With its streets full of bicycle riders transporting luggage or passengers alongside mini buses, Gulu in northern Uganda looks as peaceful as any small African town. However, its inhabitants, who say now they want nothing but peace, have to come to terms with the terrible crimes that were committed here during 22 years of civil war.
The Rev Julius Peter Olugu, the priest of the Anglican Ongako parish in Gulu district told members of an international ecumenical delegation about this recent past. The group visited Uganda from 27 October to 2 November 2008 on behalf of the World Council of Churches (WCC).
"You could not pass here. It was too dangerous to walk. They could kill you," Olugu said, pointing out a spot on the road leading west. "If they did not, they would abduct you. Other people's lips and limps were cut off."
In Gulu and other parts of northern Uganda, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels had waged a war with the alleged goal to replace President Yoweri Museveni's government with one based on the biblical ten commandments.
Since 1986, the LRA had abducted children and forcefully recruited them into its ranks. Adults were killed, mutilated or kidnapped, women also raped. As a consequence, nearly 2 million people fled into camps.
Peace talks inspire hope
Aida Olwoch is one of them. The peace delegation met her at Koch Ongako camp near Gulu town.
Olwoch told the international visitors about the hardship the internally displaced people in the camps have lived for 22 years: "We did not have food. There were no proper schools for the children. There were no health centre services."
But Olwoch also sees hope, thanks to a peace process that started in 2006: "People can now walk about six to seven kilometres outside the camps."
The peace talks between the LRA and the government led to a truce in 2006 and a permanent ceasefire in 2008. The comprehensive peace agreement is awaiting the signature of rebel leader Joseph Kony and President Museveni.
The Rev Godfrey Loum, a youth worker in the Anglican diocese of northern Uganda and a member of the district's religious leaders peace team, now thinks that the movement of people is "very free," compared to the situation before the peace negotiations.
He explained that in the past, people could hardly venture a few metres from the camp because of the security situation.
The churches in the northern region are keen to see people re-build their lives again. Priorities on their agenda are poverty eradication, ensuring that children go back to school, and support for those who are traumatized.
Better lives for children
"We have a programme on education, and that is our strongest emphasis. It was clear to me the future in northern Uganda was very dark because the children were not receiving education," the Anglican Bishop of northern Uganda, Nelson Onono-Onweng, said in a meeting with the ecumenical delegation.
The government is implementing a programme to put every child in school as part of its Peace, Recovery and Development Plan for northern Uganda. This plan seeks restore state activities, rebuild and empower the communities, revitalize the economy and promote peace and reconciliation. However, church leaders are concerned that many people may miss out in the implementation of the programme.
Under the government scheme for Universal Primary School Education, parents are in charge of books, meals and school uniforms, while the state provides for tuition fees and some education materials like chalk, which according to the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Gulu, John Baptist Odama many parents are unable to afford.
"Most of our people have had problems sending their children to the secondary and tertiary [university] level," Odama added.
The archbishop heads the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, a regional grouping of Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox and traditional leaders.
Apart from its negative impact on education, the church leaders said the war had exacerbated poverty by confining the people into camps.
"The whole population in Acholi land was displaced into camps, where the conditions where only enough for them to live from hand to mouth," said Odama. While they would normally have been able to feed themselves and their children, they had to rely on aid, he explained, a "dependency that destroyed them psychologically, especially the parents."
The challenge of reconciliation
According to Justice Peter Onega, the chairperson of the Uganda Amnesty Commission, nearly 23,000 former rebel fighters have returned to civilian lives in northern Uganda since the parliament passed an amnesty act in 2000. Some have reported that, at the community level, the reception of the amnesty act has not been uniform and that the government package to the returnees has been causing tensions.
"It is seen as a reward for causing problems," said Betty Anyeko of the Gulu NGO Forum, a grouping of non governmental organizations.
Although the communities are traumatized by the brutality they have faced during the war, many say they are ready to forgive the LRA.
"They want peace talks rather than war. They want peace restored rather than fighting," said Aida Alwoch of Koch Ongako camp, capturing the wide-spread feeling.
Many refugees hope they can re-build their houses and live in them next year, instead of returning to the camps every evening after the daily work on their farms. But since the final peace agreement has not been signed, many are still apprehensive.
Letters of love in Christ
"Living Letters" are small international ecumenical teams traveling to locations around the world where Christians strive to overcome violence. The team members, who are themselves involved in ecumenical activities and peace building in their home countries, express the solidarity of the World Council of Churches (WCC) fellowship, which comprises 349 national churches worldwide.
Until 2010, several Living Letters visits take place each year throughout the world in the context of the WCC's Decade to Overcome Violence in order to prepare for the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in 2011.
More information on Living Letters visit to Uganda is available here: http://overcomingviolence.org/en/iepc/living-letters-visits/uganda.html
(c) Fredrick Nzwili is a freelance journalist from Kenya. He is a correspondent for Ecumenical News International (ENI) based in the country's capital, Nairobi.