David Livingstone was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army at age 15. Soldiers surrounded his school in Kitgum, Northern Uganda, and forced the students to leave it, at gun point. Any who resisted was shot dead. He was forced to take a cooking pot from the fire and carry it into the bush on his head, with the rebels warning, “You spill that and we’ll kill you. It’s our dinner!”
For six months, David sought ways to escape the LRA rebels until, during a time when the rebels were fighting each other, he saw his chance. Risking all, he fled back to the town, into the arms of the military for safety. They, however, saw the situation differently. “The LRA must have sent you here to spy on us,” they told him, promptly throwing him into jail.
He spent a further six months in prison, battling conditions that saw a number of other inmates die. Miraculously, during a transfer operation, he was able to get to freedom and begin a new life in Kampala, the capital city further south and far from the conflict zone in the north. There he found Christian faith and began to recover following his period of suffering. He trained as a carpenter and relaxed in the knowledge of a safe future stretching before him.
Before long, however, he was asked whether he would be willing to return to the conflict area and help support his people there. At first, he resisted, knowing the risks. As he did so, however, he became increasingly sure this was, in fact, his calling and moved back to the war zone.
In Kitgum, he worked with Childcare International, a charity caring for thousands of children who needed education. He also provided counsel and support for those who had been abducted by the rebels, and the many who lived in fear of it. The risk of their being taken was so high that many children travelled from the villages to the towns, night after night, in order to sleep where there was light and military protection: Northern Uganda’s famous ‘night commuters’.
At the same time, David began radio broadcasting through an FM channel called ‘Peace Radio’. The only other voice broadcasting at that time was that of the Lord’s Resistance Army: the voice of war and terror. David’s station gave spiritual information, emotional counsel for his hurting community, health guidelines, rural information for their protection and even market support. It was also used, at times, by major aid agencies to help separated families find each other.
David also worked in the camps for displaced people, which housed about 90% of the population. Sadly, the camps offered no education, no medical care and irregular supply of food as the road used to deliver food was often attacked by rebels. David’s radio broadcasts were also heard in the camps as he sought to encourage his people through this time of deep suffering.
When the war ended, in 2005, amnesty was granted the rebels who emerged from hiding to resume life in the area. The reconciliation process was and remains, though, deeply painful. PTSD and trauma undermine many living with memories of the horrors and abuse in those years. Grief and loss bring ongoing pain as people continue life without their loved ones. Anxiety plagues many families who have no idea what happened to their children: not knowing if they were killed while abducted, sold into slavery in a neighbouring country by the rebels, or still with Joseph Kony and the LRA now outside of Uganda.
Today, as well, David’s people battle on another level. Since those who grew up in the camps had no education, most who are now in their twenties and thirties have no ability to read or write. So starting over, in generating jobs and infrastructure is almost impossible for them. (David estimates formal employment in his area as being less than 1%.) Additionally, after twenty years of conflict, this region of Uganda has been physically devastated leaving almost no resources with which to resume life. No livestock or crops remain. Houses were largely destroyed. Even the trees or other foliage demarking property boundaries was devastated, resulting in disputes over land ownership.
In recent times, moreover, drought and famine have impacted the area and further strain has been put upon its meagre resources by a massive influx of refugees from South Sudan.
David began his NGO, Salt & Light Uganda, amid the conflict years in 2000. It continues today as he seeks to help his people re-build. Salt & Light Uganda provides a range of services: educational provision for both young children and adults, rural projects, medical support. They also work through churches to provide spiritual care and counselling.
Their hope is to be, indeed, salt & light in this community which has suffered so deeply: to give people a hope and a future.