The people of Gulu, in northern Uganda, give thanks for peace. It’s Sunday morning at St Joseph’s cathedral on the outskirts of town. Hundreds of families are gathered in their Sunday best.
“I don’t think there is a family in this part of the country that does not have a story to tell,” says Martin Ojara Mapenduzi, chairman of the Gulu district local government.
Gulu endured more than two decades of terror at the hands of Joseph Kony and his rebel group, the Lords Resistance Army (LRA).
Thousands of people were killed, children were abducted and more than 1.7 million were forced to flee their homes during Kony’s reign.
But, now peace has come to the north and the locals are trying to make up for years of war and misery.
The LRA had such little support and its political agenda was so thin, it kidnapped thousands of local children to fill its ranks.
Refugees who fled the LRA sit in a village on Democratic Republic of Congo, 2009 (Reuters: Finbarr O’Reilly)
Now, Joseph Kony and his child soldiers no longer terrorise this region and with peace has come new hope and opportunities.
“I have also seen, since the guns fell silent, how this town has risen up. And how people have demonstrated their determination to turn this story the other way,” Mr Mapenduzi said.
Mr Mapenduzi took part in peace talks with Kony and his commanders in 2006.
Kony never signed the final peace agreement, but he moved his troops out of Uganda and into the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.
In 2012, aid group Invisible Children launched an online video campaign to find and prosecute Kony.
“Kony 2012” went viral and focused attention on the issue. But he is still at large and international efforts to find him have been scaled back.
‘Inside me there is no vengeance’
The scars of Kony’s brutality are still visible in Gulu.
Hellen Lanyom had her lips cut off by Mr Kony’s child soldiers in 1990.
She says if she met the perpetrators today she would not show anger.
“If I met them, I would greet them. Inside me, there is no vengeance. I just ignore those feelings,” she says.
She lives on a small plot of land 47 kilometres from Gulu and supports four grandchildren and several great grand-children. She says she must accept challenges and move on.
“They should know that problems are part of human life. The most important thing is to trust in God. What you should never do, is to have a spirit of revenge. Just leave it to God to judge,” she says.
It’s not just the survivors who are trying to restart their lives. Many of the former child soldiers have returned to the community.
Bosco Oryem was kidnapped by the LRA when he was only 14 and forced into battle.
“It was just three days after my abduction. To me, it was something beyond belief, because I had never seen a bomb explode. We were being bombed. We were seeing people being split apart. And seeing people falling dead from gunshots,” he says.
He lost one of this legs in the war and now makes beads in an effort to support his family. But his earnings are small. The war robbed him of education and health.
“When I think about it deeply, I feel very, very bitter. I lost so many opportunities in my life. When I try to compare how other people are living, that hurts me. All those opportunities,” he says.
After more than a decade of peace, the town of Gulu is rebuilding. Businesses are growing, and a vocational college has been opened for young people.
People are making up for lost time but the region is still one of the poorest in Uganda.
Mr Mapenduzi says locals have no choice but to get on with their lives.
“Every family received a very bitter part of the conflict. But, when you go and talk with them. People have overcome the bitterness. And people have selected not to stick with lamentation. The future looks bright. It will take us a few more years to be in a much better position,” he says.
Watch Sally Sara’s report on Lateline tonight at 9:30pm on the ABC News channel and after Q&A on ABC TV.
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