Maryknoll Affiliates Share Signs of Hope in Uganda

In 2009, three Maryknoll Affiliates witnessed work by Catholic Relief Services, the Comboni Missionaries, and the local people to reconcile members of the LRA with communities that they harmed. They shared this letter:

December 5, 2009

Dear Family and Friends

Courage is not an infinite resource. It can be burned up by exhaustion, too much danger or exposure to the enormous task of putting Northern Uganda back together after 23 years of war.

Kitty, Judy and I visited Gulu in Northern Uganda meeting many courageous people. We stayed with the Comboni Sisters. The Comboni Missionaries began their mission in Africa in Egypt and along the Nile in 1864. The first missioners encountered many hardships including disease, long journeys up the Nile and difficult languages. They witnessed the slave trade, were imprisoned and many of the first missioners died along the way.

When I asked a Comboni sister with 40 years experience in the Sudan and Uganda about the hardships of early Combonis, she said “The hardships are different today.”

We spent Thanksgiving with two St. Joseph Sisters. Joanne and Marion. Sister Pat had broken her leg the week before and is recuperating in the US. By chance Amy Finnegan, a PhD Candidate at Boston College, was with us too. The importance of her presence is to remind us of the small world we live in. She is a friend of Rob Young and Kate McCoy who were Maryknoll Lay Missioners with us in New York in 2003. Amy is teaching at Gulu University school of Peace and Reconciliation. She also has the same last name as Kitty’s maiden name.(Finnegan)

Across the street from the Comboni Sisters is Mary Immaculate Primary School for girls. We heard that many of the girls were there because they had been traumatized by the war. I asked Sr. Maria Goretti a Little Sister of Mary Sister, “Are there any girls that have been traumatized by the War?” She answered, “All of them, even the teachers. We are all traumatized” She told of when the school had to be closed and young boys in the Lord's Resistance Army LRA had her at gunpoint stealing all the belongings in their house and threatening to kill her for money. She told them, “Kill me I have no money.” They left with everything - beds cooking utensils, chairs, etc. - leaving the sisters to sleep on the floor. These courageous sisters teach 900 girls. Some classes have 150 students. The average class is 55. Courage!

Mostly, I want to tell you about the rice bowls we fill with money in our local parishes during Lent. We eat less or skip a meal and with this money saved we contribute to CRS (Catholic Relief Services). With this action during our Lenten period we are in solidarity with the hungry, the poor or in the case of Northern Uganda in solidarity with those traumatized by war.

This is what Sr. Pauline the director of CRS in Guru is doing. In short the people of Northern Uganda have been driven from their homes by the LRA. They were subjected to murder, mutilation, rape looting, the mass burning of their homes and mass abductions by the LRA. They found themselves in protected villages which seldom protected them. New survey evidence of the LRA abductions of as many as 66,000 youths may have been abducted in forming the army of children. Abductees were beaten and forced to beat or even kill fellow abductees. They were also forced to attach their own communities and sometimes forced to kill their own relatives and family members. Seminaries, schools, IDPs (internally displacement camps) were not safe for boys or girls.

At this time there is a window of peace and CRS is trying to put things back together. How should children who have been abducted into the LRA and have killed their own family members be treated? CRS has an elaborate program involving forgiveness and reconciliation. CRS uses the traditional ways of communal involvement rather than being left to the individual alone for healing the traumatized children. A 23 year old war has inflicted immense psychological and social wounds creating a need for healing. The following is one example of the local culture providing healing and reconciliation especially for the young boys and girls who were abducted and had committed atrocities.

When a person has been away a long time the chiefs of each clan know the children were abducted to lead bad lives. Using an egg, glowing spear grass and opobo twigs the child is reconciled with his clan and immediate family. The egg which is stepped on is used because it is innocent, for they were innocent when they were captured. Passing the glowing spear grass symbolizes burning away dirt that their children have passed through so they are left clean.

This Acholi tradition of “stepping on the egg” is also used with “washing away tears.” It is washing the face of the child who returns to the village, one who was believed dead. It washes the tears away from the boy or girl abducted and the clan and family rejoined.

Sr. Pauline and CRS using the local traditions of forgiveness and reconciliation are relocating people from the Internal Displacement Camps back to their homes. It is a courageous task using our Christian principles of forgiveness linked with the Acholi culture and African culture of communally welcoming the dislocated into or back into the community.

Kitty, Judy and I had the privilege of being with CRS for a few days observing the courageous work putting things back together when things have filed apart after 23 years of war. We are in solidarity with them in our prayers and with our rice bowls during the Lenten season.

Roger, Kitty and Judy