Today I want to introduce you to Simon. He is a prosecutor who came to the training this week. He caught my attention the first day, when he introduced himself as a prosecutor stationed in Gulu. It’s a place I’ve been really fascinated by ever since I watched a documentary about the Lord’s Revolutionary Army (LRA).
According to the documentary, thousands of children called “night commuters” sheltered in schools at night to escape being taken as a child soldier. I rechecked how widespread this was, and it seems that as many as 15,000 children were moving each night. If caught, they were forced through a brutalising process as conscripted recruits in the LRA. There were 25 years of fighting. A whole generation of kids grew up without school. Many adults and children were mutilated or disappeared. At the height of the conflict there were more than a million internally displaced people.
Simon said that most of the population has returned, but there are complicated problems as the region tries to recover. He has been posted there for several years. The 25 years of war mean that it’s a violent society, alcoholism is rife, and people are still suffering from the trauma they experienced. Land ownership issues are muddied by people having been refugees or child soldiers. Marriage was customary, not formalised. Documentation is often lost or missing.
Simon’s personal faith practice as a Christian means he finds satisfaction in helping the marginalised and poor recover their dignity, and in many cases, their land.
He is acutely aware of the fragility within the society up there.
The threat of violence against prosecutors is something he lives with every day. He sees the accused and complainants around the local city.
I was shocked when he told me that one day – a year or so ago – he was beaten with an iron bar.
He suffered repeated blows to the back of his head and upper body. He has no memory of the events as he was knocked unconscious. He spent three months in hospital recovering, and has been blessed with a full recovery.
Although there was an investigation, it’s not known who did this, so there’s been no conviction.
I was surprised that he is able to continue in the face of that uncertainty. How can he feel safe? I didn’t really come close to a satisfying answer, except that Simon said it was his desire to help people that meant he could continue working. I really hope he’s ok.
Simon says part of his passion for helping comes from his background. At 15, Simon’s father and two brothers were killed in a car accident on their way home from town. He was the oldest of the remaining five kids. His parents’ arranged marriage was a happy one, and he and his family were devastated when his father and brothers were killed.
They were poor, and their relatives were also poor. They had the funeral and continued to live on the land. Simon was the only child who was able to continue in school.
After his father’s death the family was betrayed by his father’s best friend. This man and Simon’s family were so close Simon and his siblings called this man “babli”, which is Swahili for father. Almost immediately after his dad was killed, this friend changed in his behaviour towards the family. He ignored their calls for support.
Worse, about eight months later, he came with forged documents and forced them to leave their plot of land.
They had nowhere to go. They did not pursue the matter, because there was no one to help, and no documentation of marriage. He said, “Who would we have gone to?”
Simon was filled with a burning passion to succeed and make things right. He said that he had nothing except that he was “a bright student”.
His goal was to buy his mum some land to make up for what she had lost. He fished after school and during holidays to get money for school fees. He topped his class with a full scholarship for university. He became a teacher and then a prosecutor, and squirrelled away money for years until he was finally able to buy his mother a plot and build a house for her.
It is heartbreaking to know that she died soon after. He is sad that his sisters grew up with no education and were married very young.
It lit a fire in him, and he retrained as a prosecutor to help people like himself.
He sometimes takes on extra cases if he can see that the family is really desperate.
I was humbled to talk with him. He showed a remarkable tenacity to succeed, and “to make the world right”. He continues to fight for this, despite significant personal risk and sacrifice. It’s a privilege to be part of the training that will help him do that.
About the author
Dr Sara Townend is a GP with a young family living on the Northern Beaches in Sydney. On Friday 18 August 2017 Dr Townend departed to Uganda as IJM’s volunteer doctor for a week. The team of Australians judges, magistrates and barristers that she is travelling with will be training their local counterparts in how to prosecute the crime of land grabbing committed against some of Uganda’s most vulnerable.