The reality of immense human suffering tends to be obscured by our distance from it. The greatest divide between us in the West and the worst tragedies of our time is not merely measured by miles but by circumstances so completely foreign to our experience that we can hardly relate. Getting up close and personal with tragic situations, and the people effected by them, can put a personal face on what is otherwise seen as a vague humanitarian crisis. I recently met a young man who did this for me and I would like you to meet him as well.
Jeffrey was born and raised in Northern Uganda. He was very young when the Lord's Resistance Army, known locally as the "rebels", stormed his village. One of his uncles scooped him up and hid him in a burlap sack and tried to carry him away. From the small holes in the sack, Jeffrey watched as the rebels brutally murdered his other uncle who had been a favorite to him. Unable to escape, Jeffrey was abducted by the rebels and forced to join their army.
While among the rebels, Jeffrey witnessed inconceivable brutality. One elderly man was demanded to carry more than his aging body could manage and when he unable to do so, they threw fuel on him and burned him alive. A rope was once draped across a raging river and the children were ordered to cross it hand-over-hand. Many of the children could not make it and fell into the rushing river without anyone to help them. He witnessed children who were forced to kill other children or be killed themselves.
One day Jeffrey saw his chance to escape, ran for his life and hid in a tree while the rebel soldiers searched for him. When he returned to his village he found nothing left but ruins. With no family to care for him he despaired of life. One day a woman found him and recognizing his pain and need, she took him in. She found a place for him among the children of the Otino-Awa Children's Home and this is where we met Jeffrey. He has made great strides but continues to receive counseling to help him through the trauma that he experienced at such a young age. Jeffrey is only one of thousands of children who have faced similarly tragic circumstances. What is sad is that the vast majority of them will never receive the kind of support and help that Jeffrey is receiving now.
The LRA was founded by, Alice Lakhwena, a self-proclaimed prophetess and political activist. Joseph Kony succeeded her as the rebel leader and has waged war against the Ugandan government since 1986. While the LRA claims to be defending the rights of the people of Northern Uganda, the reality is that these are the people on whom they have inflicted so much suffering. They lack a defined political agenda but embrace a policy of terror. Without the popular support of the Ugandan people, they developed a strategy to reinforce their army by abducting children and forcing them to become killers. For thousands of children like Jeffrey, this has caused immeasurable devastation.
The LRA finally reached a peace agreement with the Ugandan government in August of last year. Now that it has come time to negotiate the terms of that peace, however, the agreement is breaking down. The International Criminal Court has indicted Kony and some of his chief officers of crimes against humanity. This creates a delicate situation, with convicted criminals seeking to negotiate not only for their cause but for their ongoing freedom. Recently when LRA troops appeared near Juba, Sudan, where the talks are scheduled take place, they learned of a nearby encampment of Ugandan soldiers and promptly disappeared.
Although the government of Northern Sudan has long supported the LRA's cause, the rebels believe that the emerging government of Southern Sudan is sympathetic to the Ugandan government. This has caused them to demand that the peace talks take place elsewhere, in more neutral territory. Kenya has rejected their request to host the talks in Nairobi. Meanwhile, the Ugandan government continues to insist that the peace negotiations take place in Juba, Sudan. There is fear that if the if the agreement is not reached soon, violence will once again break out in Northern Uganda. It is the daily story on the front pages of Uganda's papers. For the sake of Jeffrey and countless children just like him, let's hope, pray and labor to see that this does not happen.