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Last weekend Lauren and I traveled to Atiak (about 90 minutes north of Gulu Town, 24km from the Sudanese border) to attend a memorial service commemorating the 14th anniversary of one of the deadliest massacres in the history of the war here. Robert Gersony describes the details of the massacre in his article “The Anguish of Northern Uganda”:

“Eyewitness interviewees report that the LRA attacked the trading village of Atiak in northern Gulu at about 5AM. Its first target was the local defense unit center, said to be manned by about 75 Acholi militia. In the one-hour engagement which followed, about 15 of the soldiers were killed, the center was overrun and the remaining soldiers fled. In the six hours which followed, the LRA maintained unchallenged military control of Atiak. During this period, in the absence of armed opposition, between 170 and 220 unarmed civilians were detained and killed, including the families of the local defense unit, students from Atiak (Secondary) Technical Institute and others. Although it is widely believed that the army had advance warning of the Atiak attack, the first army units arrived in the late afternoon, following the LRA’s departure.”

For me, the trip to Atiak was a fulfillment of a promise made to a friend three years ago. During my trip to Gulu in June, 2006 I was invited to visit Atiak by my host and good friend Richard Oneka. Richard grew up in Atiak and was displaced at age 7. His family fled to Southern Sudan for two years and then to neighboring Adjumani district for seven years. He settled in Gulu Town in 2000 where he has been working since with a group called GUSCO (Gulu Support the Children Organization) to reintegrate children abducted by the LRA into society. GUSCO was started by parents of abducted children and is one of the locally-led NGOs here doing great work.

Unfortunately, since the situation in 2006 was a bit more uncertain–and since we were traveling with funding and ostensible supervision by Northwestern University–we had to turn the invitation down. I promised Richard then that I would do my best to return and make the trip to see his home in Atiak, should the situation continue to improve.

Before the ceremony Lauren and I visited Richard’s family land about a kilometer outside of Atiak’s center. Most of the several-dozen-acre plot became overgrown during the 20 years of war and neglect. One of Richard’s uncles has moved his family back to the land and is slowly starting to rebuild. Richard walked us around the property and tried to describe what the area looked like as he remembers it…the primary school and health clinic across the road, the surplus of fruits and vegetables that fed the family and more, the peace…He also shared with us his plan to build a homestead here for himself and his soon-to-be wife Nancy in the coming year, if the situation remains good.

The ceremony began around midday as a crowd of at least 500 gathered around a monument standing in the middle of town that reads, “In loving memory of our sons and daughters massacred in Atiak on April 20, 1995. May their soul rest in eternal peace.” The crowd watched as representatives of various groups laid flowers while saying a word of blessing. Tears clouded the eyes of many as prayers were offered quietly–a Muslim blessing sung in Arabic, a word of regret from a UPDF commander, three school children dressed in uniforms reciting together from memory. Lauren and I were asked to come forward to represent “the visitors.” Reluctantly we stepped forward, silent and overwhelmed by our smallness in the depth of the moment.

After the last flower was laid, the crowd walked slowly back through town to tents and chairs set up in the courtyard of the local primary school. For the next five hours a program of speeches, survivor stories, music and dancing, and lunch ensued. Lauren and I were also able to catch up with a few friends that were in attendance–to our surprise. A highlight for Lauren and I was seeing Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe–the wonderful nun who runs a school (for which she was awarded a CNN Heroes award in 2008) for war-affected girls in Gulu. Sister Rosemary also hosted our Northwestern students last summer. She recently started a new school in Atiak (using the CNN award money) and has been getting more involved with the Atiak community lately. She looked brilliant and energetic, as usual.

Seeing Sister Rosemary at the memorial typified for me the place all of northern Uganda currently finds itself in…remembering a horrific past while forging courageously ahead into an unknown future.

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