A sea of pedestrians wearing orange chanted, “Gulu Walk! For the children!” while marching in downtown Montreal last Saturday. The Gulu Walk parade of about 140 people attracted the public’s attention with bongos, flaming orange shirts, free bagels and catchy songs and slogans.
They were walking in support of Northern Ugandans who, for the past 20 years, have been forced to walk 14 kilometers every night from their villages to the main city of Gulu and back again – another 14 kilometers – to avoid murder, slaughter, abuse and rape.
The Gulu Walk supports the plight of Northern Ugandans who have been forced into hiding by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a counter-government group attempting to replace the legitimate Ugandan government by targeting citizens and brutalizing them.
A recent cease-fire signed by the government and the LRA has started initial peace proceedings, but Ugandans have not forgotten their fear and insecurity. Now relocated to multiple Internally Displaced Persons’ camps, they are suffering from disease, psychological damage, malnutrition, and physical and gender violence.
Montreal’s Gulu Walk was organized by the Forum for International Cooperation (FIC)-Concordia, FIC-McGill, Shelter Walk Adogo and mindset media. Laura Arlabosse-Stewart, a global FIC humanitarian coordinator said that this year’s 80 participating cities is a huge jump from last year’s total of 46 participating cities.
Adrian Bradbury and Kieran Hayward started the original Canadian Gulu Walk in Toronto in 2005. The movement has doubled in the past year.
“This is amazing,” said Nick Bleser, executive vice-president of FIC-Concordia. “It’s really important for the international attention to stay focused on the ground in Uganda. If the international community just walks away and starts ignoring [the problem] it won’t help. All these people wearing orange and signs, it’s amazing.”
Many at the walk said they believe that Saturday’s Gulu Walk had new meaning because of fear the peace talks will fall through within the next few weeks.
“Basically they were saying the peace agreement is on the verge of collapse but this is the time where we need international pressure to help them realize this is what is important,” said Maha Sultan, FIC-Concordia vice president.
“If you see that there is no hope, you have got to take it into your own hands and they’re doing that,” said Sultan, explaining that many Northern Ugandans who have been displaced over the past 20 years have decided to return into Northern Uganda and set up their homes, finalized peace talks or not.
Many supporters came on the Walk to show that they cared. After working with hildren in Kampala last summer, participant Andrea Gariepy said she is hoping to return to Uganda next summer to work with another non-governmental organization.
“Just being there made me more aware of the things that are going on in the North and I came back feeling like I wanted to do something for those children,” said Gariepy.
Also participating in the walk were Suzanne Lavigueur, a professor of psychological development, and pediatrician Claude Desjardins, both of whom worked in Gulu from 1974 to 1977.
During their three years in Uganda, Desjardins and Lavigueur educated African mothers to care for their children with minimal resources and trained people to become health educators.
Desjardins and Lavigueur said they were walking to show they care. “I think it’s not an easy process but I think it’s basic,” said Lavigueur. “It’s important that there’s a lot of pressure on the government because otherwise things won’t get moving. It’s such a long war and so little has been done because people don’t really care.”
She said that the situation looks as if its a bit closer to some kind of settlement, and that “there will need to be forgiveness somewhere.”
“I think they need to know that there’s huge pressure ready to support them – not necessarily solve their problems – but people rallying,” said Lavigueur. “People can’t solve the problem for them but they need to know that people do care.”
Desjardins and Lavigueur both said they hope the world will support the peace talks and that Ugandans will be given a chance to heal.
“When the peace is back, everything will have to be rebuilt,” said Desjardins “there’s been no one cultivating, there’s a lot to do. I think they will know better than anyone else how to [rebuild], as long as there is some kind of financial support and emotional backup,” he said.
“Uganda is a wonderful, beautiful country,” said Lavigueur. “Everything grows really easily. But now people have been living in camps, they haven’t been cultivating fields. The firewood is hard to come by and [this is] a big problem. Just going back to normal life, just having kids in school, will need a lot of support.”