Saturday, June 21, 2008

Our Silence in the North

Gulu, Uganda. Yesterday:

Gulu is a chill town. The streets are a dusty red-orange, the surrounding bush thick and green. It's sleepy here and easy smiles are everywhere. By all accounts the Acholis love the huge population of ex-pats, who work for NGOs from across the globe. As a matter of fact, things are so very chill here that, if it wasn't for the white Land Cruisers everywhere, bearing labels like "UN" and "Save the Children," you would swear that a war never happened.

It's a whisper sometimes: a man might have a damaged eyeball; soldiers in camo fatigues wait in line at the bank; hordes of songs in Luo speak of peace and reconciliation, but I don't speak Luo. Then there are the screams. On our first night here, the night-time security guard at the Respond ReNUH guest-house mentioned to me that he had spent six years in the bush. He showed me his elbow, frozen in place. "It has no power," he said. He pointed to the scar from a bullet hole in his left shoulder. He showed me the one in his leg. He lifted up his shirt and gestured at the one in his back. Then, he pointed to a few more.

A tank rolled by the house this morning, but, for some reason, I managed to sleep through it. A roommate told me that, should the savage Lord's Resistance Army return to Gulu, then it will be this road which it will pass down.

I'm sitting in a small computer shop, picking out Acholi hits for a mix CD. Local Acholi music - and there is a lot of it - is mostly made on the computer, and it all has a message. For these reasons, I love Acholi music. Best of all, it bears a striking resemblance to the reggaeton that is ubiquitous in Brooklyn. Ken, who is making the mix for me with some of his friends, loves dancehall and reggaeton. "Puerto Ricoooo!" he says. He puts on "Gasolina" by Daddy Yankee and the three of us all burst into laughter, then bob our heads.

Hannah has been sitting outside at the curb, chatting. I check on her. She is now sitting in a plastic chair on the corner. She is alone, watching the passerby go about their business.

I know her expression. Every day, the two of us share long bouts of silence. Usually one of us kills it when we look at the other, smile and tell some joke. That or start the first volley of an intense conversation. The silences are getting longer and harder to break. At this moment, Hannah's silence is not composed of boredom or sickness. It is enigmatic and pitch black. I ask her what's wrong and she tells me that things are unbearably sad. She begins to cry.

Within the past half hour, the gravity hit her, in whatever way. Now I am standing here. And I wonder, how do you medicate the impact of an immense sadness? In this circumstance, I can put on a smile and say that things have been OK in Northern Uganda for the past two years, they are OK now, they will probably be OK. I can speak of the positive energy here. Or the two of us can extricate ourselves from the situation and talk, the best option. I say nothing but I stand there, in case I am needed.

I return to get my mix CDs and then return to the corner, where I sit down next to Hannah and an older man. He talks about the instability, uncertainty and fear that permeates Northern Uganda. The thousands of internally displaced peoples around the region were kicked out of their villages and moved into makeshift cities, commonly referred to as "IDP camps," over a decade ago. The people want to go back home, he tells us, and many have already. The NGOs are working hard, but Uganda's government is leaving it to the NGOs, the complications are vast and too many people have no means.

Then there is the fear. The peace talks have fallen apart. The government is calling for a military campaign to get rid of the LRA, now holed up in the Central African Republic and the north of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Everyone fears the return of the perplexing and maniacal Joseph Kony and his band of child soldiers.

Rumors abound these days. On Monday, the New Vision carried the Page One headline, "SPLA TO ATTACK KONY HIDEOUT." There was a report that the Sudanese People's Liberation Army got in a skirmish with a band of LRA some 40 kilometers from the Sudan-Uganda border. The day after we arrived in Gulu, the logistics manager of the American Refugee Committee told us that one LRA was killed, another injured, and another captured, or something like that, in Okidi. But who knows who is who, he added, since the LRA and the UPDF basically wear the same uniforms? At Da Pub, over Nile Special beers, a man who works at a military hospital said that the 1,000 or so remnants of the LRA break into tiny cells, that they can easily slip past a battalion, and that they are basically invisible. Earlier today, a Gulu local named Anthony, twenty years old, told me that Joseph Kony knows all. He can read your thoughts and anticipate your movements.

Hannah and I go back to the guest house. We take a seat on the porch and I say that we can talk, if she wants. She is about to say something, it seems, when a roommate comes by to chat. Neither of us pay much attention to what she says. She walks off to get her phone. Hannah goes to lie down. Sitting at the porch, I feel the same urge. I then wonder what makes me so exhausted. Yesterday I blamed the sun. Before that I blamed my growing insomnia. But I can no longer explain this exhaustion.

I am alone now with my thoughts, so I get my notebook and write.

1 comment:

Dead Carrie White said...

there is no unrest/exhaustion like what you feel traveling. however, this exhaustion is not reflected in the quality of your work. keep it up.