By Benson Okabo, Operations Manager, West Nile Refugee Response
It took me a long while to let forgiveness take its course. My first intent was to take revenge. I wanted to act against the people who senselessly killed my father, a Reverend in the Anglican Church. He was helping extremely vulnerable people who were stuck in their houses while others were fleeing violence and armed cattle raids in July 1987. I was then 11 years old.
The northern region of Uganda had been besieged with violent cattle rustling and fighting orchestrated by the Karamojong warriors, a hostile pastoralist group from the east. The Karamojong warriors armed with superior guns ushered in a wave of violence as they moved from one district to the other. The stole cows, destroyed homes and killed innocent people across the region, forcing families to flee their homes. We were among them.
My family heard a sudden burst of gunfire that fateful day. We scrambled and ran to the bush where we spent three nights without food, water and clothing. They took the cows and killed whoever they could find. After three days, we reunited as a family but learnt the following day that another group of warriors were approaching our home. My parents sent us ahead with a boat to a small island 8 miles away and promised they would follow us. I rowed my two sisters and a niece, ages 11, eight and four years, respectively.
Even though my mother and my other older siblings left home for safety, they went to hide in a different location. My father was left behind to guard our property. For the four days we spent on the island, I looked after my siblings. We cut poles to build a shelter and asked neighbours for food to feed the little ones.
We were reunited days later with our mother, but we could not connect with our father. When we returned home, my father and 20 other people had been killed by the warriors. It was painful as we searched and eventually discovered his body was lying in the bush.
I was devastated. My father was my anchor and his death left a huge responsibility on all of us. We did not know how to start but we just did what we could to get food and an education.
As a teenager, my heart burst with anger and frustration. I thought my future was over. Every time I saw a soldier, I wanted to join the army and find my father’s killers.
When things calmed down, I went back to school. It was very hard getting fees and basic needs coming from a family of eight children as my mother had been a house wife. I cannot forget one day when my teacher scolded me for not wearing clean clothes. I just kept quiet. If he only knew that it was the only pair I had. I contained my embarrassment just to be able to go to school.
I eventually finished my studies and worked in a local aid organization building capacity of communities before I joined an INGO to support the internally-displaced persons (IDPs) in Northern Uganda. Until then, I had not known the role of non-governmental organisations in protecting children. During the time we were on the run, there was no aid worker who came to my rescue. Playing a role in the Northern Uganda IDP response made me realize that I can help protect children in conflict so they do not experience what I went through.
It became my goal to become an aid worker because I know what it is like to be displaced and marginalized. In my previous work before I joined World Vision, I got involved with many INGOs and supported campaign to save children abducted and turned into child soldiers by the guerrilla group Lord’s Resistance Army.
It has been intense work helping children in danger and dire emergency. My experience intensified my desire to children to help free them from their condition. It was also my way to be set free from the pain of my father’s death.
After several job applications, God finally gave me the opportunity to work with a World Vision response in Karamoja from 2014 -2017. It was a very powerful experience being able to work for the conflict-affected children besieged with malnutrition from the communities where my dad’s killers came from.
My experience in Karamoja has inspired me to work in emergencies. I am currently the operations lead for the refugee response in Uganda for people fleeing violence in South Sudan. I do this so that we can stop other kids from experiencing what I went through. At least 60 percent of those affected in this crisis are children. They are just like me and my siblings when we were running for our lives in Northern Uganda. It is unthinkable why children go through this horror when they should never be a target.
World Humanitarian Day on 19 August marks the anniversary of the 2003 bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq, when 22 humanitarian workers were killed. Please sign the petition in support of humanitarian workers and people living in conflict zones here http://worldhumanitarianday.org/en