Remembering Irene Gleeson

Last week Irene Gleeson passed away and although I did not know her well she was one of the more remarkable people that I have met. On reflection I realised that many of the greatest peace workers are not well known, simply because their life’s work is performed in areas of extreme danger, they do not have illustrious friends and their energies go into their work not their careers. I spent 8 years sponsoring a project working on the rehabilitation of child soldiers in Northern Uganda and used to visit the region regularly. This was a transformative period for me, and it was during these trips that I came to visit her remarkable school, orphanage and HIV/AIDS centre in Kitgum, Northern Uganda.

Like many people ‘who are out there’ she was eccentric and fully absorbed in her work. During the times I spent with her the only conversation we had was about her kids and her work. But what remarkable work and what a remarkable life she led, fearless, compassionate and selfless in the extreme.

Irene was religious and in 1991 felt she had a vision from god which told her to go the Northern Uganda and help the children suffering from the war. She then sold her home on the northern beaches of Sydney, went to Kampala and brought a caravan and drove straight into the heart of the war zone, not knowing anyone and without, from what I could tell, a clear plan. During this trip she was accompanied by her husband, but after some months the extreme danger and inhospitable conditions were too much for him and he returned to Australia. Undeterred and in extreme danger she stayed.

During the 90’s the security situation in Northern Uganda and especially the Kitgum area deteriorated. The LRA was abducting children at an ever increasing rate and their preferred targets were boys seven to ten, which made up 80% of the captives, with the other 20% being girls usually aged between 14 and 16. They were then used as wives for the commanders. Over two million people ended living in refugee camps simply to escape the LRA. The whole of the country side was abandoned.

Irene lived in a rural part of Gitgum and never left, she had bayonets pointed at her, AK-47’s shoved in her chest and I honestly do not know how she survived, but not only did she survive, she flourished, building an orphanage and schooling complex that eventually catered for 8,000 kids and spanned three sites. 

One of my lasting impressions was the happiness of the kids under her care when compared to the rest of the population. The stress and lack of good nutrition created a hollowed, haunting look for the children of the IDP camps. The images of which were hard to shake from my mind. 

I clearly remember meeting a man dying from AIDS in the small hospital that she had set up and asking him how he felt. He responded that he was in a lot of pain but the suffering was bearable because he was in such a beautiful place. As he uttered these words I realised the hospital was bright, clean, a solid building and water proof. If it wasn’t for Irene he would have been dying in squalid conditions and probably without enough food to eat. Near the centre was a mortuary, brightly painted and called Heaven’s Express. In Kitgum death was never far away, unlike the west, and the steely resilience of the Acholi tribe meant that at one level they could face death with humour.

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