Postcard — January 5, 2018, 12:18 pm

The Kids of Kyangwali

Growing up in a refugee settlement in western Uganda

COBURWAS primary school, in western Uganda. Photograph by the author

Kyangwali refugee settlement, in western Uganda, is a two-hour drive from Hoima, the nearest town. Halfway through the journey, smooth tar gives way to parched, rugged soil in dry weather, and a muddy quagmire when the rain falls. On this November day, the sun is overzealous. I’m riding in a convoy of SUVs, and the car ahead kicks up a cloud of dust, thick enough to limit visibility to three feet ahead. Along the side of the road, some leafy branches provide shade to a family of baboons who, seeing that I’m about to take a snapshot, flee cautiously into the bush.

Kyangwali was established in the early Sixties, in the wake of the Rwandan Revolution, as Hutus slaughtered Tutsis and more than a hundred thousand people fled that country. (Paul Kagame, now Rwanda’s president, was among those who crossed the northern border into Uganda.) In the decades since, the settlement has also provided a haven to migrants from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Burundi, and recently, South Sudan, where civil war is roiling, and an estimated fifty thousand people are dead. Of at least two million people who have fled South Sudan because of the fighting, about half have come to Uganda.

It’s about ten in the morning when my caravan arrives at the settlement. A mere boom barrier separates the enclave from the rest of the world. We drive under a canopy of trees, passing the guards’ tents. Kyangwali is administered by the Office of the Prime Minister, which allocates land to refugees for building and planting, making the settlement largely self-sufficient; residents are permitted to conduct trade with outsiders. Nongovernmental organizations help with sanitation, primary healthcare, and monthly food rations.

I get out of the car and head down a road with Gloria, my Rwandan colleague. Along the way, we’re greeted by a herd of longhorn cows. In all, Kyangwali spans 79,360 acres, organized into seventeen villages. Homes are typically constructed with mud, thatch, bricks, and wood, then smoothed over with cement; electricity comes from tiny solar panels affixed to rooftops. Scattered among the houses we see stores, churches, health facilities, restaurants, farms, and a police station.

Gloria and I come upon an art studio, where a drunk man approaches us, holding a small bag of beans. He wants to sell it for 400 Ugandan shillings (11 US cents). I ask Gloria what language he’s speaking.

“It’s Swahili and Kinyarwanda,” she replies.

“No, it is Kinyabwisha,” the man objects in English, his words slurred. Children in our midst erupt in lively laughter. Gloria explains that the Congolese language shares similarities with Rwanda’s Kinyarwanda.

Kyangwali, home to roughly thirty-five thousand people, is a cauldron of African cultures and languages that include English and French. The place forms its own society within a nation, yet there are inescapable reminders of refugee life: exiting the settlement requires a permit, which isn’t always granted; the land is owned by the Ugandan government and can be revoked at any time; obtaining citizenship remains elusive. What’s more, there is the challenge of providing education to the settlement’s children. About 60 percent of Kyangwali’s residents are under eighteen, and with only ten primary schools and one secondary in the settlement, many are overlooked.

Joseph Munyambanza, who is twenty-seven, migrated from the D.R.C. as a boy. He attended a public primary school in Kyangwali, where he shared a classroom with more than 150 children. “Our resources are limited,” he says. “Schools are not really equipped to support the settlement’s child population.” His teachers were mostly Congolese; they spoke French but didn’t have a strong command of English, Uganda’s medium of instruction. At home, his family had trouble putting food on the table. “The UNHCR’s monthly rations were too small. Some days I went to school hungry,” he continues. “But I was determined to get an education.”

Munyambanza says that, by the time he was in sixth grade, only sixteen boys and one girl remained in his class. He managed to transfer to another primary school, and then with scholarships, cover tuition to a government-subsidized secondary school in Hoima. But in 2005, at the age of fourteen, still frustrated by Kyangwali’s limited academic and employment prospects, Munyambanza teamed up with some friends to establish an NGO called COBURWAS International Youth Organization to Transform Africa, or CIYOTA. (COBURWAS stands for Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, and Sudan.)

CIYOTA’s education arm, known simply as COBURWAS, began modestly, with Munyambanza and his friends tutoring twelve primary-school pupils in Kyangwali. But they had high aims: to increase refugees’ access to schooling, empower residents, and stimulate social cohesion among migrants of all backgrounds. In 2007, with support from local volunteers, Munyambanza and his friends built their first classroom. They hired Ugandan teachers familiar with the national curriculum and provided them with food, housing, and team-building activities. Later, with the establishment of a farm, students—with the assistance of adult volunteers and occasional hired hands—were able to receive vocational training and grow produce for people studying and working on campus.

COBURWAS now has more than four hundred students in kindergarten through seventh grade, to whom the organization provides meals; for secondary school, kids are placed in classrooms around Hoima, where COBURWAS helps cover the cost of housing. COBURWAS has also expanded its role to help girls cope with problems outside of school—by providing feminine hygiene products and reporting cases of child marriage to the police, which has led to some arrests. Adult participants in CIYOTA’s tailoring course—one of several initiatives helping refugees, especially women, achieve financial independence—sew the young students’ uniforms.

More than 1,700 students have passed through COBURWAS programs; about forty graduates have gone on to universities. After receiving their diplomas, Munyambanza tells me, they are encouraged to return to the settlement and volunteer in the primary school or in other CIYOTA training efforts. In the future, Munyambanza, who now works full time as the organization’s executive director, hopes to build a secondary school in Hoima and a children’s library in Kyangwali; add critical thinking and civic education to the COBURWAS curriculum; and make CIYOTA less dependent on donations, which he plans to do by hiring more help to sell the farm’s crops. Perhaps most important, Munyambanza tells me, kids in Kyangwali have started to visualize bright futures for themselves, as the equals of their peers elsewhere in Uganda: “Refugees, when given opportunities, can make it like any other person.”

The COBURWAS primary school is set in a clearing, on reddish-brown earth. There is a playground with fallen leaves from trees in the compound, a headmaster’s building, and two classroom blocks. Children troop towards an outdoor kitchen for a breakfast of maize porridge. Lunch will be beans and posho (firm maize-meal dough). The meals’ ingredients are harvested from the school farm or contributed by farmer parents.

In the afternoon, in the yard outside the headmaster’s office, I meet a nineteen-year-old South Sudanese secondary school student I’ll call Rose. (She and her family have been granted anonymity to protect their status in the settlement.) She lives in Kyangwali with her aunt, whom I’ll call Catherine, and her cousins. Rose is tall and dark, and like many girls in the settlement, her hair is closely shorn—the style required by her school in Hoima. The term has just ended, and she’s come back to attend Girls of Transformation, an empowerment talk organized by COBURWAS to preach the benefits of education. I ask if she wants to tell me her story. She nods and settles into a plastic chair.

Rose was six years old when she arrived at Kyangwali, along with her younger brother, whom I’ll call John. Their parents are dead—their father was killed in the war, their mother succumbed to illness—and their older brother went missing. Aunt Catherine sponsored the siblings’ safe delivery to Uganda and enrolled them in school. But the support didn’t last long. “She told us that we’re not her kids,” Rose explains. Catherine stopped paying fees for books and supplies, sometimes declined to give them food.

Determined to complete her education, Rose tells me, she began fetching water for neighbors on weekends, earning 5,000 Ugandan shillings per day. With the money, she was able to cover the 25,000 Ugandan shillings of required school fees for herself and John, who was too young to work. She managed to pay her way through primary school, but then there would be secondary—another 260,000 Ugandan shillings, which she could never afford.

For almost a year, Rose was out of school. She helped Catherine in her restaurant and on the family farm. Then one day, a CIYOTA employee approached Catherine with an offer: free secondary education for Rose in Hoima, including her books and housing.

Rose was off, and now she has only two more years of secondary school left. John moved from Kyangwali to another settlement, unable to endure Catherine’s harassment; he found a job and has just finished primary school. He doesn’t have a phone, but Rose hears from him once a month.

Soon, Rose says, she hopes to apply for scholarships to further her education and give back to her community; she intends to become a doctor. I ask if she plans on returning to South Sudan. She shakes her head. What about when the war ends, I prod.

“I want to stay in Uganda because the war is everlasting there,” she replies. “Even if it ends, it will start again.”

Still, trauma and uncertainty have not kept refugees like Rose from creating a semblance of normalcy. As we wind down our conversation, the bite of the sun is taken over by the soothing stroke of a cool, evening breeze. Kids straggle along the road, toting yellow jerricans—some empty, others heavy with water. Rose heads off to meet her friend Grace, a refugee from the D.R.C. who aspires to become a journalist. I return to the front gate with my group, stopping before a red hexagonal Simama sign. As the guard waves my car out, I wonder if residents of Kyangwali will ever find home beyond the barrier.

Single Page

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



August 2018

Combustion Engines

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

There Will Always Be Fires

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The End of Eden

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

How to Start a Nuclear War

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Combustion Engines·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
There Will Always Be Fires·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
The End of Eden·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
How to Start a Nuclear War·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

Minimum cost of a “pleasure palace” being built for Vladimir Putin:


Israeli researchers claimed to have identified a ruthlessness gene.

Trump and Putin puzzle out cybersecurity in Helsinki, John Kelly didn't like his breakfast in Brussels, and a family of woodchucks ate the wiring in Paul Ryan's car

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today