© 2016 Oryem Nyeko

“Peace” is complex and personal for people in northern Uganda

“Peace as I know is living free from any obstacles stopping you from performing what is required for your life. Then I have a question: are we free in our minds?”

– a man in Odek

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the start of the peace talks between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army in the South Sudanese capital Juba. The talks brought hope for millions of northern Ugandans after decades of war had destroyed their livelihoods, separated them from their loved ones and scarred them both physically and emotionally. The talks failed after LRA leader Joseph Kony withdrew, leaving a signed but yet to be implemented Agreement on Accountability and Reconciliation.

A decade later there is no active conflict in northern Uganda. The region has seen remarkable progress. Where there were internally displaced persons camps, there are now trading centres and local government offices. Where there were night commuters – the term used for civilians who would travel from rural areas to towns like Gulu to escape the brunt of fighting – many remain in their villages to farm their land.

A question remains: is there peace?

This was one of the main questions during a dialogue in Odek, a sub-county on the border between Gulu and Lira districts in northern Uganda. Most people disagreed – there is no peace in their community. Land disputes were consistently brought up as a major source of tension, with women and children suffering the greatest. This issue is inextricably linked to the years of war during which hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from their homes. Now that people have returned, competition for resources means that there is still displacement and conflict.

“[Widows and children] are being chased from their land”, one woman in Odek said. “This is a result of poverty because they see that the widow has no one to protect and defend her property. So they chase her away, and her land is sold off. The orphans end up on the street.”

Land conflict is not exclusive to places like Odek, nor is it limited to disputes between individuals. Last year, in the neighbouring district of Amuru, violence erupted when civilians protested against what they saw as the appropriation of land by the Ugandan government. Recently, there have been calls to amend the Ugandan Land Act to allow the government to confiscate land before compensating land owners. This proposed amendment has been met with mixed reactions, with some describing it as “disguised land grabbing”.

“The second war we are left with is the war of land”, said one man during the dialogue.

But it is in Odek in particular that there are issues that remain unaddressed and block peace, the community says. In the midst of land disputes, there is stigma and misunderstanding resulting from the war. People who were abducted in Odek, for instance, are still haunted by their experiences.

“When we see our brothers and sisters who came back from the bush and never went there of their own volition, they are now back home living in the community”, said one man, “But when they are drinking during their free time and they enter into an argument, the one who is not from the bush will insult the other, talking about the life the other had while in the bush. This causes unhappiness which affects peace.”

As a community, Odek suffers due to its reputation as being the ancestral home of Joseph Kony. People here feel marginalised and scorned outside of their community. This, for them, means that there is no peace.

“If a girl meets a boy, he asks her where she is from, and if he finds out that she is from Odek then the marriage fails”, one man said.

Even access to basic health services is a huge factor. “I went to Lacor Hospital at ten in the morning and my child was only treated at nine in the evening”, a woman said. “So there is no peace in Odek, although perhaps in other areas there is peace.”

Peace is a clearly a complex and personal issue for people in Odek. What peace means to one person does not necessarily mean the same thing to another. According to one man in Odek,  peace is rooted in the individual, who can influence or bring about change in their lives.

“I want to say that the gun is not the issue. It is our hearts that are to blame,” he said. “The guns are just used as tools by the people, which means even when we don’t have guns, we still won’t have peace.”

This article originally appeared on Let’s Talk, Uganda.

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