Note: This is a letter in the voice of a humanitarian worker abroad writing to a woman he loves at home, in the U.S. He originally traveled to Uganda with Invisible Children, but temporarily left the organization due to his struggles in managing some of the concerns that humanitarian activists often face in their work.
I wonder if you are reading this wearing the frog pajamas that I hate. Ever since you sent me that photo, it’s all I can picture of you. Before I go on, I want you to know that I’m okay. I’ve currently taken a leave from Invisible Children to stay with some friends I have made in northern Uganda to work with rehabilitation programs.
It’s funny that what began as a rebel movement to end the oppression of the north became an oppression of the north in itself. I’m not sure how much longer I can listen to the stories people here have been telling me. Every time I think it can’t get worse, it does. It feels like I’m tossing them into a reservoir of collected memories, and I can’t separate them any longer—I’m growing to despise myself because of it, but I must remind myself that I am human.
A friend I’ve made here, a young girl named Faith, told me how the LRA barricaded the IDP camp she had been sleeping in and asked the children, only the children, to come out. She pretended to stay asleep, and told me of the warmth of the reeking breath of a man as he crouched close to her, chuckling, calling to the other soldiers that he had found a winner of a good soldier. She saw them force her friends to beat each other, to kill with machetes without understanding. One day, she was beaten to the point where they thought she was dead and buried her in a shallow grave, where we found her. Currently, we are working on helping her with reintegration, but that means we face the degenerative cycle and double-bindedness of making her relive her experience. The best thing to do is to simply listen. Sometimes, she tells us that she knows that we know she is thinking of escaping, and that we cannot control her thoughts. I watch her blank eyes. They give me a chill. The system is not designed to foster intimacy, and I am not sure how long my emotions will hold off, though I am amazed they are still here.
Luckily, the LRA is not in Uganda anymore, not since the Juba Peace Talks began in 2006. But they’re spreading to Central African Republic, Sudan, and DR Congo. We’re tracking missions, but I don’t know how effective they are. The mechanisms for the repatriation of former LRA combatants lack coordination and sufficient resources, resulting in lengthy bureaucratic delays. Last year, the AU and UN launched a regional cooperation initiative on the LRA (RCI-LRA) to deliver more humanitarian aid and protection, but are lacking the funds. The regional and international governments here tell us that civilian security and economic development are immediate priorities, that they are estimating dates, but I do not know how they can measure peace using time.
Do you remember how we felt after we watched the Rough Cut documentary together in 2006? In our first apartment, on that couch, I told you that I would be here someday. I remember the way you smiled at me. I replay alternate situations in my mind all the time, but your smile is still the same. Sometimes, when I think about what I am doing, I laugh. The way all those documentaries fooled us so. Our pureness. Two years ago, Obama sent out soldiers to hunt the LRA members down. We also tried in 2008, with Operation Lighting Thunder. How do we not realize we are hurting them more? What sort of protection system do we have if we are placing these communities in the line of fire by the military operations we advocate? We are selling our organization and the issues; we are selling the people. Organizations here, such as the Human Rights Focus, are also working. This is their fight and their history—we cannot write their future within their borders. Yet, what am I still doing here?
I don’t know how much I can agree with what IC is doing or what is going to come of all of this, but I do know this much: the LRA needs to be stopped. They’re saying that Kony is hiding in the Kafia Kingi enclave, in the South Darfur State that is controlled by Sudan, but the president is doing nothing to deny him this safe haven. However, what will happen after Kony is captured? Grace, you must understand the problem has expanded beyond him. He serves as a symbol for so many of the atrocities in these communities, but capturing him will not be the end of the war, even though that might not be the case to the government and media. People will celebrate, but it will not mean that we are victorious. In war, there are no winners. Not when the worst has been left behind. People will drive away, and that is why I need to stay.
It is difficult to separate what has happened from what seems to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. A friend here told me, “The only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity.” Am I objectifying my own experiences in trying to tell you my stories? What is clarity and truth, anyway?
Before I left, I watched my fellow team member Wes burn his photographs of Aria. He crouched down and wept, with his face in his hands. He didn’t notice that I saw him and I felt guilty witnessing something so raw spill from him. I wondered if you would someday hurt me and I, too, will burn your letters. But then, I realized it was not about her, it was about what he carried.
And in the end, this story isn’t about war. It’s about remembering, or forgetting. It’s about whether you will tuck this letter away and tell your friends, “Oh, Stephen is having a rough time, but he will be back soon, let us pray together, please,” whether you will ever see this letter, or whether you are even real to me.
On Sundays, the village women play the drums and the children dance. They laugh and spin around and around and smile at me, tugging me toward their circle. The younger ones follow their own offbeat cadences. The stomps are so steady, I can’t help but imagine how quickly they could be marching with the LRA tomorrow. I twirl with them until I am dizzy, wondering when all the spinning will stop.
Sometimes I have dreams that I’m lying on the ground and looking at the sky on fire. I’ll hear shots launched in synchrony and the crunch of body parts trampled as people run by. There’s tumbling, screaming, running, and almost a sense of unity, as twisted as it sounds. I’ll feel invisible and detached from myself, as though I’m not in my body, but floating above it all. I’ll wake up to Esther shaking my hand, but not until I watch it flop around for a while. I’ve become numb. It’s a frightening, nearly exhilarating experience that I hope, with all my strength, you never experience.
I don’t know if I can go back to the organization. Frankly, I’m not certain if I can go anywhere else. They say that sometimes events happen in other dimensions, somewhere your life exists before you’ve lived it and where it goes afterward. Maybe war is honest. In that case, we should all be (or stay) liars. I miss you in yellow.
All my love,