Uganda (Joachim Smith)

An Amcan Travel customer visit to Uganda, 2002.

After having spent almost two months in Kampala with Zhao, my Chinese wife who's working for the UN World Food Programme, I think that Uganda is a really a good place to live (well, the southern part anyway, where Kampala is). The climate is warm, but not oppressive; people are very open and friendly, although not exactly in a hurry, and you can gobble pineapples and mangoes and papaya to your heart's content.

Also, there's almost everything to be had for Chinese cooking, including excellent vegetables and beef. We even tried goat a couple of times - excellent! In Sweden, 'goat meat' is a nickname for tough old meat but I had to revise that prejudice completely.

Downtown in Kampala there's a very nice, new shopping mall and large self-service food store and supermarket.

After about two weeks of searching and looking, we managed to find a very comfortable apartment on the first floor, with a nice balcony, newly built in a good area, on a green hill just five minutes by car from the WFP office. In a pinch, you can even walk, in about 17 minutes.

In contrast to Nairobi, Kampala is a very safe city. Of course you shouldn't walk alone in the dark in the poor areas, but otherwise you never feel threatened or even uneasy. If you show a friendly face, people are very warm and friendly in return.

The marabou storks are somewhat more reserved, and everywhere - huge, somewhat sinister birds stalking the many parks, perching on streetlights (no doubt they're convinced that the light poles were erected for them) and rummaging in garbage containers. They're to Kampala what the pigeons are to Venice.

Just before I left, Xinmin took delivery of her (secondhand) Mitsubishi Pajero 3 door, 4 wheel drive jeep. A rugged little vehicle like that is very practical even in Kampala, since street repair is, well... irregular.

So, life in Kampala can be very comfortable. After a couple of weeks I even started feeling that life was TOO comfortable, living in a 'bubble' of international civilisation and almost forgetting that you're in central Africa.


I got the opportunity to work as a video cameraman for the WFP Public Information office, spending a week in the Northern region of Gulu. Most of the northern part of Uganda, north/east of the Nile and bordering on Somalia in the North, is a war zone. It's not well known, and the war is a low intensity one, but with major consequences for about 800,000 people in the villages.

Since 17 years, 'The Lord's Resistance Army', a rebel movement led by a bizarre, self-proclaimed mystic and warlord, Joseph Kony, is terrorizing the Acholi population in a struggle to overthrow the Ugandan government and proclaim a 'religious state on the foundation of the Ten Commandments'.

The rebels are Ugandan Acholis as well, and they used to operate from bases in Southern Sudan, with the tacit support of the Sudanese government. As from June last year, the Ugandan People's Defence Forces (the UPDF) launched a major operation to dislodge the rebels from their Sudanese bases and destroy them.

It didn't happen quite according to plan. After initial heavy casualties and setbacks, the UPDF did however succeed to destroy the rebel bases. But the LRA escaped back into Northern Uganda and now rely on robbing, killing and plundering the civil population (the same people that they claim that they want to liberate!) in a low-intensity guerilla war.

The rebels consist of a hard core of ex-pro soldiers and fanatics, but their 'troops' are almost exclusively - children! They raid villages and kidnap children 12, 13, 14 years old, force them to kill their parents and/or neighbors and brainwash them to become soldiers (and/or 'wives' to the commanders).

As a consequence, the Ugandan government has created large, guarded (more or less) camps and moved the population there for safety. But almost all the people are self-sufficiency farmers and so they can't farm their land. There is some land around the camps, but no one dares to venture further out from the camp than 1 - 2 kilometers, for fear of being robbed and/or abducted by the LRA. Some people even go stark naked to the fields, so as not to invite robbery!

So, the food situation is extremely precarious, in one of Africa's most fertile regions. The people in the camps (now close to 800,000!) rely almost completely on food aid from World Food Programme, the only organization 'allowed' by the rebels to work in the region (since the rebels steal a lot of the food from the villars after the WFP staff has left the distribution point).

But now, the money for this particular WFP operation is running out (the droughts in Ethiopia and Southern Africa are getting all the media attention) and the people in the camps are threatened by starvation. Unless the international donor countries cough up the means. But no foreign journalists or media are allowed to enter the Northern region.

This was our task in Gulu, to shoot video for the networks and still pictures for the news agencies, to raise awareness in the donor communities. So I felt that it was a wortwhile assignment...

To distribute food once per month in the camps, the WFP food convoys have to be escorted heavily, by 70 soldiers in trucks, three armoured cars and a twin 20 mm automatic cannon mounted on a lorry. First time I've been 'on location' wearing a bullet-proof vest!

In the town of Gulu, I visited a rehabilitation center for the other category of victims of the conflict - the abducted children forced to become killers.

Benson Opiye is 16 years old and was kidnapped from his home village when he was 14, along with his three brothers. In a sense he was lucky, since he wasn't forced to kill his father - the rebels did that while he watched, using hoes.

Benson tells us this in a video interview in one of the big dormitory tents in the centre compound. He's one year younger than my son Martin, and in a steady voice he tells about how one of his brothers tried to escape, was caught and killed. He tells how he saw a young girl being afraid of dead bodies and was 'trained' by being forced to smear herself all over with blood from one of the corpses.

Benson managed to escape during an ambush that was opposed by the UPDF. His wish is to go back to school and eventually to become a maths teacher.

We then interview the matron, Dora Alal, a young woman and mother of two, who spends almost all her time with 'her kids' in the centre. I ask her what happens to these returnee kids after they leave the center - are they regarded as enemies and criminals? Dora explains how the Acholi tradition has mechanisms for cleansing and re-admitting anyone who has done 'bad things' and how they are totally accepted back after this process.

Listening to Dora, after having switched off the camera, I can't keep my tears back.

I have to go back there some day, hopefully to make a documentary.

On the flight back from Uganda on Jan 20, I was upgraded for free to business class and spent nine hours in a very comfortable seat, sipping champagne, watching movies and eating excellent food...