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A snapshot - the night commuters of northern Uganda

UGANDA, 28 May 2004 - The thick grasslands, glittering streams and rich fields that surround Gulu town in northern Uganda, belie the harsh life that most people lead in this province.

Over the past year, a surge of attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army has driven nine of every ten inhabitants into Internally Displaced camps that are scattered throughout the land. Well over a million women and children have been affected, and the number is growing each day.

Instead of the sun and the rains, terror rules the rhythm of life for most people in northern Uganda.

The LRA detachments, made up predominantly of child soldiers, usually attack at dusk. They surround a small settlement and move in to steal food, and to abduct children to fill their ranks. These attacks most often are accompanied by savage murders in which children are forced to kill their parents or other children.

Just days before the visit of UNICEF’s Executive Director Carol Bellamy to Gulu and Lira provinces, some forty people had been slaughtered in an attack on an IDP camp called Lukodi.

As we flew over the province of Gulu in our small Cessna, it was easy to see the hundreds of square kilometers of untended fields and empty villages, and huge congregations of tightly packed mud huts that huddle around armed forces bases to which the farmers have retreated.

However some people have remained in their villages on the fringes of towns. Each night, tens of thousands of children are sent by their parents from these villages, to the safety of the towns.

The nightly trek for protection begins in a small family village like that of Paul’s, just about two kilometers from the town of Gulu. Here the family tend their fertile land by day, never venturing further than a shout from the cluster of huts.

In the middle of this cluster lie half a dozen graves, inscribed with the names of family members, and the dates on which they died. The stories of the six provide a good snapshot of the way people die here. One boy was killed in an LRA attack. An infant died of malaria. Three adults were consumed by AIDS. And an old man somehow achieved a quiet death by natural causes.

At around five o’clock, the children are bathed and dressed, and a meal is prepared. They pack blankets into hessian bags, and walk from their village to the main road, where they join a trickle of other children, and mothers with babies, walking to town.

By six o’clock, the sun is just hanging on the horizon, and the trickle has become a stream. The children begin to run in spurts. Some WFP trucks rumble down the road, and several army patrols in trucks and on foot. Dust swirls around as people converge on the main road from tracks through the shivering tall grass. Small children are carried by older children, or ride on the centre bar of bicycles.

UNICEF is supporting several of the centres that have sprung up to shelter children in the towns of Gulu and Lira. Thousands who used to sleep by street lamps and in doorways, crowding the streets of Gulu town, now sleep in large dormitory tents and sheds. They are counted upon entering and leaving, fed, given basic medical attention, and secured by armed guards who patrol the perimeters.

“I’m shocked, shocked,” said Bellamy, as she inspected the camps late in the evening. “The idea that loving parents are forced to send their children away every night. This is one of the world’s great humanitarian crises for children, and it has become immense in the past twelve months.”

Uganda is rightly considered a development model in Africa. The government of President Museveni has brought peace to most of the country, spread universal primary education, and has tackled the HIV/AIDS pandemic with courage and imagination. But northern Uganda stands in dreadful contrast to that success.

“After nearly two decades of conflict [in northern Uganda], each generation born is exposed to the worst afflictions that we can imagine,” said Bellamy. “This generation has been forcibly recruited as child soldiers.  This generation suffers abduction, rape, starvation, disease, displacement, injury and death.  And those who have escaped this fate live in fear that they might well be next.  So while Uganda continues to succeed as a development model for Africa, its open wound in the north threatens to jeopardise that very success.”

Sunrise in Gulu lights up a refreshed stream of children heading in the opposite direction from their shelters, to home and school. These children are lucky in some way because they slept beyond the prevailing fear. Most children in Gulu and Lira cannot even be reached by aid workers for basic health care because of fear of attack by the LRA.

“I have seen many disturbing images during my time with UNICEF,” said Bellamy. “But few of them are as shocking as the sight of the 'night commuters' of northern Uganda."


For further information, please contact:

Chulho Hyun, Communication Officer
Phone: (+256 41) 234591/2
Fax: (+256 41) 235660
Mobile: (+256) (0)77 222347
Email: chyun@unicef.org




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27 May 2004 View report on night commuters of northern Uganda

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