Female Eyes Open
Female Eyes Open
Artist: Fabienne Arietti
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by L. K. Clark

Personal Blog of Monika Alexander, aid worker serving IDPs in northern Uganda, 2006

Entry 1 I'm Here!

Being in Uganda is the fulfillment of a long–held dream to be able to personally help victims of injustice. I am so pumped to be here!

I've been briefed on the kind of duties I should expect at area IDP (Internally Displaced Person) Camps. A military escort will drive me and other aid workers to one of the camps. My stomach's doing acrobatics. I hope I'm ready.

Entry 2 IDP Camp

Even after all the research I did into the conflict in northern Uganda, I was unprepared for what I'd see. The reality is much bleaker than the reports I read.

The first thing I noticed when we approached the camp is the round huts, about the size of a large backyard gazebo, piled close to one another for as far as I could see. Between them was red dusty earth.

The second thing was the sea of black faces. There are so many people crammed together, and they're all black. I've never known what it was like to fit in so completely. All my life–in school, in my neighborhood, at the mall, in university–everywhere, I always had the vague sense of being out–of–place. Here, I fit in. Maybe I'm being overly optimistic, but I have the feeling that I–more than the other aid workers–will be able to make a difference.

The third thing I noticed was the smell. Mix 25,000 people, a small area, and water rationing and you get a sub–earthy, penetrating stench.

For my first day, my "assignment" was to walk around and familiarize myself with the camp and its people. It was overwhelming. I'll share details in my next entry.

Entry 3 Real Poverty

When people in the States say they're poor, it might mean that they don't have money to go to restaurants or buy new clothes or a car. Some would define poor as not having enough money to do whatever they want whenever they want. People like that don't understand what poor is.

Poor people here don't have enough food. Sometimes parents have to skip meals so their children won't have to go hungry that day. Many babies suffer from malnutrition. In some camps, residents eat only one meal each day. The people are completely dependent on World Food Program relief. If, for some reason, the food convoy can't make it through, they may not eat at all.

Water is scarce as well. Overall, people live on less than a gallon of water a day; in some places, it's only a quart.

The "toilets" are no more than pits dug in the ground that many must share.

Can you imagine living with no income and no possibility of a job? Welcome to the world of northern Uganda.

But at least our organization is here to offer humanitarian aid to these people. I'm so happy I have the privilege of being a part of the solution.

Entry 4 LRA

Last night as I was lying on my back listening to the mosquitoes buzz around the netting surrounding my bed, I realized that some of the people reading this might not even know why I'm here in Uganda.

For almost twenty years, a nightmarish civil war has ravaged northern Uganda. The rebel insurgency that identifies itself as the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has brutalized, pauperized, and destroyed the lives of the resident Acholi people.

The LRA is responsible for killing and mutilating civilians; for abducting children and forcing them to become soldiers, forced laborers, and/or sex slaves; and for driving people from their homes, bereft and in fear, utterly helpless and ruined.

Attempts by the Ugandan People's Defense Force (UPDF), the government army, to quell the insurgency militarily have not succeeded.

Everyone living in an IDP camp is a victim of the LRA whether they were personally abused or not: child soldiers who've escaped, teenaged mothers left with children from sexual abuse, old men and women (the few that can be found) who can no longer live with dignity; children who must trek to cities every night in search of a safe place to sleep; and many, many others.

I'm positive that the people of northern Uganda would not be suffering like this if their soil hid oil reserves.

Entry 5 Disease and a Reunion

Have you ever imagined de–worming a person? Two days ago, that's what we helped UNICEF workers do.

In the camps, aid workers are trying their best to control the problem of worms despite the likelihood (well, inevitability) of re–infection because of the lack of clean water and proper sanitation facilities. With regular treatment, the number of worms a person has remains low and keeps the problem from developing into a seriously debilitating condition. That's a significant accomplishment.

Many of the 300,000 children under five in IDP camps suffer from preventable diseases. We may not consider diarrhea life–threatening, but it can be. Pneumonia and malaria are also common. Can you imagine being the parent of a child that is dying before your eyes?

There's a special rehab center in the area for kids who've escaped from the LRA. Yesterday, a truck filled with new arrivals rumbled into the yard. The children at the center began singing and shaking hands with the new arrivals.

In the midst of the excitement, I heard someone cry out, "Janani! Hey, Janani! Over here!"

I spotted Janani, the boy who scanned the crowd to find the one who had called his name. A huge smile broke out on his face when he found his friend.

A path opened up between the two boys. When they reached each other, they threw their arms around each other's necks and rocked back and forth in circles where they stood, laughing and smiling.

What beauty can burst forth from faces full of joy!

Entry 6 My Complaints

The thing about seeing people living and suffering under such cruel conditions minimizes any sense of discomfort, displeasure, or dissatisfaction a "normal" person might have. I remember complaining a couple months and a lifetime or two ago that we didn't have enough blue cheese dressing and celery to go with the chicken wings some friends and I ordered. I can only shake my head in shame when I think of that now.

Still, there are things here that I find annoying. The trouble is I don't feel free to talk with anyone about them.

I hate having to share my small room. My roommate, Angie, is nice and all, but what I would do for some privacy!

We have a "shower," but with no running water! We have to haul whatever water we want to use from the tank in jerry cans. We have to boil any water we want to drink.

And, I'm really ashamed to admit it, but I'm sick of matooke (mashed plaintain) and posho (corn bread).

I know, I know. How can I be so ungrateful when I see how little the IDPs have? I don't know; I just know how I feel.

Another thing: the Ugandans we work with are so unstructured and laid back. No one ever seems to be on time for anything, and they're so unorganized it drives me crazy! How much more we could accomplish if they'd just get their acts together!

Okay. That's it. Thanks for letting me vent.

Entry 7 Kids

Our team had the pleasure of passing out notebooks, pencils, and rulers to elementary school kids yesterday. I think the whole room brightened up when they grinned their big toothy smiles and said, "Thank you!"

I'm awed that there are any smiles left in the camps. Some stats: sixty percent of the schools in northern Uganda are no longer functioning because of this horrid war. A quarter of a million kids are receiving no education at all.

You'd think the kids would be safe from the LRA while they're in the camps, but they're not. The monsters of the LRA come to abduct them even from the camps that their families were forced to move to for "safety."

I was at one camp last night for the night commute. An estimated 45,000 children trek each night from IDP camps and villages to the relative safety of the cities to avoid being captured by the LRA. Some of them walk as far as seven kilometers a night to reach a safe place to sleep. The luckier of the children sleep in special centers set up to protect them; others are forced to sleep at the bus station, under trucks, and on business verandas.

You might think that the government troops–the UPDF–would protect the children. Sadly, that's not the case. They're also involved in rape, recruiting children to their forces, etc.

Fifty percent of IDPs are under fifteen; a quarter of the kids over ten have lost at least one parent. How could they smile? How could they have hope? I don't know, but somehow they find a way.

What do you want to be when you grow up?" I asked some of the kids as we handed them their new treasures.

Without hesitation, one little seven– or eight–year–old boy answered, "I want to be king of the world!"

His pal butted in, "No, Oumee, you can't be king. You should be president. Be president of Uganda."

Oumee furrowed his brow for a second before breaking into a grin. "Okay. I'll be president. Then we can all live at home!"

Such sweetness residing in a land of horror doesn't seem possible.

Entry 8 Not Fitting In

You know, I've tried to fit in here. And I really thought I could fit in–at least better than other aid workers. Like I said in an earlier entry, I'm the only African American in our agency.

Yesterday, Angie and I took advantage of a military escort and went to an IDP camp, though we didn't have a specific assignment. During training, they told us that we were more than just deliverers of food, water, meds, etc. The people need emotional support as much as they need material things. But walking up to IDPs for the sole purpose of talking with them isn't easy as you may think. How do you break into a chat with a woman who has no hands and is trying to take care of nine grandchildren, for example?

There are two ladies who sit together and watch me with suspicious sideways glances whenever I'm in their vicinity. Did I mention that they have no lips or ears? The LRA cut them off. I really want to talk to them, but don't know how to do that without staring. And what am I going to say? "Do you want to talk about what happened to your lips and ears?"

I could cry my eyes out for the IDPs. Many nights, I weep myself to sleep. But I don't think I have any words to help them with.

You should see Angie. She walks up to people she's never met before and within five minutes, they're sharing their whole stories with her. It's like she has some kind of magic, magnetic heart that people are drawn to.

Usually, we stick together when we're at the camp to visit with people and find out how they're doing. But the other day she suggested we split up

"Ang," I pleaded, "I can't."

You'd be unimpressed by Angie if you saw her. She's just a normal–looking white girl from Tennessee. But her smile somehow blows away any hesitancy you have in talking with her and makes you feel comfortable and accepted.

"Monika, you'll do great," she said. "Listen, if we split up, we can see twice the number of people–be twice the encouragement."

"Angie!" a voice squealed when one of my roommate's new little sisters ran to hug her.

How does she make people so happy to see her?

So I went off on my own, smiling at people as I walked by. But people who are in pain or mothers who can do nothing for their sick and starving children but hold them aren't looking for a smile.

Feeling hungry and thirsty after an hour or so of wandering around, I sat down under an acacia tree that was next to several huts. I closed my eyes, trying to keep from crying. Then, from nearby, between a couple of the huts, I heard some women talking.

"What's wrong with that American African, do you think?"

"What do you mean?"

"She's either moping around or got a stupid–looking smile plastered on that ugly face of hers."

The other woman laughed. "I don't know. She's more white than black, if you ask me."

"Yeah, well," the first said with surprising authority. "She's A-mer-ican."

"You can say that again."

They were still laughing when I stood and walked away.

I talked to my director about it that evening.

"Monika," she said compassionately (but also with a little condescension, I thought), "you are an American. You're here to help the people any way you can. Don't worry about being popular."

Then, as an afterthought, she said, "Why don't you introduce some new games to the kids? They're always looking for something to do."

Yeah. Good, I thought. I feel valuable. Then I remembered that it's not about me.

I'm kind of discouraged right now.

Entry 9 Health Education

We helped conduct HIV/AIDS prevention activities in one of the camps. Although the occurrence of AIDS has decreased in the country as a whole over recent years, the level is, not surprisingly, much higher in IDP camps.

Entry 10 Expert Advice

Since Angie's so good at talking with people, I decided to just swallow my pride and ask her how I can initiate conversation with people.

"I want to start with the two ladies that have no lips. I want to hear their story."

"Okay. So where do you think you should start a conversation with them?"

"I don't know. 'I'd really like to hear about what happened to you.' How would that be?"

"Monika, put yourself in their position. How would you feel if someone said that to you?"

I thought about it a little bit. I'd hate it if all I were to someone was a woman with lips cut off. "Shy. Humiliated. I don't know," I said. "Not good."

"So, what would put them at ease?"

Okay. I got it. I needed to show them that I was interested in them and not just in what happened to them.

I had a chance to talk to them a couple days after that when I found the two women with several small children nearby.

"Are these little sweeties yours?" I asked.

They had lots to tell me then.

I can't even remember how we started talking about what happened to them and their families. I know I didn't bring it up.

One of them said that, when the LRA came into their village one evening, she hid inside their hut with her baby while her husband stood in front of the door to block the way. It didn't work. Four of the rebels hacked him to death. Listening to the attack, she screamed, which brought two LRA kids into the hut to find her. They forced two neighbor boys to beat her baby to death with sticks before pinning her down and cutting off her lips.

"Don't talk about this," one of the soldiers warned her.

The LRA tried to force the other woman's teenage son to kill her with a knife. When he wouldn't, they hacked off her son's hands for not complying. Then a boy soldier of eleven or so deftly cut off her lips; he'd obviously had practice. Another LRA man ground her lips into the soil with his foot.

I cried with them when they told me what happened.

When our tears dried, they teased me about my loose shirt and pants, saying Ugandan women don't dress that way. I laughed with them.

I like Sera and Wandina.

Entry 11 Sexual Savagery

My heart broke today.

I was walking around the camp, trying to coax children to come and play. There's so little to entertain them. No "Toys R Us," no water parks, no video games or television, no food, no water.

Little faces peeked around huts, slowly showing more of themselves. "What does that woman have?" their eyes asked.

It was a plain, red rubber kick ball, orb-shaped fun for every kid who wanted to join in.

How can squeals of laughter exist in an IDP camp? I don't know. I just know that, when the kids started playing kickball, the miseries of life seemed to peel off of them like skin from an orange. For over an hour, they were transformed into regular little girls and boys and their smiles were utterly infectious and irresistible.

I was having fun just watching them.

Then I caught a glimpse of two girls sitting a little ways off, in the shade of a hut. One was small and sat tucked into the little circle formed when the other sat cross-legged. She was sucking her thumb and leaning almost lifelessly against the other's chest. The older girl was no more than ten; her arms clutched the younger one possessively. Besides an occasional and slight lift at the corners of their mouths, I saw no emotion on their faces.

Walking slowly toward the pair, I bent forward so I'd be closer to their level. No response. Even when I sat down next to them, they paid no attention to me. I spoke to them softly, but their eyes only continued to follow the playing children. No amount of coaxing seemed to reach them.

When the other children finally ran themselves tired, one of the boys came and plopped the ball by my feet. "Don't try to talk to them. They're always sad."

"Yeah," another boy added. "Girls! They always have problems."

A girl from the group tsked the boys loudly. "Leave them alone."

I continued to sit with the girls, waiting to see if they'd speak. They were willing to tell me their names, but that was all.

I didn't pay attention at first, but a certain woman kept coming out of then going back into her hut. By the fifth time, I noticed she was glaring at me each time she stepped from her shelter. By the eighth time, she was agitated enough to march over to me.

"What do you want?" she demanded. "Those girls have been bothered enough. You just leave them alone."

"Oh, I don't want to bother them," I said. "I'm an aid worker. I'd like to help if I can."

That's all she needed. She fussed and fumed about conditions in the camp and not being able to go home. Then she let something slip. "There are too many men with nothing to do here. I wish they'd stay away from my girls." The girls' brown eyes rolled toward me. They wished the same thing.

Ugandans aren't accustomed to talking about sex or other types of physical or sexual assault. But it shortly became clear that these two girls, only five and nine, had been raped.

I felt like a lead weight had dropped from my throat down into my stomach.

"Why don't you tell someone? Surely you can report it to the police."

"Report it?" The woman spat the words as though the taste was too putrid to endure. "What's the use? Then everyone we know in camp would think my girls somehow deserved this abuse. I'm just afraid that they might have AIDS," she said so quietly I could barely make out her words.

"But it's a crime!"

"A crime?" she asked, squinting her eyes. She didn't believe me.

"Yes. You should contact the police."

Now she laughed. "The police are rarely even here. I've heard whispers that they've demanded that some women pay a fee in order to have their cases referred to health units. They made two friends of mine go to the Ugandan soldiers' barracks to identify the rapists, but even then the men weren't prosecuted. The women were found badly beaten outside of the camp the next day."

When I talked to my supervisor later, I found out that sixty percent of women in the camps have been physically or sexually assaulted by men. Even government soldiers offer the girls and woman money for sex; since money is the thing they so desperately need, many comply.

How could someone violate two little girls? Is there any hope that those girls will have normal relationships with men? Is there any hope that they'll even live long enough to?

Entry 12 The Lie of Post–modernism

I haven't been sleeping well lately. Three more aid workers were killed in northern U, though not near us. I don't care what students back home say while they're sitting around their comfy dorm rooms or sipping grande café mochas; evil exists and there is a definite line between right and wrong. For people who think otherwise, I'd like to invite them to a little–known war zone to spend a week or two. Their lofty theories would be crushed as quick as a termite hill under the wheel of a military jeep.

Entry 13 Peer Non–educators

We helped facilitate training for peer-educators in one of the camps. What a joke. I bet the kids chosen to teach other children couldn't even tell you which did the rotating: the sun or the moon.

Entry 14 A Bad Place to be Sick

We went to a health center to deliver some medicines today. This particular one serves thousands of IDPs from the surrounding area. Sick people, people they'd call an ambulance for in the States, have to either walk or be carried beneath the blazing sun to get there. Once they arrive, their wait begins; it might last hours, the lines are so long. If they're lucky and get to see the doctor, he'll write them a prescription for a drug they need to buy in town, many more miles away. Forget the health center dispensing drugs. They don't have anything more than aspirin, which doesn't exactly cut it in the treatment of malaria, sleeping sickness, and tuberculosis. If people don't have money for the medicine, guess what? They die.

Entry 15 Spiritual Confusion

Angie was talking to a counselor who helps kids who've escaped from the LRA. The lies Kony and his followers teach the kids are unconscionable. If the child soldiers will apply holy oil in the shape of a cross a certain number of times, he tells them, they will be protected during combat. Prior to battle, they should also sew a stone into their clothing so that a mountain may appear in front of them to screen them from enemy bullets.

I've never seen Angie as angry as she was when she told me that. "What chance do those poor kids have of understanding the truth?" she wondered.

I don't know. Maybe none.

Entry 16 Children's Children

I met Nagesa in town. She's eighteen and has three children, all three the offspring of LRA soldiers when she was in the bush with them. The community doesn't accept her or her children. Somehow they reckon her guilty for the state she's in, so she's homeless.

Every day is a struggle for her to provide for her kids. She just hopes someone will help them with food or money or whatever else they need.

I wrap up my leftover food in napkins to give to them each day. Don't worry; I'm not going hungry. I find I don't even have an appetite anymore.

Hey, how about that for a revolutionary diet plan? Spend a month in northern Uganda and lose all that unwanted weight!

Entry 17 Forever Victims

The kids who've escaped from the LRA go to a special rehabilitation center before they're released to their families (that is, if their families are still alive, are able to keep them, or want them). I met some of them when we went to help out at the center.

Physically, many suffer from missing limbs, skin diseases, mutilations, broken bones, gunshot wounds, and infections.

Their psychological injuries are far greater. How do you live with yourself when you've beaten babies to death, stabbed someone through with a bayonet, hacked another with a machete, or eaten body parts of relatives to avoid being beaten or stabbed or slashed yourself? Is it even possible?

Entry 18 The LRA Leader

Joseph Kony is a virulent evil. There is no punishment on earth I can think of that's bad enough for him. Do you know how many lives have been destroyed by him and the LRA? Over 25,000 children have been abducted by these heartless monsters. Another 19,200 children must walk up to ten kilometers every night to seek refuge in towns and villages just to avoid being abducted. How many live in IDP camps in total and abject poverty? One and a half million.

If I had the opportunity, I think I could kill Joseph Kony myself.

Entry 19 LRA Raid

Today there was a raid on one of the camps we visit most often. Two girls, fourteen and fifteen, were reabducted by the LRA.

I was in the camp at the time. I saw nothing. I did nothing.

Why am I here?

Entry 20 Camp Fire (Not the Kind You Sing Around)

Yesterday, a fire at one of the IDP camps killed eight people and left 8,000 homeless. No one seems to know how it started, but the inspection crew said that most people lost everything they owned: their huts, cooking pots, the little food they had, their jerry cans, bedding, and clothes.

I'm realizing that, no matter what I do, nothing will really make any difference. They didn't tell us that in training. It's like one person trying to suck up the ocean with a straw. Either the LRA will come in and devastate the people or a fire will consume anything I give them. This war is too big and I'm too small.

I'm thinking of talking to my supervisor. I need to get out of here.

Entry 21 New Hope

On the same night I wrote my last entry, I told Angie how I was feeling. To tell you the truth, I expected her to either try to talk me out of leaving or to preach to me that I had no right to desert these people. Not that she's ever treated me that way. I was just feeling so rotten about myself I figured I deserved to be judged by someone else, too.

Instead, Angie cried with me. At the end, right before we went to bed, she prayed for me. I've never had anyone do that before. She asked that God would help me find hope and joy and peace, whether that meant staying here or going home. It was an amazing feeling to have someone do that for me.

The next day–and I mean the very next day–I saw God answer her prayer. I'm not sure what I expected (or even if I expected anything), but I'm still marveling over it.

We went to the camp where the fire had destroyed so many people's huts to distribute soap, blankets, basins, jerry cans, emergency shelters, and other household items. This is the same camp with the two women without lips, Sera and Wandina, who I wrote about earlier. They had organized an impromptu gathering for thanksgiving. Twenty smiling people squeezed together to join in the singing. They thanked God for sparing them from the fire, and they rejoiced that help had arrived for the victims.

I thought that someone without lips couldn't smile, but I was wrong. Their eyes lit up and their teeth were framed with joy. They even made me happy!

After we distributed the supplies, we aid workers gathered to wait for our ride. Before it came, though, another vehicle pulled up. In it were Kissa, a woman from the camp, and her teenaged daughter, who had escaped the LRA. When Kissa climbed out of the car, her five other children swarmed around like bees to sweet-smelling blooms. Surrounding and hugging the girl, they cried out her name, "Najja! Najja!" Tears streamed down Kissa's face as she watched the joyful reunion.

"For six years I've been hoping and praying for my Najja's return," she told us. "I thought maybe I'd lost her forever, that my family would never be whole again. But thank God! He has given me back my daughter!"

As our van approached, kicking up dust in its trail as it bounced on the uneven road, Samson (that's his real name!) tapped my shoulder. He's a sixty–five year–old grandfather who lives in the camp with his seven grandchildren. Only three of his thirteen children are still alive; life is hard.

Samson is someone I could talk with from the very beginning. Before I learned how to listen to people and their stories without worrying so much about my own comfort level, Samson was teaching me. He's a kind and gentle man and speaks slowly, choosing his words like someone would pick out which stones to step on while crossing a river.

He told me about what life used to be like in northern Uganda and about his dreams for his grandchildren and his country.

Samson wanted to encourage me.

"Monika," he said, "I've noticed you're a little sad." He is such a sweet man.

I smiled at him. "I'm okay, Grandpa Samson."

"Are you?"

I turned my eyes from his probing gaze. When I failed to answer, he continued, "Do you realize that what you're doing here is very important?"

"You mean passing out supplies to the fire victims?"

"Nooo, Monika. That's good, of course. But I mean what you're really doing here."

My furrowed brow prompted him to continue. "You're telling people about us. The knowledge that people will hear about who we are and what's happened to us gives us hope. Now we won't be invisible. So keep on writing to your friends and tell them to write to their friends. In that way, you truly help us."

Now, almost as an afterthought, he said, "Without hope, there is no life."

Yes, Grandpa Samson, that's so.

L.K. Clark is a freelance writer who lives in Bulgaria with her husband. Her articles have appeared in numerous publications. Her short stories cover a broad range of topics, including acid attacks in Bangladesh, Uganda's ongoing war, locked-in syndrome, honor killings and suicide bombers.

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