Once an inaccessible place, Awere Hill, located about 70 kilometres east of Gulu town along Moroto road in Odek Sub County stands tall, a reminiscent of the Lords Resistance Army insurgency power base.
It is believed that on the hill, the LRA Chief Joseph Kony used to draw his spiritual powers to sustain his rebellion. Other sources however still maintain that the hill top is still visited secretly by the LRA leader.
Residents allege that the rebels still sneak to the area to seek renewal of their powers from the “supernatural spirits” they have relied on for the last two decades.
“They still get their military might from this hill whenever they sneak here, but they usually come unnoticed,” an elder who has lived in the area for many decades says.
Point at your own risk
One of the caretakers of the hill, Clementine Ajok, 62, believes that the Awere hill is magical. “I fear to talk about the happenings there because Joseph Kony is still at large. Why do you want to interview me? Are you sent by Uganda Government?” said Ajok ,who could not easily divulge information.
However, after gaining confidence, she opened up, saying that indeed the LRA rebels come to the hill, adding that when they stay long without revamping their military might from the hill, they always get weakened. Ajok who cautioned against pointing at the hill or facing it directly when talking alleges that due to its “magical powers” one can get lost or the spirits on it can send bees to attack.
“For us we don’t point at Awere hill, not even facing it directly, because this Awere hill when you point at it, you can get lost or the unexpected can happen to you.”
Home of bees
According to Ajok, the first inhabitants of the area nearing the hill were the Patongo clansmen, who were chased from the area after the hill unleashed its anger and sent lightning on them, paving way for the Puranga clan to settle in the area.
Nekonori Oringa, 70, says the spirits of the hills used to “keep” bees whose honey was eaten by locals and sold to visitors. He says the bees have been destroyed by UPDF by fumigation during their operation.
“Although the caves are still there, the bees have left the hill’s caves after fumigation,” she adds.
Araa P’Lamiyi-ling 70, another associate to the hill’s guides says Joseph Kony in 1987 camped for three days while praying on Awere Hill purportedly to seek spiritual guidance before he embarked on his guerilla movement.
Hills of mystery
P’Lamiyi-ling adds that Omoro Hill, which is about four kilometres away from Odek, equally has magical powers permitting no one to point at them. He claims soldiers fighting LRA rebels witnessed mysteries such as a lion, big snakes and suddenly the person got lost in the jungle for pointing at the hill during their operation.
P’Lamiyi-ling says Moro Hill too has similar mystery though he could not prove his allegation. He notes that visitors could walk with ease on top Awere Hill, but under guidance.
“If you are a foreigner and you climb Omoro Hill, you must be bitten by strange snakes,” he adds. Before the “mystery” hill came to be Kony’s spiritual site, the local community of Awere particularly the Puranga clan members used it as a spot to conduct rituals including those of chasing away epidemics like small pox, measles, jiggers and other types of calamities that befell the community.
A past of ritual offering
Jenaro Okot, 73, a member of the elders group says, “Before the insurgency took us to the camps, the same hill was regarded by the people as a magical hill that used to solve people’s problems whenever sacrifices were offered to the gods.”
He adds that during the rituals to control calamities, the divine interpreter could demand for things like black chicken, simsim, honey and new pots before starting the ritual at the hill to appease the gods.
While at the hill, before performing the ritual, he says dry wood would be collected from an Odogu tree and lit to prepare the food which would then be sacrificed by sprinkling it at the entrance to the cave while the rest would be left at the site.
Coming out of its shadow
During a recent visit to the area, the Bishop of Northern Uganda diocese, Johnson Gakumba, baptized several children from Awere hill that was considered “sacred” by the old generation, arguing that he had gone to pray and baptize from it to remove the belief that the hill was possessed by evil spirits. “I prayed at the hill and also on the Awere well because many people shunned it fearing that the water could be harmful,” adding that the hill and its water spots are harmless.
Despite the prolonged fear of the hill, some residents of the area use the flat portion of the hill top for drying their food stuffs and also drying clothes washed from the well.
This could be an indication that the old belief over the hill that haunted the residents for a long period of time is gradually being forgotten and it is not regarded as a taboo to ascend to the hill top which measures about four football pitches.
The frequent pointing at the hill by the guides, something which was a taboo in the past as history of the area tells, is an indication that gradually the people no longer fear getting lost, as was believed to happen. To some sections of the community around the hill, skepticism over their safety still lingers on. They think that the rebels could one time return to the area which they considered most “sacred”, to replenish their military might.
Dorine Ayaa, 38, whose home is located about one and half kilometres away from the hill says they have been in constant fear of possible attacks from the rebels since their return to the area three years ago.
“We have been living here since we returned from the camp but sometimes we don’t feel at peace as rumours are always filling the air that the rebels could soon return to the country following the intense cross fire in Central African Republic,” she adds.
The 4th Division’s Public Relations Officer, Lt. Henry Oware, following claims that some suspicious people in military attire invaded the area last October and poisoned several water sources in Odek Sub County, says the rebels have no safe havens in the region, adding that the people can now settle in their home areas in peace.
A possible tourist attraction
Currently, the Odek Sub-County Council last year placed a ban on all foreigners visiting the two hills for failure to pay dues to them during their expedition.
“We want them to pull something from their pocket so that we can use it to develop the hills,” Ochaya Adebe, the Sub-County Chairman says.
He notes that many visitors were writing dubious names on the rock, making it unpleasant and artificial.
“Some of them do not know where the water is located and people with selfish motives deceive them that the running water on the hill is the magical one.”
“Many times, tourists come directly from Lira or Gulu to the hill without visiting my office, which is not correct. This practice has been denying the sub county local government revenue,” he says.
He says he had no evidence on whether LRA leaders visited the place often. The Gulu District Local government has gazetted Awere Hill as one of the tourist sites in its five years development plan but nothing has been done due to poor revenue collection.
“We have Awere Hill among others as our tourist site, but it’s not a key priority,” District Chairman Martin Ojara Mapenduzi says.
However, the Ministry of Tourism has planned in the quarter of financial Year 2012/13 to survey Awere hill in Gulu, Guru -Guru Caves and Pabbo IDP camp in Amuru District before money can be channeled to improved the sites.
The Commissioner for Tourism Kale Rose says “first we will sit with elders in the area and learn the culture,” she says “what they need and what ritual Kony performs on the hill to attract visitors.”
Kale says her Ministry would develop areas such as Lukodi Massacre center, Pabbo former IDP camp, and Patiko Fort before Awere hill in this first quarter of 2012/13.