Sowing Peanuts and Reaping Remnants of War in Uganda
Posted May 1, 2018 6:14 p.m. EDT
Updated May 1, 2018 6:18 p.m. EDT
PAICHO, Uganda — Just after dawn, Patrick Ogik placed a wooden yoke over the bulging necks of his two oxen and attached a metal plow behind them, the ropes, fraying from wear, tied to the animals.
The 44-year-old farmer guided the oxen to a fallow field, where he was preparing to plant peanuts in a tiny patch of land he owns outside Paicho, a village in northern Uganda.
As the metal plow drove through the soil, it struck something hard. Ogik reached down and pulled the metal casing of a mortar shell from clumps of soil. He wiped the surface with his hand.
This one was spent, he explained, though he has sometimes come across live ammunition. He tossed it aside and continued his work.
A brutal war once ravaged this place — and altered Ogik’s life. Reminders of the violence are everywhere, even lying just below the surface of the earth.
Northern Uganda was the battleground of a decades-long conflict between the Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group, or LRA, and the Ugandan government. The village of Paicho was at the center of the fighting.
Ogik’s fields were once the site of barracks for the national army and the remnants of those crumbling brick buildings still stand. Here, the ground is still littered with the uniforms soldiers discarded when they left 10 years ago. The material has become entangled in the tall grass and buried in the earth.
Ogik dug out a threadbare shirt and held it up, the blue sky visible through its holes. He laughed and tossed it next to the shell casing.
“This used to be a war zone,” Ogik said. “During the war we could do very little farming because you would get so little time in the field because it wasn’t safe.”
The LRA rampaged through northern Uganda for nearly two decades, beginning in the late 1980s. The armed group is believed to be responsible for at least 100,000 deaths and the abduction of many thousands more. Its fighters mutilated civilians by chopping off their limbs, noses or lips, and kidnapped women for marriage and children to fight.
Farmers like Ogik were unable to tend to their fields as they feared for their lives. Because of that, his family relied on food aid to get by.
From 1997 to 2007, Ogik lived in a camp for internally displaced people. In those years, the Ugandan army ordered villagers from Paicho and the surrounding areas to move into the camps as troops fought to wrest control of the territory from the LRA, led by the professed holy man Joseph Kony.
Ogik, like everyone else in his community, was given just 48 hours’ notice that he would have to leave his home and move to the camp.
His memories of that time are strong. And these days they are coming back again as he works with other local farmers who are providing food for yet another group of war victims — a huge influx of South Sudan refugees pouring in to northern Uganda, fleeing war in their home country.
“We were in camps, so we know what life is like there,” Ogik said, describing the affinity he feels for the refugees living in camps dotted throughout northern Uganda.
The harvest had just passed, and, weeks earlier, Ogik, along with an association of local farmers, had sold his crop of maize to the World Food Program. The grains will be used to feed some of the 1.1 million South Sudanese living as refugees in the nearby camps.
Uganda’s new refugee population is one of the largest in the world — driven by conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to the west, as well as South Sudan, to the north.
The region has been relatively peaceful since 2009, when the military drove the LRA out of Uganda, but the deep scars — both physical and mental — have proved difficult to heal.
And the process of rebuilding has stalled as the government struggles to roll out a comprehensive national program for justice and reconciliation.
Paicho is among the places that were hit especially hard by the conflict, said Okwir Isaac Odiya, a leader of The Justice and Reconciliation Project, a nongovernmental organization that pushes for justice for victims of war crimes, and tries to foster reconciliation in northern Uganda.
“There is interfamily and intercommunity tensions as one family blames another for their son killing the other’s son or daughter,” Odiya said.
Rights groups documented violations on both sides of the conflict. In the barracks at Ogik’s farm, for example, dozens of prisoners, including some members of the local community, were tortured, according to reports by Amnesty International and other groups.
And many of the leaders responsible for the wartime atrocities have yet to be held accountable. In 2015, Dominic Ongwen, a former LRA commander, became the first member of the rebel group to go before the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Kony is still on the run.
The Justice Law and Order Sector, a government body, established a policymaking wing in 2008 to write a national law on transitional justice for Uganda after the war. The group has presented several drafts to the government, but legislation has yet to pass.
The latest draft calls for formal criminal prosecutions, truth-telling and reconciliation programs, reparations payments and amnesty programs.
“The lack of political will, that’s the reason why this is taking so long,” Odiya said of the reconciliation project. “It’s now coming to 10 years that the policy is being drafted. For how long will we wait for the transitional justice to come to Uganda?”