Monday, April 26, 2004

Not really an 'upper', this one

Well, I've decided when I'm coming home: I'll be departing Uganda on August 2nd, arriving in Toronto very early (middle of the night, really) on August 4th, with a 24-hour layover in London in between. So now you all know!

The last little while has been sort of strange: After a big night out on friday for a friends's birthday, my friend Tina got a phone call at 6:30 a.m. from her mother in Vancouver: Tina's sister had passed away from a brain aneurism the night before. Quite a shock, obviously. Tina's sister had suffered for years from chronic and debilitating migraine headaches, and had long been on daily doses of morphine. I have no idea if the aneurism and the migraines were related. My thoughts are with Tina and her family this week.

In the spirit of the weekend, things were pretty low-key: I spent both saturday and sunday nights watching movies - Lost in Translation (which I'd already seen in toronto) and 21 Grams. During 21 Grams, the guy behind me only talked on cellphone for part of the movie.

On another note, I've recently started working on a new project here, one that isn't related to my work at U****. My friend Darren, a Canadian teaching at the Aga Khan High School, was talking about the community service project he was supposed to start and supervise, and Sara was talking about her recent work-related trips to Gulu, the epicentre of the horrendous civil war in the north of Uganda. (This is such a tragic issue- if you haven't read about it in my previous posts, follow these links to get an idea of what is going on up there. Save for the occasional token article, this is largely, and tragically, being ignored by international media.) The theme of the discussion, as you might guess, was that both of them really wanted to be able to 'do something' to support the victims.

You often hear about the impact of war on children - parents killed in combat, destruction of homes, accidental civilian casualties, the psychological impact of war on kids. This war is a little different: rather than being bystander victims, this war is being fought by children. The rebel forces, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) simultaneously replenishes its fighting forces and decimates the local population by raiding villages (usually at night), burning down homes, often killing the parents, and always abducting the children for use as soldiers. The target age for abduction is 7-14 years old. Boys and girls are marched for days over the border into southern Sudan, where they are tortured and brainwashed, if they survived the walk to Sudan at all. Often, they are made to kill other abductees from their own village, so that should they escape, their status as a murderer will ensure that they will not be re-accepted by their families or community. Currently, the average rate of abduction is 30 children per night. In response to this, tens of thousands of children walk 2-15 kilometers into Gulu town from their villages in the Gulu District in order to sleep in the relative safety of the city's verandas, churches, school yards, and 'night commuter centers'. They then walk back to their villages again in the morning. 90% of the population (1.2 million people) in the north have been forced to leave their homes - either from fear, or because their villages have been destroyed - and now live in IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps, in desolate, dirty, horrible conditions. There are only 25 guards for 25 000 IDP residents, and so the camps are scarcely safer than the villages they've left. Many have lived there for years. Many children were born there, and know nothing else. It isn't a life.

Darren knew that both he and his students wanted to help the youth in the north. Sara knew that she wanted to do something for the IDP camps, the night commuter centres, or one of the youth-organised NGO's she'd come across on her visit. Myself and another one of our friends, Zahid, heard this discussion and decided that we wanted to do what we could as well.

What we've come up with is the Children of the North Initiative. Managed by the four of us, but actually run by 15 of Darren's senior students, the Initiative is going to try and raise the equivalent of $100 000 US in cash and goods for our three chosen beneficiaries: the night commuter centers of Noah's Ark, which houses 5000 kids per night, and Charity for Peace; as well as the youth-run SOS Children's Fund, which provides school fees, clothes, basic health care and nutrition to displaced children. Also in the works is the production of a documentary about the process and the meeting of the Aga Khan students and their counterparts in the night commuter centers of the north.

I'm really excited about this project - it's an opportunity to do something amazing for people who really need it, and whether we raise $100 000 or $1000 it will make a difference in the lives of at least some kids. Wish us luck! (Or better yet, send us money... or building supplies such as cement, bricks, iron sheets, nails, and septic tanks, clothing, blankets, sleeping mats, jerry cans, plastic basins, salt, soap...)