In Northern Uganda, school children practice a dance of celebration.
And practice they might - because for the past two decades these people have known nothing but war and have had little cause to celebrate.
But just as these children practice their dance moves, tentative peace moves are starting to take hold in Uganda’s war-torn North.
In Uganda’s northern districts, more than a million people live in displaced persons camps like this.
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They were herded into these protection sites in an attempt to make them secure from the rebels of the Lords Resistance Army – or LRA - and to deny the rebels access to supplies and recruits.
For ten years now these people have suffered the indignity of camp life, so different to traditional homesteads, that customary values and social structures have all but disappeared.
And with little or no access to land or livestock, camp dwellers have become totally dependant on humanitarian agencies for all their basic needs.
In this conflict children have paid a terrible price. Many have lost parents; many more have been abducted by the rebels. Camp life has turned them into scavengers.
Charles Uma is a dedicated local government official who spends much of his time touring displacement camps. He knows all too well the horrors of camp life.
Charles Uma: Life in a camp situation is generally bad. I personally don’t recommend it. And it is worse in the parent camps in Gulu, because these camps were created a long time ago – ten years ago, 1996 – they were not planned, very crowded, filthy, I mean every bad thing you can find in the parent camps.
But Uma’s greatest fear comes from the suspicion that camp life has destroyed the culture of the Acholi people and led to a wholesale change in social structures.
Despite the improved security of recent weeks he fears that if elders die before traditional lifestyles are restored then traditional practices will die with them.
Charles Uma: That difficulty has led to a social breakdown among our communities. Many men have deserted their children because of responsibility that is overwhelming. Our men used to be the breadearners, but with this war the reverse is true. Women are now the breadearners of our families – this is completely unbelievable, but it is a fact.
Women have borne a special burden in the camps. Many have been deserted by errant husbands, left alone to cope as sole provider and head of household.
Prostitution, or survival sex, has long been a common feature of camp life.
Betty Obote has been living in Alero camp for seven years. She says that this survival culture has affected young girls as well.
Betty Obote: The young girls too have lost all self-respect, which has come from copying the bad ways of their elders. They run off with soldiers or civilians, they drink alcohol, and they do such things day and night.
Charles Uma: “So what I mean when I talk of social breakdown is that all these other cultural things that used to groom an Acholi girl, an Acholi man, to be what the community respects, and that should take the mantle from the parents - that thing is gone, completely gone.”
But brighter skies ahead are forecast for the displaced.
Faced with the prospect of peace, camp dwellers are daring to move out of the parent camps into new, smaller camps from where they can better access land.
And signs of normality are starting to return.
Land that has lain fallow for the last decade is springing back to life under the farmer’s tools, and cattle herding, impossible in the parent camps, is slowly being reintroduced.
Nelson Okwera is Camp Secretary of the new Cet Kana camp. He’s adamant that with the right support, camp dwellers can kick their dependency on aid.
Nelson Okwera: I think life here compared to where we were, I think is better. Because at least here, we can see, as we now experience, we are a little bit better than where we were at the main camp there. Because we have access to our own land and we are now trying to bring some animals in, people are cultivating. I think we are not very bad.
With assistance from the NGOs, if they can give us, I think after a year or two, we are going to be self-reliant, at least something of the sort.
A few people, whose native villages are close to the camps, have gone one step further and moved back home.
People like Rose Akulu.
Rose is old - and wise enough to know that despite the possibility of peace life will not get much easier – especially now that she must take care of 14 young family members orphaned by rebel attacks.
But for Rose, and many more like her, any life is better than camp life.
Rose Akulu: For me, there was nothing worse than witnessing such terrible things in the camp – the adultery, the raping of girls, the drunkenness. But now I’m at home, I feel much better.
But fear of insecurity remains and government soldiers keep a watchful eye over the people.
Outside a hastily erected tent on the Congo-Sudan border, LRA rebels stand guard.
Abduction has long been the LRA leadership’s favoured method of recruitment, and most of these fighters were forcibly abducted from their homes when they were children.
Over the years some were rescued, others escaped the rebel’s brutal clutches, but a hardcore of brainwashed young men and women remain.
Joseph Kony, seen here meeting a delegation of Ugandan officials, is the leader of the LRA. He is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes.
Despite the reams of evidence against him, Kony vehemently denies any wrongdoing.
Joseph Kony: Those atrocities which was happened in northern Uganda, it was not me or my people. The tragedy that was taking place in Uganda was done by Uganda government.
I did not abduct anybody which was in the bush and no any children in my position or in my camp.
But the number of young faces outside the tent suggests otherwise.
If peace is to really take hold, then LRA leaders must be reconciled with the same communities they have preyed on for the past twenty years.
Norbert Mao is a former MP from northern Uganda. He says that despite their excesses, the LRA will be welcomed home.
Norbert Mao: “You will find that the majority are willing to welcome back our people who are in the LRA. It is going to be painful because war is painful but we can overcome it if we are together. So the LRA is welcome back home.”
Former rebel commander, Jackson Acama, came out of the bush in 2003 after 16 years with the LRA. He lost his right leg to amputation after his knee was shattered by a government soldier’s bullet.
He says that a government amnesty for ex-rebels was what ultimately enticed him out of the bush and that victims of the LRA are ready to forgive the rebels for the crimes they have committed.
Jackson Acama: “What the civilians now say is that people are fed up with the war. This process of amnesty was begun by the civil population because they said that war could not now end the conflict. It is only amnesty, and it is in the culture of the Acholi that people should be forgiven.”
But some of the victims bear such horrible physical and mental scars from the conflict that it may be hard to forgive.
Around 25,000 children have been abducted by the rebels since the war began. Many bore witness to or were forced to commit hideous crimes.
Florence Lakor works as a counsellor at the World Vision Centre where former abductees are cared for and counseled. Her own daughter was abducted in 1996, and spent eight years in the bush as a captive of the LRA.
She now works exclusively with child mothers returning from the bush, often times to a hostile reception from the communities they left behind.
Florence Lakor: Many people don’t understand them, people call them rebels, people think they have done a lot of atrocities, so they are feared to be in the community, in the society.
Every day Florence visits former abductees who have now returned to their communities. Girls who were given as wives to rebel commanders and who bore children while in the bush.
Ida Akongo is one such child mother. She was abducted in 1993 along with her three brothers. In order to ostracise her from her own community and to bloody her hands, she was forced to kill one of her own brothers soon after they were abducted.
As a consequence of this and the unspeakable brutality that marked her years in the bush, Ida is deeply scarred.
Florence Lakor: So Ida in the bush, she was being mistreated like any other girl, beaten all the time, given to a man who is older than her, with other women around him. And she became a wife after two years.
Then she gave birth to the first child who died, then she gave birth to two more children. Now, when she came back home, she found the parents – one of them died of sickness, the other was killed by the rebels.
So, she expected the people at home – the relatives – to welcome her, to accept her. But when she came, they all – the people who should have accepted her – when they saw her with the two children, they rejected her.
Ida Akongo: When I returned home, the place was deserted – there was no one left. I didn’t have anywhere to stay, so I moved in with my brother’s family.
My brother’s wives then turned against me – they were hostile, claiming that my child was a cursed child who would kill their children. I decided to leave their place, and live on my own, but then I had no help in looking after my children.
If I compare life here with life in the bush, I think I would prefer to be in the bush. When I returned the reaction of my community really wasn’t good. In fact there was no one to receive me, and my parents also weren’t there.
Rejected by her family, Ida found herself with no better option than to reunite with her rebel “husband” when he himself returned from the bush after sustaining serious injuries in an attack by government soldiers.
During his years as a fighter, Michael Acellam was shot ten times and lost his right eye to shrapnel.
But quite unlike the experience of his wife, he says that following the Acholi tradition of forgiveness he has been fully accepted back into the community.
Michael Acellam: Kony and his senior commanders, they are all one tribe, they are all Acholi, they were all Acholi. So in Acholi, Acholi have their word, their regulation, Acholi have their laws, they forgive. Acholi, they forgive Kony, as they forgive other people.
As you see me, I’m together with the civil population because they’re our parents. So I’m together with them, without any dispute.
Bur for thousands of people like Ida who have lost so much to the war, forgiveness may be too bitter a pill to swallow - and Uganda’s peace could yet turn out to be just as challenging as its war.
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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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