Juma Kasadha recounts his experiences as a photographer and journalist in Northern Uganda in the aftermath of war

Children playing in a Northern Ugandan village

Travelling through thick bushes into northern Uganda, I remembered how the natural beauty of the region had led Winston Churchill to describe it as the ‘Pearl of Africa’.

But as the saying goes, not all that glitters is gold. The beauty of Uganda had harbored Joseph Kony, leader of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army, who had been indicted by the International Criminal Court. His actions against humanity left hundreds of people with amputated limbs, children orphaned, and thousands depending on humanitarian aid for their livelihood.  In the brutal war, many lives were lost, women and girls were abused, children were turned into soldiers, property was looted, and hope for a brighter tomorrow disappeared.

I saw the results of this conflict while visiting the region I once vowed never to reach. While those in the north had been fleeing gunshots to camps for Internally Displaced People (IDPs), I had been leading a life of comfort in Uganda’s capital of Kampala.

But the dancing, singing and style of dress of the people in the region created an unforgettable beauty. Seeing people move up and down in the streets of Gulu town, home to many refugees, meant that the war was over and the recovery was ongoing.

Juma Kasadha

I was visiting as part of the Through a Lens campaign, supported by USAID’s Northern Uganda Transition Initiative, which aimed to change people’s perceptions about the afflicted region. As one of the fifteen photographers selected to work on the project, it gave me a chance to experience life in place in the heart ofAfricaknown mainly for war.

For days we travelled to distant places, taking pictures, but we always remained silent as individuals shared their experiences of the war. Using a simple Olympus E620 digital camera, I was supposed to make a dream come true: a dream of changing the mindset of many Ugandans who still feared to visit the north. For the donor community, which needed an end to war atrocities, the task ahead was overwhelming.

“I hated it all. I moved in bushes without hope of returning home. I cursed the day I was born and prayed daily seeking God’s mercy so I could escape,” Alex Omara tearfully recalls.

Omara was captured by the Lord’s Resistance Army when he was only 14 and life as he knew it ended. He dropped out of school and was unable to return until he was 18, leaving him too old to fit back in. He was shot when the Uganda People’s Defense Forces army encountered the LRA rebels and he returned home without his right leg.

Listening to Omara narrate the gruesome stories of his capture, where the old and young were killed and children were transformed into child-soldiers, the Life Through a Lens campaign began to mean a lot. It was a chance to capture the lifestyle of many who had been affected in the war but who were now rebuilding their lives.

The war in northern Uganda has ended, and humanitarian organizations are resettling victims after the Ugandan government ordered all the IDP camps to be closed in 2007. People hesitated, but they gradually returned to their homes to start living again, no longer depending on handouts but farming and reconstructing destroyed houses.

Omara is now home in the Adang-Ongweny village in Barlonyo, Lira, and he hopes will soon be rid of his nightmares. He is determined to seek knowledge. When not at his job as a tailor, from which he draws an income to sustain his siblings, he reads his younger sister’s school notes for knowledge since he can’t return to school himself.

Leaning on a clutch, Omara is a determined man. “I am a strong and bold man who has to meet this world with objectives to overcome my past and set a new chapter that history shall live to remember,” he says.

To many, it was the pain of missing school that hurt most. Nancy Ayo, who we we photographed at the Pader Girls Academy in Pader district said, “Being out of school is what I hated ever since I was made pregnant at 14 years by the ruthless rebels. I never imagined I could miss education for the rest of my life, and how could I take care of my four-year-old child?”

“My friends were killed, and never shall they ever come to start a new life here atPaderGirlsAcademywhere former abductees, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers are studying comfortably,” said Pauline Akello.

Watching Akello enter class to listen to a teacher’s voice told a story of relief. “I was abducted in 2002, I travelled as far asCongo, danced to the tune of the rebels for six years. But am grateful to God that I was saved and on completion of my studies I will stand to protect lives of the young and advocate for women rights in life,” she said.

The girls’ lives were defined by camp life, which included queuing for handouts. When the government directed the camp closures in 2007, sending the residents to their ancestral homes to start a new life, the psychological effects carried on.

To the youth it meant staying at home with no hope for work, but many programs such as Break-dance for Peace were started, and memories of the past erased. Now farming has begun again as people start a new page and hope for a better tomorrow.

The war is over, but the recovery is still ongoing inNorthern Uganda. Looking through a lens, I was able to learn about the grief hundreds suffered. I also admired the way they had begin their economic recovery, and I when I returned to my own village in the eastern region of Uganda I was inspired to start farming my own turkeys.

Selling agricultural produce at the market