Resilience in northern Uganda

A new documentary about northern Uganda documents the region’s recovery from two decades of civil war. Its co-director Kelly Burks explains why the film draws on hope, rather than the wounds of the past

In 2013, I spoke to Ahunna Eziakonwa, then resident coordinator of the UN in Uganda. She said, “We keep hearing about Joseph Kony [head of Ugandan guerilla group the Lord’s Resistance Army], in the news, but the victims are beginning to fade.” She told me that the Acholi – an ethnic group from northern Uganda – and others from the region had seen enough films about the tragedy. They had lived through it, and now they needed a positive way forward.

Her words inspired me to make a film focusing on the tremendous resilience and spirit of the people of northern Uganda. We realised that the greatest inspiration we could offer this community who had suffered so much was to show how some who had suffered alongside them had begun to recover. Our feeling was that the beauty of their culture and the immensity of the Ugandan landscapes in the film would capture the real potential of the region.

They had lived through it, and now they needed a positive way forward

We were particularly touched by the women from what is known as the ‘child mothers’ community, who formed the collective Wuro Cokwo. The name translates as ‘let us rebuild our lives’. It was important that they were strong characters in the film. They had been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as girls, repeatedly raped and forced to have children while living like nomads in the bush, where they were often caught in running battles between the LRA and government troops. If they managed to escape and somehow make it back to their villages, they were often not accepted. They had seen too much; they had mothered the children of LRA commanders who had ordered countless atrocities against the Acholi people. They were feared and resented.

Along with other former abductees, Annet (pictured with her daughter) formed a supportive child mother’s community, Wuro Cokwo

It was difficult to hear the many stories of unimaginable cruelty the ordinary people of northern Uganda were subjected to. We found out about the desecration of children, the addictive cycle of fear which led the victims to go on to victimise others, or be shot by their commanders. It was often impossible to digest what we were hearing – it went beyond our comprehension of human behaviour.

But it was also a gift; these individuals found the courage to share their stories with us and we had to find enough empathy to meet this trust, to embrace their experiences. This was transformational for me personally, and changed both mine and my co-director, Eric Bednarski’s, lives.

In spite of all the pain and the grief, we met so many people who were ready to smile. We were told the Acholi are born dancing, they live dancing and they die dancing and that if you ever want to get the Acholi together, let them dance. On one occasion, Lucky Bosmic, a kind of Bob Marley of northern Uganda who wrote two songs for the film, performed an impromptu concert for us, gathering dancers and singers in the middle of a busy intersection in the city of Gulu. Within 20 minutes there were around 300 people around us, smiling and dancing.

Onlookers gather as local musician Lucky Bosmic holds an impromptu street perfomance in Gulu, northern Uganda

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Advisory Committee: Yves Berthelot (France),  PV Rajagopal (India), Vandana Shiva (India), Oliver de Schutter (Belgium), Mazide N’Diaye (Senegal), Gabriela Monteiro (Brazil), Irakli Kakabadze (Georgia), Anne Pearson (Canada), Liz Theoharis (USA), Sulak Sivaraksa (Thailand), Jagat Basnet (Nepal), Miloon Kothari (India),  Irene Santiago (Philippines), Arsen Kharatyan (Armenia), Margrit Hugentobler (Switzerland), Jill Carr-Harris (Canada/India), Reva Joshee (Canada), Sonia Deotto (Mexico/Italy),Benjamin Joyeux (Geneva/France), Aneesh Thillenkery, Ramesh Sharma, Ran Singh (India)