Gulu is in Northern Uganda, six to seven hours north of Kampala on the road to South Sudan, it is a crossroads for other routes inside Uganda from Lira and Kitgum in the east, to Arua and Murchison Falls in the west. A flat dusty area, a town of maybe 500, 000 people, but growing rapidly again.
Gulu was the centre of the conflict between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the newly formed NRA (National Resistance Army under President Yaweri Museveni) Ugandan Government. That civil war lasted from 1987 till about 2007-8, it was particularly vicious and featured large scale abduction and brutalisation of young people. One of the most notorious abductions was in 1996, when 139 children from a girls school in Aboke were taken. Their deputy headmistress followed their trail into the bush and managed to release 109 of them.
Gulu and much of Northern Uganda is Acholiland; Luo speaking Acholi people. The national government is based south of the Nile, and dominated by the Bantu speaking Bugandans. This civil war between north and south had long roots that, ultimately, go back to the British protectorate. Kony was an Acholi and came from Odek outside Gulu, but as the conflict continued he turned savagely against his own people. The LRA forcibly recruited by abducting children and forcing them to become child soldiers or sexual partners of LRA soldiers. Children were horrifically brutalised to prevent them returning to their villages, over the 20 years of the conflict an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 children were abducted. Under Kony’s command, LRA forces were responsible for tens of thousands of rapes, assaults and killings of unarmed civilians.
By 2006 the Ugandan government had forcibly moved over 2 million Northern Ugandans (nearly 95 percent of the Acholi population) off their land into about 250 Internally Displaced Peoples camps with no access to land, food or work.
The camps had some of the highest mortality rates in the world; about 1,000 people were dying a week, chiefly from malaria and AIDS but also from attacks by the LRA, militias and the Army. Many of the camps were around Gulu, a whole generation grew up in them. All have suffered from the social breakdown which accompanied that forced movement. The destruction of the familial bonds that characterise this area will have consequences for generations to come. Gulu was once the thriving economic and educational hub of the north, the war and the treatment of the Acholi people destroyed all that too.
The northern region has been peaceful since about 2008. Gulu was the centre of the relief effort, but the context has moved from emergency humanitarian aid to development work to the gradual removal of all support and relief work altogether.
Gulu was chosen by the Department for International Development (the Government Department behind British Aid) and Voluntary Service Overseas to be the main office for the Youth Development Programme, a large vocational training programme aimed at helping young people in to employment. Two of the founder members of ETC of PWD lived in Gulu for three years working on that programme. During that time they built up strong ties with many people and worked closely with Gulu Disabled Persons Union.