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Living far away from friends and family is hard sometimes, but not nearly as hard as it used to be. I can remember my Grandpa telling me about how when he and my grandma lived in Alaska in the 1940s they used short-wave radios to communicate with family back in Illinois. Each comment was accompanied by several seconds of delay and fuzz. When I was doing fieldwork in Northern Uganda last year, Dr. Chris Dolan – Director of the Refugee Law Project where I was based – told me about how when he was doing dissertation research there in the 1990s he had to send written notes along with people on buses to get a message to Kampala. No texting, just good old word-of-mouth.

Contrasted with these former realities, the revolutionary power of Skype becomes obvious. While sitting in the same chair in my Galway apartment on a random afternoon I can see and listen to my Grandma in Belvidere, friends in Chicago, a former Ugandan colleague now studying at Notre Dame, parents and parents-in-law, etc. I can walk them around my apartment, even a little bit down the street…I can smile, laugh, choose to make eye contact or look away. In short, I can relate…and that means the world. Theoretically, I could even connect these people directly by doing a conference video call. In the click of a button my mom could see and talk to a friend I made a world away in Northern Uganda.

Of course, the joys of Skype are restricted to those who are privileged enough to have  high speed internet and a computer that can run the program. Thus, access is denied to billions. This is the curse and conundrum of the digital divide. I can only hope that with time, the divide will decrease and more and more of us that are separated by oceans will be able to walk each other around our homes, share pieces of ourselves, build relationships to the extant that the virtual world will allow, and begin the process of understanding each other just a bit better.

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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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Were currently in Gulu–our last trip here. The purpose of the visit is a combination of saying goodbyes and having a few meetings related to our work for assetmap.org.

Yesterday we had dinner with a Catholic priest who has become a friend and host for us on several visits here. During the meal he recounted a recent visit to his home village in Pader District. He was asked to moderate a dispute between a new widow and extended family over how to handle her late husband’s estate (apparently this problem is global).

Father also told us another thing that was on everyone’s mind in his home village–the recent influx of iron sheets, farm implements and other “resettlement packages” that the government is currently handing out to local communities in the conflict-affected areas. At first I was happy to hear that government is doing some of this. But, then Father explained how the process is unfolding. According to the people Father spoke with, government officials were handing out the items to selected people with the clear quid pro quo that their “support” was expected in upcoming elections. When Father suggested that maybe the people should be pragmatic and accept the much-needed items but then refuse to support the government at the ballot box, he was told that the gifts were being given with a “clear understanding” that government would be following up to see which recipients had “followed through on support” and which had not.

It is this sophisticated use of patronage and fear that keeps the government here going strong. Slowly but surely, they strategically distribute development gifts (usually paid for with aid money) that people desperately need. Logically weighing short-term need over long-term principles, people accept them with open arms. Then, once people are bought, government strong arms them into maintaing the regime while making threats of a return to past violence or new forms of future retribution.

I suppose this form of government functioning is not altogether unique…sounds quite like many governments in the world and is not so different from the way Chicago worked for decades, albeit to a lesser degree. But, that still makes it unfortunate and, ultimately, unsustainable.

For the months of March and April I’ll be writing “posts from the field” for change.org’s blog on humanitarian relief, which is masterfully moderated by Michael Kleinman. My posts focus on various issues surrounding the current situation Northern Uganda finds itself in as it transitions (hopefully) from war to peace. Check out the posts thus far at humanitarianrelief.change.org!

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Welcome to our blog! Follow along with us as we travel and experience life as a couple of 20-somethings - with all its ups and downs. We hope to post photos, short videos, stories about our daily life and not-so-daily adventures, and thoughts on what’s going on in the world.

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