Kitgum, Uganda - The people of Koch Ama Resettlement Camp, in the Gulu District of Northern Uganda, stood up in succession, each restating the same basic premise.
"We want to go home, now. Having peace and an end to the war are the most important things right now. Even if it means that the LRA and people who have committed crimes against us go unpunished. We simply want to go home."
One hears a similar refrain throughout the three districts of Northern Uganda - Gulu, Kitgum, and Pader - that I have visited over the last two weeks trying to understand the root causes of this decades-long conflict and understand how Uganda can find a way out of this seemingly interminable cycle of conflict and violence.
It's hard to ignore such convictions. Or to disregard the strength it must take for the Acholi of northern Uganda to be willing to simply forgive and forget the atrocities done to them.
Of course, things are more complicated than this. Human nature and the quest for justice are powerful forces likely to hover over this troubled region for a long time. But the dominant sentiment, the visceral feeling one gets, is that these people just want to return to a normal life. After almost twenty years of continual war between the government and Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) where tens of thousands have been killed and over 1.6 million more forced into squalid camps, who can really blame them?
Yet the hope among the people of northern Uganda is now almost palpable. The changes taking place here, even over the last few weeks, have been striking. The recent cessation of hostilities between the LRA and the Ugandan government, together with a gradual improvement in the security situation, has led to a sudden rebirth in the countryside. Smaller resettlement or "decongestion" camps have begun to spring up, some set up by the government and others spontaneously created by people seeking to move to areas closer to their original villages and land.
Once no one moved except during peak daytime hours and with a military escort. Now the daytime roads are clogged with people heading to and from their fields, improbable loads of charcoal, firewood, cassava, bananas and other goods precariously balanced on their heads, bikes or motorcycles. The energy and bustle one now sees in these northern districts is remarkable. Few are yet willing to call it optimism, but it is most certainly hope.
Caution, even skepticism, is understandable in a situation such as this. The people of northern Uganda have experienced ceasefires and peace talks before, only to have their hopes dashed in a return to violence and atrocity. The dominant feeling now, however, is that this is the best chance for peace in the past twenty years. In their minds, it has to succeed; there is no other option.
This explains the near universal desire to see the peace talks currently taking place in Juba, South Sudan, succeed whatever it takes. This includes a willingness to let the International Criminal Court (ICC) indictments against Kony, his deputy Vincent Otti, and three other top commanders dropped.
Even if peace breaks out tomorrow, Uganda and its people will face substantial obstacles and challenges. For instance, how are they going to peacefully reintegrate thousands of LRA warriors and supporters into the very communities that have suffered atrocities at their hands? Rebuild necessary social services and basic economic infrastructure - schools, health clinics, and roads - as people rush to return to their homes? Begin the processes of reconciliation and economic development, especially between the government and the northern and eastern parts of the country after decades of conflict and neglect? Or, most fundamentally, end decades of mutual aggression, suspicion and distrust?
Ultimately, the answers to these questions will be found with Ugandans, and despite the large-scale suffering and major challenges that still lie ahead, there is more hope here now than there has been at any point in the last twenty years.
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