On Blogging Conflict Regions- 11.29.06 Global Voices Post

My most recent Global Voices post, with plans to follow this up with a series of posts on life in greater northern Uganda next week.

Ethan Zuckerman, one of the founders of Global Voices, once said in an interview that to care about a far away place that gets little media attention requires empathy. Empathy for a place can come through from having close friends who grew there, or by traveling there yourself. Sometimes, it can just from sharp, informed writing that transports you to another place.

Sometimes, these places are overlooked by the main stream media and by the blogging community for the same reasons. These places are incredibly difficult to cover, not only because of the logistical lack of power and bandwidth, but also because it is difficult to effectively translate such experiences to an average reader whose daily experience is, in many ways, incomparable.

Gulu Town is such a place. Gulu is the portal to a greater northern Uganda that has suffered as much as any region in the world. It is a vast and diverse suffering. For the last twenty years, over one million people throughout the north have lived in miserable Internally Displaced Person's (IDP) camps, fearing the occasional LRA attack and the daily government hostility. Warriors in the deeply troubled northeastern Karamoja region fight one another for cattle using AK-47's and fear occasional government air bombing. In the 1930's, the West Nile Virus was discovered in the region, and in the 1970's, it experienced an Ebola epidemic.

and Yet Gulu Town itself is strangely calm and charming. It is a beautifully laid out town in the British design; it is relaxed and pleasant compared with Kampala. Many people look strong and upbeat, and nearly everyone is endlessly helpful and generous. The LRA attacks have ceased recently, and there is a modicum of hope; perhaps this is the most one can ask for after lifetimes of never ending hostilities. For those who have heard about the tragedy of northern Uganda, there is a strange contradiction after visiting the place. Despite observing the often unspeakable difficulties of life, one often leaves with hope that the actors in the violence are human, even though their actions are not.

We have heard much political commentary about the stalled Juba Peace Talks between the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the Government of Uganda. However, we rarely hear about what life is like for the people that have been affected by the cycle of conflicts that has existed in the North since independence. This is strange, because in the North there is an ongoing joke about how the population is merely extras for foreign videographers filming the humanitarian disaster. While a few documentaries exist on the subject, there is very little online content.

We are lucky this week to have some blog posts about life in the north. I hope that more writers emerge from the greater northern Uganda, and that more Kampala based bloggers travel to the north and record their experiences.
The difference of life in northern Uganda can be seen in simple, everyday experiences. In I've Left Copenhagen for Uganda, Pernille traveled to the north and asks Where Is the Bathroom in an IDP Camp?

BadToiletWhen you live in an IDP camp, on little space, without cash, and without access to materials - you have to be inventive. The things which can be recycled and used for a new purpose is amazing. But remember it is mainly done due to the above reasons.

The left image is a shower made out of jerry cans cut open. The right image is a 'handwash', where you tip the stick below with your foot in order not to touch the water can with dirty hands coming straight from the pit latrine. Handwashing is taken seriously around here, i.e. due to cholera.

In another post, Pernille travels to Arua, the far north border town with Sudan. She writes:

In Arua peace is a brand, and as one reader put my attention to the other day, now 'peace talk' is slang for chatting up the opposite sex. A good sign, I believe.

There are poets who can take on the voice of the suffering. Chorya, writing in Poems from a Civil War, shows us how fed up and tired those in the north have become:

Enough. Uphold the day’s
baton resolve - and let us marshal
a kindred peace as perennial
as this present overcast.

Sweep under the ignominy;
monument the carnage, if you must,
until shame whisks it away.
And in its wake, revealed,
new secrets and patient
formulas discovered, distilled from

A time for peace a-brewing...

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11.21.06 Uganda Photo of the Day

Nice shot of Lake Victoria, via Simian Fan

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Running The Kampala Marathon

To anyone who is used to races in Europe or America, running yesterday's Kampala Marathon was full of additional challenges and strange surprises. My first impression was arriving at 6:25AM (the race didn't start until 7) and seeing hundreds of Ugandan runners doing squats, jumping jacks, and generally the most excited I had ever seen before a race. And then the race began.

Kampala has endless hills. Training here leaves you to expect that the race would be an endless cycle of up and down. Fortunately, for those who did the 10K race, but unfortunately for us marathon runners, the first half of the race was fairly even, with the last half a series of unending, merciless hills. Of course, the potholes, dust and exhaust caused endless annoyance, especially towards the end of the race when your legs deeply feel each change in the road and your lungs register that instead of breathing in oxygen then are taking on sulfur.

However, there were plenty of ways to take out my aggression, as the organizers lost control of road traffic when I was 8K into the race. This resulted in dozens of boda boda's (small motorcycles, usually equipped with lawn mower strength engines) whizzing by close enough to touch me, and matatus (public taxi mini buses) pulling over right in front of me to pick up passengers, then leaving me to breath their dense black smoke. It feels especially good to yell at a boda driver to move or to wind speedily through reams of traffic, leaving the trapped drivers in their traffic jams.

One tends to learn alot about a town by running its marathon. For example, I learned that Sundays are meat delivery days in many of Kampala's neighborhoods. I learned this at around kilometer 20, when I was coasting down a hill and a small pick up truck packed to the brim with raw meat carcases suddenly pulled in front of me from out of nowhere and stopped, causing me to run into the back of it at considerable speed. Luckily I wasn't hurt, but I came within a few inches of a skinned cow leg sticking up in the air from the back of the truck.

Twice during the race I was reminded how quickly Ugandans disregard personal achievement in favor of communal well-being. The first was at kilometer 23, when I passed a British friend of mine who was a competitive runner, but happened to be struggling to get up a hill. I passed him with some words of encouragement to keep up the struggle. A few feet later a boda driver called out to me from the side, "You must go back and help your friend!" European and American racers know that this simply isn't possible. For a competitive race, a marathon is an intensely personal thing. Unless a racer is in serious trouble, he would much rather be left to plough through the difficulties on his own and survive a stronger man. However, its nice to be reminded that you are in a place where people set aside personal ambition for the sake of others.

A few kilometers later, on another beastly hill, I passed a similarly struggling Ugandan runner. I spoke comparable words of encouragement to him, and in reaction he grabbed my hand. I didn't know what to do at first, but I soon recognized that he intended for us to run together in solidarity for the next 10 kilometers. This of course, was impossible from an American marathoner point of view, but I held on for a few moments out of admiration for his intent, before letting go with a murmur about it being very hot.

Despite the challenges, I was reminded that runners, wherever you go, are the friendliest of people. This has been true since high school, through college (I repped my Terp Runners jersey in Kampala) and up to yesterday's race. My friend Queeny, the don of Kampala running (see below), hosted a pre-race pasta dinner. I met several wonderful locals and ex-pats who had turned out for this crazy adventure. Since he had run the marathon before and could testify to the mismanagement of handing out water (which didn't turn out half as bad), we recruited some brave friends to be strategically placed around the course to hand out water and bananas.

How did I perform in the race? Well, I can only say that I highly suggest training for marathons (the longest I ran in the months leading up to the race was 10K). Since this was my fourth marathon, I figured muscle memory would kick in and I would do just fine. I finished, and my muscles remembered the previous marathons, but by kilometer 30 they also remembered that I had not even approached that distance in the previous months. My time was 4:03, a full 53 minutes slower than by personal record set at the Paris Marathon in 2004.

Well, there is always the Arusha (Tanzania) Marathon in March and the Kigali (Rwanda) Marathon in May. Or maybe one is enough this year.

Click here for more pictures.

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Lesssons on Reconciliation from Ghana

There is a lot of talk these days in Kampala about a National Truth and Reconciliation Process. Advocates use the word process, instead of commission, to indicate a more decentralized approach that leaves truth and reconciliation to individual families, cultural leaders, and regional peace teams, instead of a national process based on the experience of South Africa or Sierra Leone. This seems appropriate in a country that has experienced 20 conflicts in the past 25 years, and where huge numbers of people would not trust the Government to lead a national process.

However the structure turns out, its success is largely based on individuals taking courageous steps to get past their history. Here is a wonderful example of this, from Ghana's National Reconciliation Commission:

For many Ghanaians, the greatest moment of hope for national reconciliation came when B.T. Baba, a former director of the prison service, openly apologized to a man who alleged Baba had supervised his torture in prison. “We were young and could have done a few things out of exuberance. Forgive me,” Baba pleaded. The victim walked to Baba and embraced him, generating a thunder of applause from the audience in the commission’s auditorium. For many Ghanaians, Baba became a symbol of decency and humility.

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11.13.06 Uganda Photo of the Day

Uganda photo collage via mfoto76.

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Around Uganda

My latest Uganda Update for Global Voices:

It’s been an excellent week for big news and sharp writing in Uganda. The peace talks in Juba continue to dominate the agenda. Last week, a renewed ceasefire gave LRA rebels until Dec. 1 to assemble at the two meeting points in Southern Sudan. The Government lead at the talks, Internal Affairs Minister Rugunda, remained confident in the success of the talks, and nearly all major donors pledged funds to support the talks.

One conspicuously absent donor was the United States. Uganda-CAN asks why:

At this point, we cannot help but wonder what interests the Bush Administration is worried about hurting or losing if it shows any support for this historic peace initiative. Is it worried that it could hurt its alliance with President Museveni, whom has been a strategic ally in the war on terror? Is it worried that it could hurt the working relationship between the UPDF and the U.S. Combined Joint Task Force in the Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA)? Is the it worried that it could lose the U.S. military’s air base at Entebbe Airport? Is the it worried it could hurt foreign military sales to Uganda? Is it worried that it could hurt its business interests in the country at a time with China’s influence on the continent is growing? Whatever it is, it appears that the White House is putting perceived geopolitical, military or economic interests before the interests of northern Ugandans in peace after 20 years of brutal war.

Meanwhile, Ngromrom remains highly critical of the Government’s intentions at the Juba talks:

Right now as I speak, if the Museveni government were to remove the NRA soldiers from all detaches, reverse its policy towards the people in eastern and northern Uganda, promote a committee for reconciliation, obtain and disburse fund for rehabilitation of the northern and eastern regions, revert maintaining of law and order to the police, embark on a program to empower the people in all communities, the Juba peace talk would become redundant. These few points would result in a speedy return to normalcy in Uganda. Juba isn’t the only place where Ugandans are making plans for after the conflict.

In a controversial move, the Government has announced that it is shutting down all IDP camps by the end of the year. While many welcomed Government moves to take post-conflict development of the North seriously, critics, including Jackfruity, believe that the move was dangerously premature:

The government’s showy closing of the IDP camps as proof that northern Uganda is finally safe is a dangerous move, with the potential to further damage the lives of millions of conflict-affected people. Though LRA attacks have dramatically reduced since the beginning of the peace talks in Juba, a better system for resettlement needs to be firmly in place before IDPs are forced to return.

Further south, in the dusty town square Kasana, in Luwero District, In An African Minute reports on a little noticed meeting that could be the first step towards creating a Ugandan culture of reconciliation:

On Wednesday, October 11th, 2006, The Daily Monitor published an unlikely headline: ‘North Seeks Reconciliation With Luwero’ The article (not available online), written by Rogers Mulindwa, goes on to describe a meeting between cultural, NGO and political leaders from the greater northern region, and their counterparts from Luwero (central Uganda). The leaders from the north asked for forgiveness for the crimes committed against the people of Luwero by the Oboto regime in the 1980’s. To understand the significance of this meeting, one must understand that for many Ugandans, the Luwero Massacres are symbolic of deep and complicated divisions that exist within Uganda’s many regions, tribes and ethnic groups. More often than not, these divisions are sealed with memories of blood.

A long time member of the Ugandan press, but a newcomer to the blogosphere. Angelo Izama, on the Sub-Saharan African Round Table, writes penetratingly on the legacy of a hardworking president:

An author himself, Museveni and the critic Kalyegira aught to get together and write a book possibly entitled “A Backward Dream: From Third World to Third World,” the biography of a frustrated Ugandan president. The stasis in Uganda as in elsewhere on the continent is however constructed not just on poor economic policies, tribal wars and an exclusionist global trading environment but also on a debilitating attitude crisis. If writers like Kalyegira mourn that Africans do not amount to much, he and others do not work on expanding Africa’s options more. Instead, there is a retreat by his ilk to another favorite African pastime, the opaque sanctuary of religion and myths like white supremacy.

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Bold Move for Peace in a Town Square

On Wednesday, October 11th, 2006, The Daily Monitor published an unlikely headline:

'North Seeks Reconciliation With Luwero'

The article (not available online), written by Rogers Mulindwa, goes on to describe a meeting between cultural, NGO and political leaders from the greater northern region, and their counterparts from Luwero (central Uganda). The leaders from the north asked for forgiveness for the crimes committed against the people of Luwero by the Oboto regime in the 1980's.

To understand the significance of this meeting, one must understand that for many Ugandans, the Luwero Massacres are symbolic of deep and complicated divisions that exist within Uganda's many regions, tribes and ethnic groups. More often than not, these divisions are sealed with memories of blood.

In the 1980's bush war, Obote and Museveni troops clashed, with human rights abuses on both sides. The most lurid reminder of this period of mayhem is the mass graves in Luwero, where up to 200,000 civilians were tortured and murdered by Oboto's soldiers from the North. Since then, many northern Ugandans have suspected the Museveni has not been serious about stopping the LRA, partly as revenge for the Luwero killings. The cycle of mistrust and violence continues.

Last month in Kasana, the main town in Luwero, representatives from the north recognized that atrocities had taken place by Obote's soldiers and asked that the two parties reconcile and forgive one another. In an equally magnanimous gesture, Luwero District Vice Chairman Hajat Aisha Shamim Kayaga said, "Luwero is praying for the return of peace to the North."

While surely this humble exchange was only the beginning of a long process of reconciliation, the meeting was profound because it showed that past violence need not create permanent divisions. In a country trying to deal with the complicated post-conflict options of international justice and peace and reconciliation commissions, this meeting in Luwero shows that in Uganda, simple acknowledgement can be potent stuff for healing wounds.

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11.09.06 Links

In the UK, First Post Magazine publishes a fascinating investigation into the role of oil in bringing peace to northern Uganda.

In Kampala, Uganda-CAN asks if there is a connection between a recent spike in US weapons sales to Uganda and the reluctance of the US State Department to contribute to the Juba peace talks.

In Washington, Frank Fukuyama, writing in the American Interest blog, asks whether African territorial integrity, existing for only 50 years, should be respected as much as it is in the developed world. He wonders whether Darfur should be part of Chad instead of Sudan.

In New York, Head Heeb, also writing about Sudan, warns that the conflict in Darfur threatens to engulf the entire Sahel region.

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Conversation in Amsterdam

In Amsterdam, I caught up with BicycleMark, one of Europe's premier vloggers and podcasters. We had a great conversation over a few Belgian beers, talking about everything from Amsterdam's squatting subculture to Tallin, Estonia becoming the new Berlin. Also, I learned alot from him about participatory media, and we talked about the limits and opportunities of this new medium in the developing world.

On this note, at some point in the first half of this week, I'll be posting an overview of a new site I helped create that features participatory media as a means of encouraging discussion about Uganda's future after the conflict in northern Uganda. I think its a fascinating experiment to try and better understand the role of participatory media in the developing world, especially as it relates to post-conflict situations. Stay tuned.

BicycleMark at a Holloween party in Amsterdam: The Ghost of Habeus Corpus. brilliant

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Return to the Tropics

After your plane lands at Entebbe Airport, there is a short walk from the plane to the terminal. When coming from Europe, you immediately notice the warmth of the inland air mixed with the slightly cooler breeze coming off Lake Victoria, and that unique smell of damp grass with a mild overtone of burning trash.

The smell and the feel of the air have never been more inviting than on Friday night, when I landed after a wonderful two week trip to Europe to see old friends, make some new ones, and catch up with family. The cold is starting to bite in Holland, Czech Republic and Great Britian, and I was happy to shed the ski jacket for a tshirt.

This should prove to be a busy week, and you'll see updates on the situation in northern Uganda, project updates from work, thoughts from my trip and more.

If you happen to know any undergraduate students who are interested in traveling to Uganda or Sierra Leone over winter break with Global Youth Partnership for Africa to learn about the role of youth in post-conflict development, please pass on this link.

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