'Night Commutes' for Uganda's Children

For nearly their entire lives, children in northern Uganda have been commuting from villages to larger towns to avoid being abducted by Lord's Resistance Army rebels. But a shaky peace between the guerrillas and the government has quieted the guns and reduced the ranks of the so-called night commuters.

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Imagine a place where the children are too frightened to sleep in their own homes. That was the story for years in Northern Uganda where rebel forces known as the Lord's Resistance Army would kidnap children in the night. The young people would be forced to work as soldiers, servants, or even sex slaves. So the kids would seek refuge in the larger towns at night, then return home in the morning.

As Jocelyn Frank reports, even a ceasefire in the conflict hasn't fully stopped the children's nighttime commute.

JOCELYN FRANK: The bus park in Gulu, this city in Northern Uganda, is packed from seven a.m. to 10 p.m. Tires bump over the uneven ground, smoky exhaust mixed with the red, dusty dirty. Drivers load and unload mini buses as passengers seek shade from a heavy Ugandan sun.

(Soundbite of chattering)

FRANK: The bus park is bustling by shops and apartments. It's a bit like a walled fortress.

(Soundbite of honking car)

FRANK: Oliyah Rosemary(ph) runs a restaurant here on the inner square of the bus park.

Ms. OLIYAH ROSEMARY (Restaurant Owner, Gulu, Northern Uganda): I make milk tea. Everyday I cook fresh fish in the morning. Good (unintelligible). People like it with (unintelligible) in the morning.

FRANK: Three wood benches surround the crowded dining table. It's a thriving business cooking for hungry drivers and visitors. But since Rosemary first arrived in 2001, the traffic of people moving through the bus park has changed a lot. In the day, workers and visitors, and in the evening, tons of children.

Ms. ROSEMARY: Children are sleeping in any house. Under the veranda, in the hospital, and maybe in the (unintelligible). The children are still coming. They were abducting children. (Unintelligible).

Mr. ORONG DAVID(ph) (Resident, Gulu, Northern Uganda): The rebels, they could find you and they'll abduct you. You fight against the government. And that's very bad for us so we used to have - to run away and sleep on the center, so that we get safe.

FRANK: Orong David is 15 years old now. We sit in the quiet of his uncle's stature of house. It's evening and a gentle gray light seeps in through the door. But David doesn't live here. After a close call with the Lord's Resistance Army when he was just 8 years old, he and his younger brother became night commuters. The two of them walks from their village to the center of town, converging with nearly 7000 other kids to sleep in the streets.

Mr. KADEGA JAMES(ph) (Resident, Gulu, Northern Uganda): In (unintelligible) we are compound - was about 50 of them.

FRANK: Kadega James's home provided a roof for some of the kids, but there were streams of children.

Mr. JAMES: They were just sleep in an open place. Open place, and when rain comes, they just stand up, when the rain is over, you find them go back to sleep in a wet place.

FRANK: He saw so many kids in the streets that a few years ago, he decided to get organized. He petitioned the district of Gulu to help open up a formal shelter for the young night commuters. But that shelter was quickly overwhelmed. Several community volunteers opened additional spaces for the kids and Kadega directs the largest one. It's called Charity for Peace. It functions nearly entirely by international donations.

Charity for Peace Night Commuters Center is a large fenced-in lot, with a single armed guard by the door. Inside, there are several cement blocks shelter. They can fit 1000 kids if they sleep side by side. There are five latrines and one big water tank. And nowadays, there's plenty of open space for the kids to run around.

The number of night commuters began to drop nearly a year ago after the Lord's Resistance Army and the government of Uganda agreed to ceasefire. But many kids continue to commute for different reasons.

Mr. JAMES: When children go back, they're apparently like running away from responsibility now. And also, the HIV group - their parents have died all.

FRANK: The children don't know who to trust.

Mr. JAMES: They don't trust to sleep on, they don't trust their parents because they were not with their parent. That's another big war we are going to fight.

FRANK: And to complicate things even more, Kadega James is starting to see former LRA soldiers back in the towns they once terrorized. Most are still teenagers and just trying to recover a scrap of what's left of their childhood. Their trauma is like a new uniform.

Mr. JAMES: The child, which everyday comes into my mind. This child was forced to kill the parent. Kill his own parent when they were sleeping. He killed the mother, then he killed the father. He killed his brother, and killed his sister. He told me, I don't sleep. I don't sleep. I might - always see my mother crying in front of me. I will see my father crying in front of me. I see my sister crying in front of me. I want to die.

FRANK: Kadega continues to council all the kids that come to Charity for Peace. He believes they deserve a place to sleep, relax and study, to feel safe making friends, and just be a kid.

(Soundbite of children singing)

FRANK: He gets discouraged from time to time, but leans back on one basic idea. Kadega wants kids from the north to remember what it used to mean to be from northern Uganda, before the LRA and the government fighting, before the fear and the danger, and the killings and abductions.

Mr. JAMES: I am very proud of being a person from the north. We are clear-headed people. And our (unintelligible) willingly welcome anybody. We are not mean. It's straight. Straight if it's something is wrong, he tells you this is wrong. I don't want it. This is why we are unique in Uganda.

(Soundbite of children singing)

FRANK: For NPR News, I'm Jocelyn Frank.

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