The Story Behind THE ATLAS OF FORGOTTEN PLACES by Jenny Williams
met David in the summer of 2006. He was tall and roguish, serious yet
charming. At the time I was a volunteer with an aid organization that
worked in remote regions of Uganda and South Sudan. For two weeks I was
stationed in the northern Ugandan town of Kitgum, in a region ravaged by
a twenty-year-long civil war. I was twenty-three, barely older than the
war itself, and new to aid work. David was a Ugandan driver with the
Several days a week, we drove together to various internally displaced
person (IDP) camps where I’d interview local authorities, farmers, and
former child soldiers, and write articles documenting the organization’s
good deeds. I was humbled by the tragedies people had experienced during
decades of fighting between government soldiers and LRA rebels, led by
Joseph Kony, whose brutal tactics included the abduction of children
into LRA ranks—the girls to be soldiers’ “wives”—and the slicing of
lips, ears, noses, and limbs from people unlucky enough to cross their
path. Nearly two million Ugandans had fled their homes in search of
safety. Kitgum, like dozens of other towns in the north, had become both
a sanctuary and a prison.
But David and I always spoke of other things. He was passionate about
music, taught me the Acholi words for hello and thank you, brought me a
jackfruit from the market to taste. I was grateful for the normalcy of
our friendship. Being in a war zone was overwhelming, the casualties
vast, the devastation unfathomable. Intellectually I understood the
horror. Emotionally, it was too big to feel. Still, I wrote my articles,
documented the organization’s efforts, engaged in endless conversations
with other relief workers about the corruption of the government, the
impotence of aid, the constant struggle between optimism and despair.
One afternoon, David and I stood together in the shade outside a church,
waiting for some colleagues to finish a meeting. Chickens meandered
between the car tires. A few children watched us shyly from beside a
tree. I knew David had two young kids and so I asked if they were well.
He said they were. He fell silent. The day was hot and still.
“I have a sister,” David said suddenly. “She was taken by the LRA to be
a wife. She had two children in the bush. She lived there a long time.
Last year she escaped with her daughters.” His tone was matter-of-fact.
“But I don’t know what will happen for her children. Joseph Kony is
I was too stunned to respond. It was the first time David had ever
spoken of his sister and her children. And in another moment, our
colleagues returned, ending the conversation.
A few days after that, I returned to the capital city of Kampala to
complete my writing on Kitgum and begin work on a new region. Eventually
my term in Uganda ended and I continued traveling; a year later I came
back to the States and began a new literary life, far from military
escorts and refugee camps.
But Kitgum stayed with me, more than any other place I’d known in two
years abroad. It churned in the back of my mind, unresolved. It wasn’t
that the tragedies were greater or more complex than anywhere else, but
that through my brief friendship with David, the impenetrable war had
been made somehow personal. And in that raw place of understanding, the
seeds of a novel were planted—the novel that became The Atlas of