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Myth 4: 40,000 children walk to town nightly for fear of abduction

By Vision Reporter

Added 25th April 2006 03:00 AM

IT is 6:00am. The whole night, rain poured over Gulu town, turning the gravel roads into swamps and the Kaunda ground into a lake. In the chilliness of the morning, Noah’s Ark truly looks like a floating lifeboat.

IT is 6:00am. The whole night, rain poured over Gulu town, turning the gravel roads into swamps and the Kaunda ground into a lake. In the chilliness of the morning, Noah’s Ark truly looks like a floating lifeboat.

Many truths and many lies have been told about the war in northern Uganda. The fact that the conflict has become deeply politicised and that the parties involved have become parties of interest has complicated the understanding of the conflict, and thus made it difficult to agree on a solution. In an attempt to bring all the parties on the same wavelength and contribute to a sober and constructive debate based on facts The New Vision travelled all over northern Uganda, visiting the biggest camps in every district and interviewing camp leaders and IDPs, in an attempt to distinguish truths from lies, facts from myths.
Camps visited included: Pabbo, Amuru and Atiak in Gulu; Padibe, Mucwini and Kitgum Matidi in Kitgum; Patongo, Rackoko and Lapul in Pader; Barr, Erute, Aloi and Agweng in Lira; Minakulu and Otwal in Apac and Okude and Orungo in Amuria District, Teso.
Chris Ochowun and Els De Temmerman write

IT is 6:00am. The whole night, rain poured over Gulu town, turning the gravel roads into swamps and the Kaunda ground into a lake. In the chilliness of the morning, Noah’s Ark truly looks like a floating lifeboat.

The first children are waking up. Night commuters, they are called: children who walk every evening to the towns of Gulu and Kitgum to spend the night in a shelter like Noah’s Ark.

The sight of endless lines of children, walking at dusk to their sleeping places, barefoot, a gunny sack over their shoulder, has been the most publicised part of the conflict in northern Uganda. It inspired journalists, singers and film makers. It prompted thousands of people in other parts of the world to join what came to be known as the “Gulu Walk”.
Fourteen-year-old Martin Ojok wipes the sleep out of his eyes as we follow him at dawn to his home. The P5 pupil of Gulu Prison Primary School has been commuting to Noah’s Ark for the last three years. “My mother lives in Coopee IDP camp in Bungatira,” he tells us on the way. “But I stay with my father and my stepmother in town so as to be closer to school.”

Their clay, one-roomed house in a Gulu suburb called Kanyagoga, is only about two miles from the night shelter. His father, Johnson Onen, who is still asleep when we arrive, is not upset about the early morning intruders. He quickly dresses and invites us in, “You are most welcome!”

No space
Asked why his son goes to the night shelter, Johnson points at the small, dark room, where he is living and sleeping with his second wife and their two small children. “This house was given to me by my mother after we were displaced from our home in Coopee,” he says. “But we can’t all share this room. The boy is grown-up. And I can’t afford to rent another house.”

Lack of accommodation is also the reason for 13-year-old Kevin Ajok and her two brothers to commute to Noah’s Ark. The P7 student from Laliya Primary School is the fourth child in a family of eight. Displaced from their home in Laliya by the rebels, her mother is now renting a tiny room at Tol-man-wang, four miles from Gulu town. “Space is a problem,” says Ajok’s mother, who is surrounded by another three small children. “This small room cannot accommodate all of us.”

In the past, fear of abduction by the rebels was the main reason for children to leave their homes at night and sleep in the relative safety of the towns, where there is army protection. Many had heard the horrific stories of brothers, sisters or classmates who escaped from captivity. Like the testimonies of Joe and Patrick, who were forced to kill their own relatives.

In 2002, when the phenomenon first occurred, the night commuters would fill up pavements, bus stations and hospital grounds, where they would often be harassed by thieves and drunkards. Later, when the NGOs arrived on the scene, the children were taken off the streets and herded into night shelters, where they were provided with blankets, videos, electricity and study facilities.

Numbers down
Now that security has returned to many parts of northern Uganda, the number of night commuters has not only dropped dramatically, the motives for commuting have also somehow altered. In Gulu, the number of night commuters went down from a peak of 29,000 in July 2004 to 12,000 in August 2005 and 6,000 in March 2006. In Kitgum, the number fell from 20,000 in 2004 to 2,000 today.

Reasons for commuting have shifted from security to socio-economic factors. A survey carried out in November 2005 by Gulu District, with the support of UNICEF and Médecins Sans Frontières, found that one third of the 120 night commuters interviewed came from one-hut families. In addition, 75% were from households where one or both parents were missing.

Besides insecurity, including fear of thieves in the village, reasons given for commuting included lack of space at home, meeting friends, the teaching at the centre, the provision of blankets, soap and electricity for reading, avoiding loneliness (for orphans) and finding future husbands (for older girls).

Children interviewed from the same area who were not commuting said they stopped going to the shelters because the situation was now calm, they would come late for school, and because of long distances, household duties and fear of accidents or drunkards on the way.

Not everybody in northern Uganda is happy with the continued night commuting. According to the survey, some parents stopped their children, especially girls, from going to the shelters because they fear they might become “spoiled and indisciplined” as a result, or go for the disco instead.

“There is a lot of motivation for children to continue going to the night shelters,” says Nahaman Ojwee, the LC5 Chairman of Kitgum District. “They are given blankets and shown videos. They have light, which enables them to study. The shelter has become a more attractive alternative than the crowded, dark room at home, 300m away.”

While night commuting was a life saving necessity in the past, Ojwee now sees potential dangers. “Some children want to be free of parental supervision. It becomes a kind of lifestyle. Parents, on the other hand, try to evade their responsibilities and want their privacy. My fear is that, in the long run, it might lead to delinquency. We might be creating street children.”
Ends

Myth 4: 40,000 children walk to town nightly for fear of abduction

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