Project Uganda: Blood tears of Acholi Land

At Atiak, refugees long for 'peace to come to this land'

By Travis Curtice

Ochen Goeffrey lives at Atiak, a camp for displaced
Ugandans. He remains hopeful and optimistic despite
the hardship he has endured.

“Geoffrey,” she called interrupting our interview. “My name!” Geoffrey answered with his insurmountable gaiety that coupled with his optimism made him stand out from the other workers. Rising to the next chore of task he turned to me and said, “Maybe someday peace will come to this land, maybe.”

Ochen Geoffrey is twenty-five years old. We met in Atiak, the Internally Displaced Peoples Camp that has become the de-facto center of Amuro District — Northern Uganda’s newest district. I first met Ochen Geoffrey when he was fetching water for the resource center where Kaitlin and I were based. The borehole-well he used was located about a mile from the resource center. He would carry the water in four yellow, 20 liter jerry-cans by bike, an old, rusty single-speed with the right foot pedal missing.

He would pedal to the borehole about 6 times each day to pump water by hand and strap the four containers across the luggage rack of his bike with an old rotten piece of wood to provide the center with water. The piece of wood he used eventually gave way under the weight. (Ironically this happened while I was assisting and it smashed my right hand).

For most of Ochen’s life he lived in the Sudan. His father was an Acholi and his mother was a Mardi from Sudan, both Nilotic tribes. Ochen grew up between the conflicts that raged in Southern Sudan and Northern Uganda.

When I asked him, “how he found Atiak?” He shook his head and answered, “At first we moved and slept in the bush like wild animals.”

A memorial stands silent to those who died at Atiak.

“Tap, tap, tap,” Geoffrey continued, “You could hear the gunfire and you would know that Kony reached the center.”

They lived in constant fear. Now one year after the last attacks by the LRA, the people are still slow to return to dig and farm their fields.

“We are used to the camps,” Geoffrey continued; “we could not move. If we moved after six the UPDF [the Ugandan soldiers] would think we were collaborators and take us back to the barracks and beat us.”

I asked him if he thought the peace would last. “Even now when you listen to Mega FM [the local radio station] you hear the peace will be restored…but Kony he could be here tomorrow or the next day you don’t know.”

As we discussed the issues facing Northern Uganda’s development he narrowed them down to three issues: education, the health sector and water.

“You,” Ochen Geoffrey said as I edited this piece, “You are the one who loves peace…you are writing very much.” As I looked up and smiled he looked across the land he and his ancestors had called their own and said, “We want to see this bush, these bushes here disappear and crops growing. Maybe someday peace will come to this land, maybe.”

The last rebel movement in Atiak was a year ago. Every day that passes without an incident the hope grows in the heart of the people there that the peace may last. Atiak, the home of Commander Vincent Otti, the LRA’s second in Command, who led a remnant of rebels in 1995 into the camp center slaughtering over two hundred, will remain a testing zone for peace in Northern Uganda.