April 27, 2007 -- This past March I was one of the first Westerners to live in a displacement camp in northern Uganda. I went to experience -- in whatever way I could -- a tragedy that felt so foreign to me as an American. I lived there for 10 days -- one day for each year the people have been displaced. For that brief period, my lot was the same as the 1.5 million people whose daily struggle is to survive among abject poverty, rampant disease and certain starvation. I had no malaria medicine. No extra food. No smuggled luxuries. For 10 days, I was as they were.
During my first night in the camp, I witnessed a mass funeral. There were throngs of people sweating, dancing, jumping and yelling in the dark. In northern Uganda's black night, there is no way to distinguish cries of joy from cries of pain. One night a week, the people gather to mourn those who have passed, but also to celebrate those who no longer have to suffer. I left after a time, but they continued to yell and mourn and dance until the sun rose. I saw funerals like this happen every Friday night, funerals in a place where there is an excess of both life and death.
The only thing I really knew about the camps before going in was that they were overcrowded and that people were dying at an emergency rate of more than 1,000 per week. Before this trip, the camps to me were just a jumbled mess of tragic numbers, but the reality is so much more horrific than any statistic could suggest.
There is a generation in northern Uganda that has never known peace. They are a population held in the balance between a rebel militia of child soldiers -- some as young as 8 years old -- and a government that willfully neglects.
Ten years ago the Ugandan government forcibly evicted thousands from their homes and gave them 48 hours to relocate into camps in hopes of providing protection. But the situation on the inside is as dire as that on the outside, and what was once a temporary solution has now lasted for a decade. The displaced no longer wonder if someone will die, but who will die next.
Bobby Bailey is the co-founder of the nonprofit Invisible Children, Inc. and recently lived in a displacement camp in northern Uganda. There he documented personal testimonies of the displaced, which will be part of the nationwide event "Displace Me" on April 28. For more information, go to www.invisiblechildren.com.
The war has claimed not only lives but their culture. Men no longer have land to work and many of their idle hands have taken to the bottle, taken to abuse or taken to rape. Women are left vulnerable to the spread of HIV/AIDS and are strained to provide for their growing families.
Children are forced to grow up early. Even inside the camps, they have witnessed mutilation, slaughter and abduction. There are few children that receive education beyond primary school as the majority struggle for enough food, not to mention money to pay for books and fees. Children as young as five take care of their siblings during the day, sometimes with a baby strapped to their back as they walk to the well.
But amid this land of grief, there is prevailing hope. A cessation of hostilities between the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan government has recently been issued. The ongoing peace talks are scheduled to resume at the end of the month. But a peaceful resolution to the talks will require international attention in the form of a U.S. representative's presence at the peace talks in Juba. In order for this to happen, our government needs to know our desire for action.
The Ugandans want peace; what they need is our support. Write your senators and let them know your concern for the people in northern Uganda. Call your representatives and urge the U.S. government to send a senior level diplomat to assist with the peace process. Sign up with ENOUGH and Resolve Uganda to be involved in future lobbying efforts. Join thousands of people at "Displace Me" this Saturday and displace yourself for one night to make a bold statement to our government.
If the peace talks succeed, the people of northern Uganda will be able to sleep without fear for the first time in two decades. If the peace talks fail, the war will persist and every Friday night the displaced will continue to gather and mourn more needless deaths.
Bobby Bailey is the co-founder of the nonprofit Invisible Children, Inc. and recently lived in a displacement camp in northern Uganda. There he documented personal testimonies of the displaced, which will be part of the nationwide event "Displace Me" on April 28th. For more information, go to www.invisiblechildren.com.