Here in northern Uganda, we are surrounded by stories of redemption and transformation.
A headmaster of a local school in Gulu tells us the story of a former abducted child soldier who escaped from captivity with the brutal Lord's Resistance Army rebel militia. He stood up one day in class and attacked the boy sitting next to him, announcing that he had killed 82 people when he was with the LRA, and it was time for number 83. After he was restrained, the headmaster handled him gently, sent him to a local group for counseling, and he is now enrolled in high school with the intention of eventually going to college.
This optimism is one side of northern Uganda. Having weathered 20 years of a predatory cultlike rebellion by the LRA's messianic leader, Joseph Kony, a peace process has unfolded over the past six months that has yielded a cease-fire, which in turn has allowed the 1.7 million people made homeless by the conflict to begin to dream of going home.
Business is picking up, people are venturing outside the displaced camps, which residents sometimes call concentration camps, and the proverbial phoenix is rustling in the ashes, with every intention of rising again.
But there is another, darker side of northern Uganda. The peace process is foundering, and radio intercepts indicate that the LRA is preparing to go back to war. The result will be catastrophic for a place that already has one of the highest child abductee rates in the world.
The word "terrorism" is used loosely by governments around the globe. In northern Uganda, touring through displaced camps and centers for war-affected children, we hear story after story of spectacular violence, the aim of which can only be to terrorize.
"We are awaiting death," one young man in a displaced camp told us. "Will it be the LRA or hunger that takes us?" A young woman in the camp who had escaped from her abductors asked us, "What level of suffering do we have to experience before you come to help us?"
Ryan Gosling, nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in "Half Nelson," plans to make a movie about northern Uganda. John Prendergast, senior adviser at the International Crisis Group, is co-founder of the Enough Campaign. The two visited Uganda in February 2007.
Although the U.S. government hasn't paid much attention to this conflict, ordinary Americans have. When they learn about what is going on, their reactions are swift and compassionate.
Our traveling companion, writer Jimmie Briggs, wrote an e-mail this week to a few people back in the United States describing the plight of Joyce, a 3-year-old girl who had been rolled in a carpet and thrown into a burning car by the LRA. She suffered painful third-degree burns over 80 percent of her tiny body. Within a day, recipients of the message had arranged free medical care at UCLA, plane tickets and a variety of other things in response to Joyce's pain.