It is 11 years since the dreadful massacre at Barlonyo camp, but Aidah Adongo, 60, remembers the incident like it happened yesterday. Adongo, her husband and their four children, were a happy family that lived in this small village in Lira District, northern Uganda. Yes, there was war in the sub-region but that was the situation for over a decade then, anyway. Adongo’s family like many others in the area had somehow found a way to live with it. They had hope, however little it was, for the next day. The conditions were not the best but at least they were alive.
However, everything changed in a single night, the night of February 21, 2004. That night, rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)ommitted one of the worst atrocities of the two-decade war in northern Uganda, the Barlonyo massacre. Mourning and inexplicable sorrow engulfed Adongo, the entire village, the country and indeed the world.
“It was a terrible night,” she recalls. “It was around 12am when we heard people forcefully commanding us to get out of our house (hut). We got out. The rebels commanded my husband and I to go back inside. They marched away with our two sons only to return and slaughter my husband. I was also shot in the thigh. I have a scar. When they shot at me, I fell among the dead bodies. They thought they had killed me so they went away. That is how I survived,” she narrates.
Adongo survived the gruesome massacre but there was a thorn left in her flesh, not the bullet in her thigh but the whereabouts of her eldest son. “My younger son who they abducted managed to escape and returned home but the eldest son, his body was not among those identified. I do not know whether he is alive or not. I do not want to believe he is dead. As a mother, I feel a lot of pain. I don’t know whether he is dead I want to believe he is still alive. Other survivors and I have received a lot of counselling and a number of development agencies have involved us in activities, like drama groups to make us busy and forget those bad memories but as a mother, some of those memories keep flashing back. I hope one day my son will return home.”
Every time a former LRA fighter surrenders or is captured and brought back to Uganda from the Central African Republic where the rebels are believed to be currently hiding and news reaches her, Adongo hopes it is her son. She waits and waits, and when days pass without seeing him return home, she has to deal with the pain of realisation it was not her son. “Maybe he is dead, no he is alive,” she keeps thinking, to herself. She wants to forget but cannot forget. She hopes but she is not sure it is a living hope.
Official records show 121 people were killed in the Barlonyo camp, massacre including Adongo’s husband, grandmother, co-wife and her two children. Mr Moses Ogwang, the chairman of Barlonyo Camp however, told this newspaper that 301 dead bodies were noted in their count. Whether 121 or 301, the horrific Barlonyo camp massacre left a scar, a big scar on Adongo’s heart.
And many others are like her. Mira Adwe, 45, is one of them. She dreads to remember the incident. “The rebels killed all the men I could see including my husband and two sons,” she recounts. “They then made us, the women, carry luggage of food stuffs and the loot they gathered. We walked up to a place called Okweng, about 11 miles away. We were 35 women. I thought they were not going to harm us but there at Okweng, they started slaughtering the women.”
At this point Adwe takes a deep breathe. She is strong though she does not yield to emotions but you can tell, from her voice, the memories are painful. “I saw it with my own eyes,” she stresses. “Whoever attempted to run was shot at. I said to myself ‘I must run away. If they shoot at me that would be my end but I am not going to stay here and be slaughtered’. I threw away the luggage I was carrying on my head and started running. I heard sounds of gunshots behind my back but I continued running.”
“I found a hut and entered it but because of the panic, I forgot to shut it. There were many huts in the compound as is the cultur for members of the same household to build around in the same area. The rebels came running after me and began searching in the huts. In one hut, they found an elderly man who they slaughtered. I heard him scream. I was lucky they never entered the hut where I was hiding. I think it is because it was open that they thought they had searched inside. They went away. It is difficult to imagine how I survived. It is God who saved me.”
That is the history – a sad history – Barlonyo has. The trees and maize plants here are green maybe the soils are fertile. Maybe there is some underground wealth, after all the name Barlonyo means a field of wealth. But none of such surfaces when one mentions Barlonyo. Rather, it is the blood of innocent persons that was horribly shed here at the hands of LRA warlords.
Eleven years later, however last week Thursday September 24, Adongo, Adwe and a big crowd returned to the scene of the Barlonyo camp massacre. A memorial in honour of the dead has since been erected. But Adongo, Adwe and everyone else were not here to mourn over the dead. In fact they jubilated, carried banners, danced and matched to the tunes of a brass band.
“Peace, sustainable peace and justice,” they chorused. Barlonyo was joining the rest of the world to launch a set of development goals, including one on peace and justice committed to by world leaders under the guidance of the United Nations (UN). Similar events were held around the world, two in Africa, in South Africa and here in Uganda at Barlonyo. The goals, technically referred to as Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs) seek, in the next 15 years beginning 2016, to achieve three broad objectives – end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and reverse climate change. The goals, it is hoped, will build on the achievements of the Millennium Development Goals, which lasted from 2000 to 2015. In total there are 17 goals. Peace and justice is Goal 16.
Standing on top of Barlonyo camp massacre memorial, the UN Ambassador for Goal 16, Victor Ochen raised the light blue flag with an image of a bird carrying a leaf, a symbol of peace. “As the UN and leaders around the world gather in New York (the 70th UN General Assembly was in progress), here in Barlonyo we stand with them, we stand with the people in Syria, Sudan and everywhere there is conflict, we stand for peace,” he declared.
Barlonyo, Ochen stated, was chosen to launch Goal 16 – Peace and Justice because it is an “iconic place that experienced one of the worst forms of conflict yet has exhibited strength and resiliency”. “When I was approached (by the UN) to lead Goal 16, I was asked, ‘where do you want to raise the flag Asia, Middle East or Latin America?’ I said I want to take it to Africa. Let’s do it home, Uganda and at Barlonyo,” he said.
Ochen, 34, who is also the Executive Director of African Youth Initiative Network, was born in Abia, Apala sub-county, Alebtong District, northern Uganda.
Mr Ogwang, the Barlonyo camp chairperson, said it is been a long journey from war to peace. “It is traumatising beyond measure when you are made to kill your own son,” remarked Ogwang referring to some of the horrific events of the two decade LRA war. “But we are healing, peace has prevailed we now grow our own food.”
Adongo nodded and smiled. The pain of her missing son had probably not gone away but she was optimistic about what peace can do to revive hopes for tomorrow.
As Ochen pulled the strings and the flag – the Peace and Justice flag – began rising up in the air, as the crowd cheered, it seemed like Barlonyo was rising too from grief to a symbol of peace and justice.
The sustainable development goals
Barlonyo was joining the rest of the world to launch a set of development goals committed to by world leaders under the guidance of the UN. The 70th session of the UN General Assembly attended by world political and business leaders, diplomats and representatives of civil society organisations on Friday September 2 adopted the goals, technically referred to as Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs). The SDGs succeed the Millennium Development Goals, which lasted from 2000 to 2015.
According to Ms Ahunna Eziakonwa-Onochie, the UN resident coordinator and UNDP resident representative in Uganda, the SDGs will form “the bedrock of a new development agenda” – also referred to as the 2030 Agenda – for the next 15 years beginning 2016, to achieve three broad objectives – end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and reverse climate change.
In total, there are 17 goals with 169 indicators. In Uganda, Dr John Ssekamatte of the National Planning Authority, said SDGs were integrated into the Uganda Vision 2040 that aims to transform the country from a low-income to a middle income economy in 30 years.
The goals are:
1. No poverty.
2. Zero Hunger.
3. Good health and wellbeing.
4. Quality education.
5. Gender equality.
6. Clean water and sanitation.
7. Affordable and clean energy.
8. Decent work and economic growth.
9. Industry innovation and infrastructure.
10. Reduced inequalities.
11. Sustainable cities and communities.
12. Responsible consumption and production.
13. Climate action.
14. Life below water.
15. Life on land.
16. Peace, justice and strong institutions.
17. Partnerships for the goals.