International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Uganda today: The legacy of Joseph Kony and the LRA

The first time I traveled to the north of Uganda as the International Rescue Committee’s country director, I attended a meeting of a village saving and loans association.  These are small groups whose members – primarily women – meet each week and encourage each other to save money and make very small, short-term loans to try out business ideas.  The IRC has started these associations across northern Uganda as a low-cost way to provide financial services to the poor in rural communities – areas where formal banks are reluctant to invest.

Since I was new, the group had many questions for me.  “Where did I come from?”  America.  “How many children did I have?”  Three.  An appreciative nod went through the crowd as big families are still valued in this part of the world and I was well on my way to having one.  “Did I love Uganda?”  Yes, very much.   “When would I be back?”  Soon, but I couldn’t say exactly when.  When it came my turn to pose a question, I asked people to raise their hand if they had been displaced during the war.  Almost everyone in the group raised their hands, as did most of our staff members.
This offhanded request yielded a response that really moved me and put our work in that region into context.  It brought home the extent to which the crisis had gripped northern Uganda from the late 1980s until 2006.  During this period, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) violently rampaged through the countryside and the government of Uganda moved most of the population into camps, where many of them remained for years on end.  
The IRC has been in northern Uganda since 1998 and our team – made up mostly of Ugandans – really understands the terrain.  While Joseph Kony and the LRA have most likely left Uganda and traveled into remote areas of neighboring countries, their legacy lives on.   People have now moved back to their ancestral lands but their communities were decimated by the war: schools, health centers and water points are inadequate to meet their needs.  Markets were destroyed.  Farming skills were lost as an entire generation grew up in the camps with little hope for the future.
I’m particularly motivated to do more to help women and girls.  So many women and girls have stories to tell of being abducted and forced to serve the LRA, either as sex slaves or domestics.  Girls gave birth to babies as a result of rape and sexual exploitation, and had to care for them on the run.  Families were broken apart.  Even today, survivors remain vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, stigmatized by their experiences.  Family and government systems that once provided support are not yet back in place; the only available services for survivors are often provided by underfunded, fledgling organizations.     
An expert from our headquarters visited northern Uganda this month to help us think through how we can best support women and girls.   She pointed out how even after a conflict ends, many risks to women and girls remain:  they are still vulnerable to sexual violence, have few opportunities to own land or control the resources, and they continue to be affected by the stigma that results from surviving violence.     
The IRC acts as a bridge between our Ugandan partners – small, local organizations that have a lot of heart and deep roots in their communities – and governments and individuals who want to help but are far removed.   Until last week I really believed that the world's attention (and money) had moved on to other, newer crises, even though the tragic aftermath of the LRA is still felt in northern Uganda.   I am hopeful that the attention on Uganda from the “Kony2012” video will result in donations to organizations like ours that continue work with survivors of that era.   We need to recognize that building peace is a complicated, demanding and time consuming undertaking.
I’m at the office and the electricity just went out, unfortunately not an infrequent occurrence these days.   I think it may be time to go home, make my kids some dinner and then put them to bed, since tomorrow is a school day.   As a mother, I know that parents in northern Uganda want the same things for their children as I do for mine – good health, a safe environment and a quality education.   A visit up north brings into stark contrast just how long it will take for those parents to achieve those goals.    
Cristine Betters is the IRC's country director in Uganda. She is based in Kampala.

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