Thursday, February 15, 2007
I'm sorry that I have been silent for this past week, since I have been in Gulu. My life has been full and busy, challenging and changed, difficult and filled with immense beauty all in one breath. I struggle to be able to share this with you fully. I will try slowly, as I did before, by sharing small stories. Hopefully, these stories will, over time, paint for you a picture.
To begin, I would like to give to you a story of one child who has stepped into my life. It is my hope that you will hold her, with all the strength and gentleness that you can find within you. Long before I came, others were here, and others knew her. My friend James wrote on his blog last summer about Joyce. His words are eloquent, personal and true and so, to begin Joyce's story, I will quote him. His story is called "Joyce, a war in microcosm". Joyce is just over three years old now, but she should have died before her second birthday. Two years ago...
"the taxi van that she was riding in with her mother and aunt was attacked by LRA soldiers. She is the only survivor.
The van was traveling the rutted dirt road from Pader, where Joyce lives, to Kitgum, where her father is stationed as a soldier in the UPDF, the Ugandan government army. About two miles out of town the van was ambushed. Bullets pinged and thudded into its metal sides and broke through its windows. The driver swerved into the tall grass by the side of the road but the rebel soldiers were ready. They fired into the van mercilessly. Most everyone had been shot before they set flames to the vehicle and watched it burn.
Joyce was still alive inside, and unharmed. Her mother and aunt were not moving, could not save her. She wriggled free from their heavy bodies and escaped the burning taxi. I imagine she screamed as she ran toward the road – tears soaking her vision and terror pumping her small legs.
The rebels saw her. They ran after her, catching the toddler easily and dragging her back to van. Perhaps the inferno was too hot, or maybe they wanted to try something new, but they didn't throw Joyce back into the van. Instead they laid her on the ground and covered her with the brown grass of Uganda's dry season. And they put a match to it.
Flames rose and burned down into the pile of grass, quickly turning the kindling to glowing red embers, and these sinking down to Joyce's smooth young skin. Once again she struggled free. Once again she ran for the road. And once again she was caught, dragged back, and thrown into a flaming pile of grass.
The government army was on its way and the next time Joyce got up to run away the rebels retreated instead of giving chase. Joyce was severely burned over 45% of her body. The muscles of her left arm were charred and useless and the skin of her face was falling away from the bone. The soldiers rushed her to the nearest hospital for first aid. Later she would be transferred to Gulu for a series of surgeries.
Left without her mother, Joyce is cared for by her sister and the women of her village. She looks small for her age, and though noticeably thin she does not seem malnourished. Her scars are thick and dark, swirling like flames up her arms and covering her hands. Her forehead is high and rough from burns, hair coming in small tufts over the top of her head. Scars create a mask of tissue on her face, out which she stares with serendipitous brown eyes. Her manner is quiet, reserved but not fearful, sadly thoughtful.
You might think, after spending some time with the two year old, that she is always contemplating something sad. Perhaps the depth of depravity to which man can fall. Or maybe that is what you contemplate while you watch her.
I asked her father why the rebels had done this, why they would attack a van full of civilians, and why, when a child who can pose no discernable threat to anyone breaks free, would they risk the extra time and effort to see her tortured and killed. His answer was, basically, that is the nature of this war.
Kony and his band of children are notorious for attacking innocent civilians. The victims are abducted or tortured or killed – sometimes all three. And the motivations behind such attacks, and the LRA's continued terrorism in general, are sorely enigmatic. Victims are left to ruminate on the senselessness of their ordeals and the government is stuck trying to fight or make peace with an army that has motivations beyond sane comprehension.
For this reason, among less forgivable ones, the UPDF is often late in heading off attacks like that on Joyce's taxi. When not met head on by the enemy, government forces arrive in time only to clean up the mess that the rebels assuredly leave behind. Joyce, in a somber but important way, is lucky. The army was there to save her life.
Much as Joyce's story is symbolic of this war, it is also predictive of what will continue if the world does not act to end this conflict. The Ugandan government is keenly aware of international attention, and you and your family and your friends and your elected officials can give them the attention necessary to spark decisive action. The wheels of peace are turning in Uganda. All they need is some grease. Be the grease."
Fast forward 8 months. Joyce's father is in a neighboring town with the army. She is cared for by her aunt and some extended family, and a man named Patrick who has vowed to watch over her. Patrick is a pillar of his community, with a story of his own that would shake you to your core. I met Joyce through happenstance or fate, or maybe God...however you choose to believe...when one day I was at the hospital with another sick child. She was accompanied by Patrick and three other gentlemen, to whom I will introduce you shortly. She tested positive for TB and HIV that day, as we all sat in the sun waiting for results and results and more results for these two small beings -- and yet again the world changed.
Joyce has been in the hospital for several days now, and she is getting stronger. I am working on her behalf, as an intermediary of sorts....but more on this soon. For now, love to you all, and (I hope) your love to Joyce.