The Parabongo Peace and Learning Centre
The LRA Survivors
In July 1998 there was a massacre under the mango tree in Parabongo. 22 people lost their lives and hundreds were abducted, with many never seen since. The relatives of the dead and missing formed a group called The LRA Survivors, with the goal to make sure their relatives would never be forgotten, their families taken care of and future generations would never suffer the same fate as them. We met them In 2015. Their story is so sad and their dreams are magical and inspiring.
When we met them they said they had a dream to build a centre to remember the dead and educate the living.
Thanks to the amazing generosity of Mr Nicolas Longley, Guildford Cathedral and others who wish to remain anonymous (if you change your mind let us know, we would love to tell the world how you are helping the people in northern Uganda!) they are now making that deam come true.
Their story was documented in a report by Lino Owor Ogora for The Foundation for Justice Initiatives and brilliantly adapted by our friend Alex Elliott. You can scroll down to read read it or click here.
“The day was so miserable. Blood of our sons, fathers, brothers, teachers flowed from the mango tree where they were killed up to the school borehole … Our tears ran from the eye up to our toe because of the sorrows we had for the soul of our people killed.
May the almighty put their souls in eternal peace.
We shall never forget the education of their children and the social wellbeing of their family members”
Peace and Learning Centre
We are building
a nursery school
a community hall
We are adding photos as we go along and you can see them by clicking on the mini menu below (I'm afraid the menu doesn't work on mobile phones, so please scroll down!)
We are starting with the nursery school, which is currently operating out of a half built house. The school will be used by the nursery children in the morning and in the afternoon it will be used to teach the youth new skills. These will include tailoring and carpentry.
The first thing we did was to fund the registration of the land where the school and centre will be located. As the men started digging the foundations we went on a mission to find our shipping container that was stolen several years ago. It was very difficult to move the container from the house in the middle of the bush (check out the video below). Building is now underway. Once the school building is finished we will build the toilets and then start on the main hall. This is very exciting.
Murder under the Mango Tree
A volatile past
What happened in Parabongo doesn’t stand alone as an isolated incident. In common with many conflicts across the world its roots stretch back to a turbulent, volatile and violent past. Parabongo sits in a region largely populated by the Acholi people. Prior to colonial rule by the British, the Acholi were largely hunters and farmers. This began to change under the British, with the Acholi providing much of the country’s ‘muscle’ in the form of manual labour and the boots on the ground for the army.
Independence came in 1962, and from there followed a succession of authoritarian leaders who exploited ethnic tensions in what became a revolving cycle of politically manipulated violence. The most notorious of these was Idi Amin, instigator of numerous attacks against the Acholi and other ethnic groups. Amin’s reign was bookended by Milton Obote during two separate periods. The second of these was most notable for the Ugandan Bush War, in effect a civil war between Obote’s forces and a rebel coalition which lasted the entire six years of his term in office.
Yoweri Museveni, was sworn in as president in 1986 – a position he has remained in ever since. The early years of Museveni’s presidency were marked by unrest and economic hardship, largely felt in the northern and eastern parts of the country, and marred by continued fighting between government forces and insurgent groups. Out of these rebel groups, the Lord’s Resistance Army would come to emerge as pre-eminent, and wreak devastation across northern Uganda over two decades of conflict. At its height, the United Nations labelled the conflict as one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world, with over 1.8 million civilians forced into internal displacement camps (IDPs) amid countless human rights violations. Tens of thousands of children were abducted alongside indiscriminate killings, attacks and sexual assaults aimed predominantly at the Acholi people. It was during this time that the people of Parabongo suffered their darkest night.
The LRA issue a warning
The 26 July 1996 began much like any normal day. While there was an awareness of the LRA’s presence in the nearby hills, there was no serious cause for concern. People were digging in the fields, lessons were taking place at the local primary school and the Parabongo trading centre – the local hub for commerce – was open for business. That morning, an open letter arrived addressed to the local residents purporting to be from the LRA instructing them to remain at least 2km away from the main road - largely thought to allow the LRA to carry out its operations undisturbed.
This first warning was met with a mixed response, with some people even taking it as a joke.
The following day LRA soldiers began to arrive. They chastised the locals for digging too close to the road and warned of reprisals for not listening to their instruction. Some were accused of informing government forces of their activities. After a time the rebels dispersed without serious incident. Many of the locals now heeded the warning and took to the bush. Others carried on as normal.
The rebels return
That same evening, at around 8pm, groups of rebel soldiers started to return. Their exact number is not known but is estimated at between 30 and 50. They immediately set about torching homes, beating residents and seizing people. Amid the pandemonium some villagers were able to flee to the bush while others were caught up in the chaos. An eyewitness recalls the moment they became aware of what was going on:
“Our grandfather came and woke us up and as we came out there was fire everywhere. We only saw the rebels and so many other people whom they had captured […] while the children were running up and down with nowhere to go and no one to direct them - their parents were all captured by the rebels. The rebels continued beating women, killing people and burning houses. They burnt goats and chicken as they killed men”.
The rebels continued to round up as many of the remaining men as they could find. Many women were raped and children abducted as homes, possessions and livestock was burned. Those that weren’t rounded up were told to return to their homes, accompanied by promises that their relatives would be returned. In panic these people complied, taking cover where they could until the morning came. Those that were made captive were marched towards the primary school where they were bound together. An official report into the events describes what took place next:
“At the school, the detainees were ordered to lie face down on the ground underneath a mango tree. With their hands tied behind their backs, still linked together by the one rope, the rebels cut branches from the trees. One by one, the victim’s received multiple blows to the heads from the rebels; repeatedly hit over and over with brute force, until their skulls were smashed to the extent the victims no longer resembled their former selves.”
Subsequent testimony from people hiding out in the bush recalls the sounds of pounding and splitting wood, even from the distances at which they were hiding.
“That day the blood that flooded the place was just like rain water and the smell of fresh blood covered the whole place. If you didn’t see what clothes your relative had on before, then you would take the whole day to identify which body was his”.
No time to mourn
As the new day dawned word quickly spread of the atrocity that had taken place. People made their way to the primary school and there, underneath the mango tree, they discovered the full extent of what had happened. A relative of one of the victims remembers the scene:
As the villagers tried to identify the victims, they realised that one man had survived. He had been beaten savagely but mistaken for dead by the rebels. He was rushed to hospital for medical assistance and miraculously survived. He remains, to this day, deeply traumatised by the experience.
The rest of the 28th July was a day of desolation and despair as the villagers set about burying their dead. As they did some of the rebels returned to goad and taunt the villagers, telling them to leave their dead out in the open to rot.
Later that day government soldiers started to arrive. They attempted to pursue the rebels, who had by now mostly disappeared. The villagers were advised to move on to somewhere safe. For the majority this came down to one of three choices – hide in the bush, go to one of the IDP camps in the region or stay put. Where they could, loved ones were hastily buried in shallow graves with no time for mourning or traditional burial practices to be observed.
The area remained unsafe for some time thereafter. The rebels frequently returned, clearing the area near the road and piously instructing those villagers that remained how to live a life that would please God. It was not until a number of months later that the government agreed to increase the number of soldiers in the area, to the point that those who were separated from their families or hiding in the bush felt that they could safely return. This included the establishment of a protected camp at Parabongo.
A new day, but not a new dawn
Life in the camps was drastically different. In spite of the increased military presence in the area the rebels returned regularly, attacking the camp, abducting young men and women and stealing food. In addition to this physical threat, camp-life removed the villagers’ ability to provide for themselves and with no means of growing their own food or generating income people became dependent on food aid for survival.
Over time, the social and cultural practices which had been a fundamental part of Acholi life were hugely eroded. The absence of a generation of men tore family structures apart. Women in particular suffered, as victims of sexual assault and though illness caused by HIV and aids. Psychological trauma left a huge footprint, not least through the impact of living in perpetual poverty relying on hand outs to survive.
This fragile state of existence lasted for 12 years, when, following a period of relative stability, the Parabongo camp finally began to disassemble.
A struggle to continue
Life has been hard ever since. The compound effect of the massacre and life in the camps has had a devastating impact on the social fabric of Parabongo, one that is echoed right across Northern Uganda. With the LRA pushed out of Uganda, practical support from the Government helped with repatriation to the villages, including the vital task of clearing landmines from the area. A number of NGOs set about distributing material goods such as clothing, utensils and food in order to help people to re-establish their lives. Psychological support was offered to those that had suffered trauma – including a whole generation of children who knew nothing other than life in the camps.
Over time external support dissipated and the people of Parabongo were left again to fend for themselves. Even today a sense of abandonment is never far from the surface – no LRA leaders have ever been held accountable for their actions, and government recognition of what took place in July 1996 has been limited with no formal acknowledgment, investigation or compensation. None of those directly affected have ever received any financial support of any form, and what little aid that was provided was often mis-directed and gradually trickled away to nothing. This is compounded by a general feeling that Northern Uganda continues to suffer from a lack of investment which has stunted its development, which is marked compared to the levels of economic development that can be seen in other areas of the country.
Problems still remain, most notably a critical lack of support for the most marginalised in society. The elderly are left to look after themselves with little or no support. Children have limited access to education opportunities, and those that do go to school often don’t eat during the day with many dropping out at a very young age to help their families grow food. Women in particular struggle, invariably losing out in disputes over land ownership and stigmatised as victims of sexual violence. People still bear the mental scars – both those that witnessed the atrocities themselves and the generations that were not even alive at the time, born into abject poverty with little or no life chances.
“The day was so miserable. Blood of our sons, fathers, brothers, teachers flow from the mango tree where they were killed up to the school borehole … Our tears ran from the eye up to our toe because of the sorrows we had for the soul of our people killed. May the almighty put their souls in eternal peace.
We shall never forget the education of their children and the social wellbeing of their family members”
The long road to recovery
Through necessity the community began to implement its own initiatives. Inspirational groups such as the LRA Survivors have worked tirelessly to rebuild their lives. They help people work through the psychological impact of conflict and assist them in navigating the complexities of post-conflict life. Every year a day of reflection brings together the community to remember those lost to the massacre and those children that were abducted never to return. As their numbers dwindle, the LRA survivors recognise that remembering isn’t enough. Their approach is focused on the twin objectives of education and empowerment as they look to heal the wounds of the past and rebuild their society.
This is where the Seeds for Development story becomes intertwined with that of the LRA Survivors. Following a trip to Uganda in 2007 and learning of the plight of the millions of people displaced to the IDPs, Seeds for Development began providing seeds to help farmers get back on their feet. From small seeds grow small trees, and that initial work has developed to support a number of education and empowerment projects alongside its agricultural efforts.
The LRA Survivors wish is to develop a peace and education centre, with the dual purpose of acting as a memorial and helping those that most need it access education to equip them with the lifeskills to support a sustainable future. When Seeds for Development spoke with the LRA Survivors in 2015 they had this message they wanted to share with the world:
Rather than just memorialising the past the LRA Survivors want to positively contribute to the future of their people. Through their initiative they want economic empowerment to be put back into their own hands, and for something to come from nothing.
Seeds for Development are working to make this dream a reality.