The people of Agoro in northern Uganda were some of the worst hit by the Ugandan civil war. As the village slowly recovers, Steve Hynd from the Mountain Club of Uganda visits Agoro to explore the surrounding mountains and what role tourism might have in the regions recovery.
The car pulls up next to two piles of red mud bricks. Behind are a handful of thatched mud huts that mark the edge of the village of Agoro. Ahead, beyond the mud bricks , is another collection of mud huts. The latter are UPDF army barracks. The pile of red mud bricks is the checkpoint into the barracks that cannot be passed until ‘clearance’ has been approved.
A smartly dressed soldier appears and waves the car through. The soldier introduces himself as Lieutenant Everest. Dressed in ironed khakis and polished leather boots Lt Everest stands tall with his chest puffed out. His appearance would have been archetypically military if it wasn’t for his curious grin and unashamed enthusiasm.
When the prospect of climbing the surrounding mountains is mentioned, the aptly named Lt Everest describes in some detail the security challenges. He talks about the landmines that line the border with South Sudan and claimed a UPDF soldier’s life in 2011 and countless other lives during the civil war. He also talks though about the ‘potential’ of armed conflict breaking out from over the border.
The village had been spooked recently by reports that Kony, the wanted Ugandan war lord, is being harboured by Sudan.
The village which is two hour’s drive north of Kitgum, the most northerly town in Uganda, has every reason to be on edge. Agoro has been devastated by 17 years of almost continuous civil and tribal conflicts. Many people have been killed or forced into fighting for rebel factions including Kony’s notorious Lord’s Resistance Army.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) have documented wide spread human rights violations including reports of cutting the lips and breasts off women who dared leave the internally displace people (IDP) camps. Agoro’s children were also hit particularly hard.
The Lord’s Resistance Army, notorious for its use of child soldiers, operated heavily in the area. One 12 year old child from Agoro told HRW how he was beaten until he agreed to kill a civilian. His experience is sadly not unique.
In light of this very recent history, Lt Everest’s opinion that armed guards were a necessity for any mountaineering expedition had to be taken seriously, despite the relative stability and peace of recent years.
Two soldiers, carrying nothing but dust covered AK-47s led the way through the fertile fields in plastic wellington boots with the local guide, Jeffery, following suit. As Jeffery walked he pointed with obvious pride the varied fruit and vegetables that flanked the small path that he was walking.
This pride stems from both the villages new 680 hectare irrigation system and, in contrast, the near starvation that many in the village faced just a few years previously. The International Rescue Committee described Agoro’s recent history saying:
“Most of Agoro’s residents had been driven from their homes into a makeshift camp that grew up around the local trading center. These displaced farmers, with little space or incentive to grow their own food, lived on relief rations provided by the United Nations.”
It is no surprise then when Jeffery takes pride in both being able to walk freely through the fields but also being able to reach up and pick some mangoes from near-by trees.
These agricultural fields sit in the bottom of a valley which is encircled by imposing mountain peaks, the highest of which on the Ugandan side of the border stands at over 2,800 meters.
As the agriculture gives way to uncultivated bamboo forest though, so the path soon disappears. The soldiers though march on insisting that they regularly walk these routes for ‘surveillance’. The pace of the walk drops only occasionally to drink some water or to stand for a nervous few seconds as everyone waits for a snake to slither off.
The higher up the ‘path’ goes, the less apparent the ‘path’ becomes. So, the last hour before summiting is spent scrambling through thick grass up improbably steep slopes. The soldiers who at the bottom seemed at best bemused about why anyone would want to go to the top of the mountain are now clearly enjoying themselves.
Standing on top of the peak the soldiers explain that we cannot go any further in case the South Sudanese soldiers see us. “It might cause problems” says the younger of the two soldiers as he pulls a cigarette out of his shirt pocket.
As he explains this though, he does not look up to the border of South Sudan but instead he looks out over the plains that stretch for miles out to the south. The plains are dotted by the volcanic mountains that hint at the potential for other walks in the area.
Just as the agriculture of the plains is booming in this formally ‘no go’ area of northern Uganda, the potential for tourism is also growing. The Ugandan Tourism Association has documented the so far mainly untapped tourism potential of northern Uganda. There is no reason to think that Agoro could not be at the heart of this tourism revival.
The village of Agoro has seen an unimaginably difficult couple of decades loosing men and women and children in a bloody conflict. This history requires visitors to be sensitive to such loss, but should not stop them from coming.
As we leave Agoro, we say good bye to Lt Everest and thank him for his help. We pull up at the pile of red bricks that mark the entrance to the army barracks and Lt Everest, now in civilian clothing, beams a smile at us and says, “Tell your friends to visit, they too can be our guests.”
Steve Hynd is a freelance journalist based in Kampala and is a member of the Mountain Club of Uganda.
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How you can help the unaccompanied child refugees in Calais
On our doorstep, just two dozen miles from the British coast, is a refugee camp that is being demolished leaving people in the most desperate conditions. There are hundreds of children in these camps, many of whom have a legal right to be in the UK. Due to feet dragging, legal technicalities and lack of political will, their temporary shelters are being demolished and they are being left exposed having to fight not just for their rights, but their very survival.
In the next week or two this camp will be fully demolished. Unless our government acts, unless we act, many of these accompanied children will more than likely just go missing and disappear. This happened before, it is likely to happen again. The thought of the exploitation they will likely face should this happen should be enough to inspire us all into action.
Last week I went with the MEP, Molly Scott Cato, who I work with and visited the camp and met with some of the refugees and volunteers. What I saw was the end result of an uncaring and uninterested government. It was simply awful. A policy to do nothing left vulnerable people with nothing. I saw no government representation, no officials offering support, only volunteers where government agencies should have been.
It is worth noting, that the refugee camp in Calais is not, and never was, actually a refugee camp but just a makeshift camp with refugees in. This distinction is important. The former implies order and support and the latter implies disorder and little sufficient support.
Our government’s limited response to this is in the last few days is shameful. At the last minute they generously offer to accept a fraction of the children they are obliged to support. Too little too late. For too long they have been focusing on building a hugely expensive “security wall”. Perhaps a wall fits better with this governments fortress Britain mentality, but does little to support the children living in the camp. This whole time, rather than resorting too counterproductive Trump-esque style tactics, the British Government could have been registering the children identified to them by NGOs in the camps, to stop them risking their lives trying to get to the UK illegally.
We now face a ticking clock while the camp is demolished. To stop children disappearing, the UK government must step up and process all children with a legal right to be here. This is either through the Dublin III Regulation which entitles them to be reunited with family members living in the UK or under the Alf Dubs amendment which is supposed to bring the most vulnerable unaccompanied children in Europe to safety in the UK.
There are of course children there who don’t have a legal right to be in the UK and for some it may not be in their best interests to come here anyway. For those the UK government needs to be pushing the French authorities to do more in providing reception facilities to these children so they can go through the appropriate asylum process in France.
Whilst in the camp I heard reports of children being turned away by French authorities when they tried to register to claim asylum. Worse still, I also heard numerous reports of excessive use of violence from the French police. Volunteers talked to me about rubber bullets and tear gas being fired directly into groups leaving some minors with serious injuries.
History will judge our own and the French government’s actions and inaction poorly.
This government behaviour has, to some extent, been mitigated against by an army of volunteers that should be highly commended. Until government steps up to its legal and moral reasonability the goodwill of you, I and volunteers is all some have at the moment. If you have not already I urge you to write to your local MP urging government to act urgently. This cannot wait. There is a sample letter here but more powerfully, you can explain why this is important to you in your own words. Secondly, if you can afford to, please send phone credit to the refugees in the camps. This is crucial all the time but even more so during the up-coming demolition. Lastly, if you have time, volunteer either in the UK or the camps yourself.
This is a moral crisis. Primarily a crisis of government but one that touches on each of us. As Dr Seuss said, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.”
I doubt many in government have read Dr Seuss. But you have, so please act.
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Tagged as Calais, How can I help, Refugees, The Jungle, unaccompanied children