For 23 years, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) terrorized Northern Uganda with physical and psychological torture. Under the leadership of Joseph Kony, a self-proclaimed prophet, the LRA insurgency quickly became as much of a military force as it did a cult. Receiving significant aid from the Sudanese government (which was in conflict with the Ugandan government), the LRA took control of many northern regions of Uganda and used brutal tactics to terrorize civilians.
Rape was used as a weapon of war, and over 66,000 children were kidnapped between 1986 and 2009. Boys were forced to join the LRA and become child soldiers, and girls were either killed or forced into sexual slavery. Reminiscent of the kidnappings of over 279 schoolgirls in 2014 by Boko Haram in Chibok, Nigeria, the LRA kidnapped 139 schoolgirls from their dorm beds in Aboke, Uganda in 1996. After ten years of terror, it was this case that finally drew international attention to the situation in Northern Uganda.
During the years the LRA was active in Uganda, nearly 2 million people were forced to leave their ancestral lands and relocate into Internally Displaced Persons camps. Since the Juba Peace Talks in 2006, the LRA no longer operates in Uganda, although the insurgency left a lasting and profound effect on the culture, education, health and livelihood in the northern regions of the country. Although the UN refugee agency ended its assistance to Uganda’s internally displaced people in 2012 and handed over its protection role to the Uganda Human Rights Commission, over 30,000 people still live in the country’s few remaining camps, and many of them deal with a multitude of issues related to land and human rights.
Humanitarian aid professionals such as Jan Egeland, who served as UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator from 2003 to 2006, once described the rebel war in Northern Uganda as “the biggest forgotten, neglected humanitarian emergency in the world.” Despite the enormous need for ongoing humanitarian support, as well as a surge of attention on the region due to the controversial documentary, Kony 2012, the internationally media has largely turned a blind eye to the myriad of difficult conditions that many northern Ugandans still must endure. Indeed, the country’s own government has a complicated relationship with its own civilians. During its fight against the LRA, the Ugandan army also perpetrated crimes against the very people it was supposed to protect, and in recent years, the government hasn’t taken much ownership of rebuilding northern districts’ social and economic infrastructure.
Today, the LRA is still an active organization in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The insurgency is also active in South Sudan, which gained its independence from Sudan in 2011. Since 2013, this country has been entrenched in civil war, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army has been committing rape and torture so heinous that a director of an international aid agency has called the violations “human rights abuses off the Richter scale.” More than one million people have been displaced during the last two years, with many of them fleeing to neighboring countries. Northern Uganda, which is still contending with how to manage its own remaining Internally Displaced Persons camps, has been forced to make room for over 60,000 South Sudanese people.
In Northern Uganda, the situation often feels like a series of tsunamis: the waves of one crisis barely ends before the waves of another begins. Yet Pamela Angwech, a woman who has faced the harsh realities on the front lines of civil war, stepped in to found Gulu Women’s Economic Development and Globalization (GWED-G), a grassroots organization that has been game-changing in how conflicts are being dealt with in her region.
Pamela began her humanitarian work with the World Food Programme in the 1990s. One day, Pamela gave food to a woman who carried her baby on her back. The small family had waited in a long line under the hot sun for many hours. As Pamela handed the mother a small allotment of food, she saw her baby was resting in a strange position on her back — with great horror, she realized that the little one had suffocated to death.
It was in that moment, while listening to the wailing mother, that Pamela realized that food relief only solved a small part of the problem – her people had been battered, mutilated, and stripped of their homes, families, and power over their own lives – they were spiritually hungry, and needed much more than food to sustain them. Women in particular struggled, as they were subject to culturally supported practices that led to gender-based violence, harassment, child marriage, and a lack of educational opportunities. They also were the primary caretakers of the most vulnerable demographic in Uganda – the babies, young children, and adolescents.
Soon after her revelation, Pamela left her job and met for the first time under a mango tree with war-affected women and those whose children had been forcefully abducted. As the women shared their stories, GWED-G was born.
Initially a small support group, today GWED-G serves over 150,000 women, youth, child mothers, orphans and vulnerable children, and men and community leaders. The organization focuses on justice, peace-keeping, economic development, and healthcare access in the region, and combats cultural practices that hinder women from speaking out freely in a male-dominated society. Partners include organizations such as Amnesty International, GlobeMed, the Open Society Foundation, CARE International, UN Women, The American Refugee Council and an array of other local and international NGO and governmental partners.
Pamela, who serves as both co-founder and executive director of GWED-G, has extensive experience with community-based human rights policy and post-conflict empowerment, and believes strongly that injustices can be eradicated only when women and excluded communities are able to take charge of their lives and claim their rights. Born and raised in Northern Uganda, Pamela speaks fluent English, Luo, Swahili, and Acholi, and has several degrees from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda including Management and Finance, Gender, and Development and Human Resource Management.
Pamela’s story is both harrowing and heartening, and she shares a primary message in the letter she wrote to her teenage self: namely to mobilize women and believe in their abilities. “Women,” she writes, “will no longer be simply tools of war, but will become powerful instruments of change.”
~Melissa Banigan Founder and Managing Editor, Advice Project Media ________________________________________________________
Dear Thirteen-Year-Old Pam,
You are a lucky child because you were the lastborn amongst your siblings – a spoiled girl very loved by your parents. Disciplined and mild-mannered, at thirteen you excel in all of your classes at Sacred Heart, your school in your village in the Kitgum District of Northern Uganda. A superstar in mathematics and the sciences, you want to be a pilot.
Trouble has come to Uganda; there is an insurgency in your region. Because the soldiers in this conflict, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), started abducting girls from secondary schools throughout the northern districts, you hid in the bush and sat under the trees to read your books as you studied for the exams that passed you from primary to secondary schools. But the LRA is coming closer and closer. Pam, soon they will abduct girls from the Aboke district, and then, the rebel soldiers will come to Sacred Heart.
You and your friends will hide between the walls and under the beds with the lights off. There will be time when the nuns will have to hide you in in the ceiling board overnight and lock you inside the convent conference hall with big padlocks to keep the rebels out.
Soon, too, amid all of this terror, your dad will pass away and you will become an orphan. It will start to look as though the world will end. Indeed, the rest of your teen years will be very difficult.
During the twenty-year conflict, there will be many humanitarian groups working to support displaced people living in camps. Agencies such as the UN and Red Cross will deliver food and medical services. As a young adult, you will feel the courage to work for the UN as a volunteer, although it won’t be easy to move up in the ranks to get paid work. Every day you will sit at the gate of the UN’s main office struggling to get inside to speak with someone about giving you a job. You’ll be told time and time again that there isn’t any work for you. How can there not be any work, you wonder, when so much work needs to be done?
One day, after weeks of waiting, a Malawian officer in charge of food distribution will wonder why you sit every day at the gate, and will ask for you to be brought to his office. You will tell this man, Mr. Emmanuel, that your father is dead, that you are living with your siblings, and that you need a paid job to survive. He will ask if you have food at home. You will shake your head, no. After your meeting, he will drop you off at home to inspect your house and will confirm that in your household where children are raising children, you can barely make ends meet.
Mr. Emmanuel won’t give you any handouts, but he will help you write your Curriculum Vitae and will invite you back to the UN for an interview. You will be recruited as a volunteer, but after two months, you will be interviewed again and recruited as a storekeeper and food distribution officer.
Working in Northern Uganda during the conflict with humanitarian agencies will be very risky – at any time your vehicle could be hit by landmines or be ambushed by rebels. You will feel impervious to the risks even when men with families leave their jobs delivering food because it is simply too dangerous, leaving you to climb on top of the vehicles to unload the food yourself. One time, you will be attacked while transporting food, and you will help rescue the wounded and collect the dead civilian bodies to bring to the hospitals and the dead soldiers back to their barracks. You will be covered in blood, but at the hospital, looking into the faces of people in pain and at the children wandering around naked, you will tell yourself that if you don’t make yourself available to transport food, then these people will go hungry.
You will learn that women are the primary breadwinners and risk takers. It will be women who make up the majority of people in line at the food distributions at the Internal Displaced Persons camps, which will range in population from 35,000 to 60,000, like cities. Because it will be women who wait in line, it will be women whose stories you hear. How they desperately try to get food for their children even during the worst of moments, how they’ve lost children during the conflict, how they have been abducted and sexually abused together with their daughters.
One day, as you distribute food in one of the camps in the Amuru District, you will see a woman with a restless newborn baby strapped to her back squeezed in line as people wrangle for food. You will pull her out of line to give her special rations. As she walks away, you will notice that her baby is positioned oddly, and the mother will check to find that her child has suffocated to death. Your heart will break watching her cry as she blames herself.
This will be a turning point in your life. That night, unable to sleep, you will think: “We must mobilize the women – we must talk.” You will realize that providing with people with food isn’t enough. It will be at this moment when your humanitarian work turns into human rights activism.
You will meet with over 300 women under mango trees to talk about what is going on in their lives; they will be given a platform to share their stories of the injustices inflicted upon them and their daughters. You will listen to the stories of how they have been raped and used as sex slaves by commanders of the LRA, how their young girls have been defiled and abducted, how their young boys have been stolen and forced to be child soldiers. Some of the women will suffer mutilations of their body parts, be wearing splints, or still carry bullets inside their bodies. They will tell stories of how they remain behind to pick up the beans that have fallen on the ground after food distributions. They will cook, but not eat for fear their children wouldn’t then have food to eat the next day.
You will learn that in war, it is women’s bodies that become the battlefield. The war won’t end up overthrowing the government, but it will destroy the bodies and souls of women.
But there will be hope for your country. The women you’ve met with under the mango trees will form groups and will march down the streets of Gulu town holding placards with messages reflecting the suffering of women and what they want to see done. This grassroots women’s movement will give birth to the Gulu Women Economic Development and Globalization Organization (GWED-G).
Pam, at thirteen, it might be hard for you to imagine that you will help start a women’s movement that will help lead your country to peace, but it’s true. Some of the elder women will even participate in peace negotiations with the LRA rebels. GWED-G will help over 150,000 women, children and families. Women will no longer be simply tools of war, but will become powerful instruments of change.
All is possible in this life. No matter where you’re from, and what has happened, you can be who you want to become. Continue to give this life everything you’ve got, live with purpose, and then nothing can stop you.
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