We made it to Kitgum unscathed and eventually found our hotel - the Hotel Veron. It's one of two in the town, and it appeared to be right smack in the middle of an IDP camp, complete with a huge wall around the property (topped with coiled, wicked-looking barbed wire). Inside the gates, the walls were painted with murals (quality and style a la El Vaquero in Columbus), one of an African wedding, one of a DJ with a party scene, one of a pool (yes, Hotel Veron has a painted pool), and one of African wildlife (painted either by someone with a horrific sense of scale, or someone with knowledge of a breed of frogs or rats that are larger than elephants). All joking aside, Hotel Veron is located amidst a community settlement in Kitgum (not an IDP camp), where residents are relatively poor and live in the traditional round huts with thatched roofs - but it's certainly not an IDP camp. Hotel Veron is a bit of heaven in extreme northern Uganda. It's only been open five months, but it really is a great place. The owner, Ben, runs a tight ship -the place is spotless and comfortable and even has a water heater.
After settling a bit we headed off to meetings - the first of which was with someone from the Justice and Reconciliation Project at Kitgum's version of Bomah (the only thing worth mentioning is how much better Bomah is in Gulu than it is in Kitgum). The whole day was spent in meetings - several with local government officials and with the Amnesty Commission - meant to gather information about what's going on in terms of peace-building and justice and reconciliation on the ground in Kitgum district - the hardest hit by the war. Lots more talk about the lack of capacity at the local government level (not surprising - we were shocked to find that people were actually working in the post-apocalyptic-looking office block - conditions were deplorable).
At the Amnesty Commission we learned about the realities facing returnees in the area - stigma from the community, lack of resources, post-traumatic stress, etc. The government-run Commission provides returnees with an Amnesty certificate, a blanket, mattress, seeds, hoe and 243,000 shillings (about $130). This is very rarely enough to get a former child soldier back on his/her feet.
Back at Hotel Veron we had drinks with a guy working on an organic cotton project in the region - providing local farmers with training and equipment to grow organic cotton that is shipped and sold in Kampala. I was happy to learn about a seemingly successful project that a) is serving 33,000 farmers, b) seems sustainable (the market is pretty solid and farmers also get land for food crops to feed themselves and their families), and c) doesn't destroy the environment. The area was a big cotton producer before the war, so it's good to see a return to the crop with an environmentally-friendly twist (cotton production can be really rought with pesticides and such). It can be pretty depressing trying to come up with viable economic recovery ideas for a place like Kitgum (and the north in general, where lack of markets and infrastructure is a huge impediment before you even mention that the entire population is living in dire poverty). The cotton project at least seemed to put a positive spin on an otherwise depressing day.
Funny then, how Uganda always seems to redeem itself when you want to lay under the mosquito net and sob. One of Hotel Veron's past residents was an Italian with a flair for cooking. When the all-Ugandan staff brought out a menu in Italian, we were both confused and delighted. The guest had taught the staff to make homemade pasta and sauces. I had lasagna with fresh pasta in Kitgum and a glass of chardonnay. We woke up to the lavender non-sun rise, spanish omelettes, bananas, tang and spiced African tea (to which I added drinking chocolate, which made it DELICIOUS)...and promptly got on the road back to Gulu. Such a short trip, but it was definitely worthwhile.
After a brief stop for meetings in Gulu, we started the long haul back to Kampala. We literally were run off the road by enormous trucks at least five times. If potholes and bad roads are ever a novelty or an adventure, it wears off really quickly. I'm glad to be back in Kampala - even with the fact that La Fontaine has no running water right now, I'm filthy, and Iguana Cafe next door is blasting Snoop Dogg circa 1993.