Uganda

With prospects of peace in northern Uganda, displaced families yearn for home

UNICEF Image: Uganda ceasefire
© UNICEF Uganda/2006/Hyun
A boy practices his football skills at GUSCO Centre, which helps children who have recently escaped or been rescued from the Lord's Resistance Army.

By Patricia Lone

GULU DISTRICT, Uganda, 7 September 2006 – For nearly 20 years, peace has been an elusive dream for 1.8 million people living in conflict-affected northern Uganda.

During that time, families have lost their children and children their parents. An estimated 25,000 girls and boys were abducted over the years by the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Children by the tens of thousands, fearing abduction, became known as ‘night commuters.’ In a surreal procession, they covered as many as 10 km each night from their homes in the neighbouring countryside to shelters in Gulu, Kitgum and Kalongo towns, and back home early the following morning.

Peace process unfolding

In those long years, fertile farms across the north of Uganda reverted to wilderness after the government moved nearly the entire population into congested camps. People confined to small security perimeters around the camps for up to 10 years have been unable to farm their land, with poverty, violence, desperation, alcoholism and alienation growing instead.

But now peace seems palpably close, following the Government of Uganda’s announcement on 29 August that it had agreed with the LRA to sign a truce ending hostilities.

UNICEF Image: Uganda ceasefire
© UNICEF Uganda/2006/Hyun
A child in Palenga Camp, one of the 53 camps for 460,000 displaced people in the Gulu District of northern Uganda. Conditions in the crowded camps are very poor, with troublesome access to safe water and sanitation, and high child mortality.

The government ceasefire is a keystone in the complex peace process, which is unfolding with mediation support from the Government of Southern Sudan, to end one of the world’s longest and cruellest conflicts.

Together with the unilateral ceasefire the LRA had announced two weeks earlier, the government’s action opens a new vista of hope that healing can begin in earnest – and that those who have been torn from their families and displaced from their lands can finally go home again.

Reintegration of children

Going home for Peter (not his real name), one of 15 children living since June at the UNICEF-supported GUSCO Centre in Gulu town, will be a physical and emotional journey across an almost unimaginable distance.

Now 14, Peter spent the last four years of his young life in the LRA. He was abducted from his home in 2002, when he was 10, wrenched from everyone and everything he knew and loved, and plunged into the LRA’s harsh world of hard labour, constant flight and violence.

Rescued in June in southern Sudan after being wounded by crossfire in a battle, Peter’s first stop on the way toward reintegration into family and community life is the high-walled, safe and orderly oasis of GUSCO (the Gulu Support the Children Organization).

UNICEF Image: Uganda ceasefire
© UNICEF Uganda/2006/Hyun
A formerly abducted 13-year old girl receives basic medial care, psychosocial counselling and family-tracing support at the Gulu Support the Children Organization.

Yearning to go home

One of the first steps for the committed staff of 12 social workers, teachers and counsellors at GUSCO is to reunite returned children with their families. For Peter, progress in locating his family has been slow so far, with inquiries sent to his home location but no word yet received. 

Peter’s physical recovery has also been slow. He is one of five children who arrived in GUSCO in the past two months with bullet wounds requiring hospitalization. Recently discharged, he shyly explains that, no, he cannot join the impromptu football game raising a small cloud of dust in the central yard.

“I cannot play because of my wounds,” he says, extending his arms to show the swelling that has yet to subside, another painfully immediate reminder of how much children have sacrificed in this conflict.

Peter says he is happy to be at GUSCO but what he now yearns for most is to go home. It’s a hope and a dream that he surely shares with many in northern Uganda. And with the promise of peace, there is a chance that the dream, too long deferred, will come true.


 

 

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