a few days, in theory at least, Christians everywhere
will celebrate the birth of Jesus. In Uganda,
an 80 per cent Christian country, the celebrations
will differ from our own in one important respect.
For them, Christmas is still primarily a religious
a cynical European like me, this is especially
hard to understand. Given their tortured history,
it is a wonder the Ugandan people can find anything
worth celebrating, never mind Christmas in its
would be perfectly understandable if they had
decided long ago not to bother giving thanks for
the Lord's birth. After all, they have not had
a lot to be thankful for: He appears to have entirely
forgotten about them.
human nature doesn't work like that. It is generally
the unfortunate who cling most doggedly to the
notion of a supreme benefactor.
is how it is here in northern Uganda, where I
am visiting Goal's extensive humanitarian programmes
in the area. As the locals prepare for Christmas,
it is evident that they rank amongst both the
most ill-fated and religiously faithful people
in the world. The number of regular worshippers
on a Sunday is challenged only by the numerous
casualties of poverty and conflict.
a ceasefire was declared in August, Joseph Kony's
perversely named Lord's Resistance Army (LRA)
had for 20 years wreaked murderous havoc in this
pursuit of an objective so obscure it has defied
rational explanation, the LRA was responsible
for the displacement from their homes of 1.5 million
people and the abduction of about 30,000 children.
Because of the remoteness of settlements and the
nature of the terrain, estimates vary greatly
on the number of people killed in the conflict.
on who you ask, it can be anything from 100,000
to half a million Ugandans.
is sufficient to say that an enormous amount of
people died. Many of the child abductees were
murdered, raped, bartered between different LRA
units or, if relatively fortunate, forced into
such bald statistics can never begin to describe
the full horrors of what Kony and his associates
did, or the subsequent terror they instilled.
In one case, the LRA entered a remote village
and killed all but a few of the inhabitants. They
then dismembered the bodies of the slain and began
to cook the severed limbs, intent on forcing the
survivors to eat the remains of their friends
and relatives. A Ugandan army unit happened upon
the scene and drove them off before they could
finish their work.
is based in Kalongo, in the Pader district of
northern Uganda. Kalongo is a stunningly beautiful
town that sits at the foot of a towering mountain.
It happens also to be one of the many sites to
which rural families from the surrounding area
fled during the LRA campaign.
upwards from the town, it is at once a beautiful
and pathetic sight to see the hundreds of tiny
huts of displaced families clinging precariously
to the rocky mountainside.
the LRA ceasefire is holding, Kalongo remains
heavily guarded by government troops and still
operates a night-time curfew when compound gates
are locked and movement is severely restricted.
displaced population here is reducing (from 5,000
in 1994 to about 4,000 at the latest count) as
people gradually return to their original settlements
or, more often, to temporary camps.
with 71 such sites in the Pader district alone,
resettlement in northern Uganda will be a tortuous
and tentative process. People are understandably
fearful about placing themselves at risk by gambling
on a ceasefire that is barely four months old,
especially given the LRA's brutal history. It
is mainly towards these displaced people, both
the recently resettled and those still remaining
within the town, that Goal's humanitarian work
are five main programmes: water and sanitation,
HIV/Aids prevention and care, livelihood development,
public health, and community development.
all of Uganda's social problems are related to
the conflict in the north. A few days before travelling
to Kalongo, I visited Sr Helen Ahern of the Medical
Missionaries of Mary at her community in Masaka,
a town about two hours south of the capital, Kampala.
There Sr Helen and her colleagues range far and
wide, working with, among others, HIV/Aids patients
and the many "street children".
the government has HIV/Aids standing at about
6 per cent of the population, most observers agree
it is closer to 8 per cent.
street youngsters have been orphaned by Aids or
one parent has died and a new partner taken by
the surviving parent has driven the children from
the family home. Either way, they end up fending
for themselves on the streets.
medical missionaries try, if possible, to reunite
the children with their families and provide them
with shelter, food, counselling and basic education.
If a child shows both aptitude and ability, the
Sisters will even try to fund their education,
up to and including secondary level.
stark contrast to Kony's bunch of thugs, it could
be argued that Goal and the Sisters are the more
authentic "Lord's armies".
after all, the Ugandan people do have a little
to celebrate this Christmas.
article has been reprinted with permission from