movement, given her injuries and personal tragedies. There is certainly still a sadness in her eyes.

When you mention the upcoming harvest, though, she comes to life. As she considers reaping the crop she's sown, she smiles. For a moment at least, she's one step closer to home.

You can help Cecilia and other displaced northern Ugandans begin their journey home by donating to our Emergency Response Fund. Thank you.