Real Voices: Uganda’s 'Night Commuters' Live in Shadow of Fear (11 August 2005)

Summary: The Boma Ground Night Commuter Centre in
northern Uganda’s Gulu town is home to more
than 200 children who come from surrounding
villages to seek refuge at night, fearing
abduction by Lord’s Resistance Army rebels.
Louise Orton, communications manager for
African Medical and Research Foundation,
visited the centre in July and spoke to some of
the staff and children.

REAL VOICES: Uganda’s 'Night Commuters' Live in Shadow of Fear

11 Aug 2005

Source: AlertNet

The Boma Ground Night Commuter Centre in northern Uganda’s Gulu town
is home to more than 200 children who come from surrounding villages to
seek refuge at night, fearing abduction by Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)
rebels.

To date, the LRA has kidnapped more than 20,000 children, so the
everyday fear of abduction is real and tangible. Many of the 16,000 or so
kids who flood into Gulu after sunset each day walk for over an hour to get
there. Many spend their nights in bus stops, churches or on the streets.

Those who come to the Boma Ground Night Commuter Centre are looked
after by male wardens and female matrons, trained and supported by the
Nairobi-based African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF). Every
night the staff organise different activities for them, which are both fun and
educational.

The girls sleep in a large, empty concrete building with a corrugated iron
roof and the boys sleep in two large tents. All of them sleep on mats,
which they lay out on the floor every night. There are toilets and water
points where the children wash every evening and morning.

Louise Orton, communications manager for African Medical and Research
Foundation (AMREF), visited the centre in July and spoke to some of the
staff and children. Here are their stories in their own words.

***

Nancy Auma, 13, lives with her grandmother in Laliya Dwol, more
than an hour away from the centre by foot. Her parents were killed two
years ago by rebels.

I like coming to the centre to do the dramas. I love doing the plays with my
friends. They teach me a lot. They teach us not to fight and to love our
friends. And they teach us not to go with boys at an early age, to avoid
early pregnancies.

They also teach me about the changes we go through, like our breasts
growing and menstruation. They make sure that we keep ourselves clean,
particularly during menstruation.

I like school. I hope that I can build a better life for me in the future. I want
to be a nurse so I can better help my people.

I get very tired (walking to the school and the centre). I go straight to
school from here in the mornings, then back home and then back here.

Many people were killed along with my parents. I managed to run away.
We had already escaped but we went back to the village and found all the
dead bodies.

My grandma is looking after me as best she can but she can’t meet all our
needs.

I eat porridge in the morning here. And I eat at school at 1pm and I bring
some back to eat here later.

***

Esther Aloyo, 13, has been coming to the centre for three years,
making the hour-long walk from her home in Ariyaya Central.

I come here because of the war. The rebels attacked my community at
Ariyaya Central. So I come here to protect myself from the rebels.

I wasn’t there but they burnt my guardians (her father’s sister and her
husband).

My parents both died of HIV/AIDS. My father died when I was nine years
old and my mother died a year later.

I don’t know if I’m HIV-positive. I haven’t been tested yet.

I have five brothers and four sisters. One older brother, who’s 15, was
abducted by the rebels. He has been gone for two years. He was with two
other boys who were killed straight away. We heard news that he was the
escort of a rebel who is believed to have surrendered but he is not back
yet.

I have new guardians but they don’t have any money. And they want to
chase me from the home. They want us to go somewhere else. Sometimes
they give us food and sometimes they don’t. They say: Who are we to ask
for it? Sometimes we borrow food from children here.

I go to school. I am in senior class 1. I am learning many subjects, including
chemistry, physics, biology, politic education, history, music, maths,
geography, English and fine art.

Political education is my favourite subject because I like learning about the
government, the people and their relationship. It also teaches us what’s
happening outside our country. I’d like to continue in school but I don’t
know if it’s going to be possible with my guardians. They say that me and
my sister have to get married as soon as possible.

There’s nothing I can do. Our property was destroyed by rebels.

No-one pays my school fees at the moment. My brother goes to talk to the
school. He’s a soldier so sometimes he has money to pay the fees. When
my father died my mother went home and after she died my brother sold
the land. He used the money to get us here and used the rest to pay for
school fees and clothes.

Sometimes I feel sick or just generally weak. On Saturdays we work in the
fields from morning until sunset and that’s hard. We are growing sweet
potatoes and they’re not ready. When they are, the guardians will sell
most of them.

***

Maurice Rackara, 11, is a football fanatic and can be seen every
night at the centre kicking around a ball made from old bits of cloth and
string.

I’m from Laliya Dwol, which is a village one and a half hour’s from the night
centre and I go back there. My mother has rented a place in town but
there’s not enough room for me there.

I live there with some of my brothers and sisters. My father was killed in
the war a long time ago. Four of my brothers also come here.

We come because of the war – out of fear of being abducted. When I come
here to sleep I feel protected from the rebels.

My friend Vincent was abducted. He was taken to the bush but he escaped
and came back.

He said life there was very hard. They always had to walk very long
distances. And they had nothing to eat. They walked long distances
without any water. The leaders kept beating and punishing them.

War is very bad. A lot of people are being killed. People are having to run
away from home and squeeze into small houses in town. Whatever you
leave behind is always looted.

I’m in the fourth year at school. I started very late. When my father died
my family couldn’t afford to send me to school. Not all my older brothers
and sisters went to school because there wasn’t enough money.

I’m trying extra hard to catch up. Maths is my favourite subject. When I
grow up I’d like to be a lawyer because they earn a lot of money.

I like coming to the centre. I enjoy the dramas, which I take part in. I have
learnt a lot from them. I have learnt how cholera affects people and how to
prevent it. I have learnt how to prevent getting HIV/AIDS.

I go back to Laliya Dwol most days. Me and my brothers and sisters go
back there to farm and then we come back here.

I eat once a day with mum. We normally have either grains, beans,
vegetables or posho (maize).

I’ve had malaria about five times. I had to go to hospital to get treated.

***

Janet Abalo has worked as a matron at the centre for two and a
half years. She works there four to five days a week.

I wanted to do something to assist these children so I took part in the
training required to work here.

Many of the children who come here have lost their parents and they have
nobody. We are now like their parents.

Before this I was doing community work. I’m not married. I lost my partner.
He fell sick when we were displaced and we couldn’t get any assistance.
He had stomach trouble because we couldn’t get enough food to survive
on.

I’m now looking after six children, five grandchildren and six orphans on my
own. The orphans belong to my brother and sister who died of HIV/AIDS.
We all survive on the little I get.

This war has to end. We need the peace back. And then these children can
go back to their families. So many have been abducted. And most of them
have died.

***

Gladys Akanyo, 14, has been coming to the centre for two years.
She is from Kabalopon, which is an hour’s walk away from the centre.

I come here because we fear the rebels. If they find people they kill them.

I like the activities, especially the dramas about life skills. We learn how to
prevent ourselves from getting serious illnesses like cholera and scabies.
I’ve also learnt how to stitch tablecloths and baskets.

I also go to school with my brother and three sisters. We go home after
school but we come back here as it’s not safe. And my parents can’t afford
to rent in town.

We have green vegetables for supper and then I take beans or posho
(maize) to eat at school. I get tired of walking day in day out. But we are
safe as we walk in a group.

***

Walter Banabas, 21, has worked as a warden at the centre for
two years.

These children are so important. It’s not their desire to come here but they
need to be secure and protected. We have to show our love to them. We
have become their parents these days.

Life in Gulu is difficult. There’s lots of displaced people and that has meant
a lack of job opportunities for many people. It’s difficult to find enough food
to eat. Renting is expensive and, like many people here, I’m looking after
lots of children.

I’m from Lacor. Rebels attacked that area so much. A brother and a sister
of mine were abducted. And we have heard nothing. The situation is so
unpredictable. We struggle to get by little by little.

***

Christine Ocero, 25, was abducted by rebels and held for 10
years. She has recently escaped and is staying in Pabo Internally Displaced
People’s Camp, where AMREF has a bore hole and 40 water points.

I was abducted in 1994. I had gone to church to pray. After one month,
they took me to Sudan and I had been there ever since, until I managed to
escape.

It was difficult. At one point I was shot in the thigh. Many people were
injured. Two people died. I don’t know who shot me. Both sides (the LRA
and the UPDF) were firing.

Some of the (LRA) leaders were good. Some of them were bad. They kept
telling us that the government was killing everybody.

Kony (the leader of the LRA) says that he hears from the spirits. And what
he predicts sometimes happens. People believe it comes from the spirits.
The reason he’s fighting is because he thinks that all the members of the
UPDF (Uganda People’s Defence Force, the national army) are homosexual.

He said that he’s coming out of the bush in 2006. He said that he doesn’t
know whether or not it’s going to be by force.

God knows how many people were dying. Every other day people were
being attacked.

And we knew that if we escaped we would be killed, either by the
government or the LRA. But I got to the point where I just wanted to go
home. I had a small baby, Amoro. When we finally managed to escape the
baby was four years old.

I gave birth when we were on the move as the UPDF was chasing us. One
woman delivered the baby and the other removed the placenta using a
razor blade. She tied the iumbilical cord using a thread.

The father was a fighter for the LRA. I was given to him as a “wife” after
two weeks. He sometimes beat me, when I didn’t listen to his instructions.
He was very old.

Finally I escaped. People were firing and we just made a dash for it. The
UPDF found us and took us to town.

I arrived back here in May of this year. I’m happy that I’m free at last. But I
have a lot of difficulties. My parents died and I don’t have an older brother
or sister. I don’t have a house. I’m trying to rent a house if the government
could help me. But at the moment I’m staying with my uncle.

There’s nothing I can do. I want to get land so I can start and do a small
something for me and the baby. The home is very risky. I could be killed
because I escaped.

My husband comes from this area. I discovered that we are relatives but I
haven’t spoken to his side of the family. I haven’t tried. It’s too difficult.

I never went to school. My parents died when I was young.

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