words and photos by Eamonn Vitt
Northern Uganda is hurting. Conflict has raged in this homeland of the Acholi people for almost twenty-five years. There exists an Acholi proverb “When two elephants struggle, it is the grass that suffers”. In the bush lurks the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group led by a homicidal madman named Joseph Kony. In the LRA’s battle against the Ugandan Government, the peasant population has been caught in the middle. They have suffered greatly.
Most terrorized have been the children. They were abducted in tremendous numbers by the LRA and used as child soldiers. These kids were forced to commit unspeakable atrocities. Frequently against their own brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents.
The conflict has recently diminished and people are trying to rebuild their lives. Seemingly insurmountable obstacles remain. HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria are major killers here. Until recently, access to quality health care has been impossible. Adequate nutrition is an issue. Unexploded landmines litter the hillsides. The government is infested with corruption.
In 2009 I spent six months working in Acholiland with the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders. I was in charge of our very remote hospital. We provided expert medical care, essential medicines, mental health support, and training for local workers.
Our general clinic attended to two to three hundred patients a day. People would walk a full day to seek medical attention. The HIV/AIDS program served over 700 patients. While maternal to child transmission of HIV is now essentially unheard of in the developed world, it’s unfortunately common here. Which means lots of babies and children who must confront HIV/AIDS disease. We treated hundreds for tuberculosis, spread because of overcrowding and housing problems in the refugee camps, and aggravated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Most lethal for the children is malaria. The deadliest subspecies of all, Plasmodium Falciparum stalks Acholiland. Our hospital was diagnosing over a hundred cases a day at peak malaria season. It was hard to believe. It was terrible. So many children were lost.
These children, how do they survive? They have suffered tremendously. Many are still suffering. But as the conflict subsides, their chances are improving. They are eager for a better life. They have no shoes and they walk miles to school. They learn Acholi and English and math and science. They see mobile phones and burst with curiosity about the world. They help their parents work long days in the fields. They take their medicines when they are supposed to. They proudly sport t-shirts with positive messages encouraging safety and awareness. They will make you smile so hard your cheeks crack. They run around and play and sing and dance like hell. These kids have been to hell. They are back. They are the smartest and toughest kids in the world. They are going to be OK.