"Unlike Any Other, It Is A War on Children":
Victims of the Conflict in Northern Uganda
August 17, 2004
Ninety percent of the population of Northern Uganda—upwards of 1.5 million people, by most estimates—is displaced. Of these, an estimated 50,000 people, mostly children and teenagers, flee their villages and camps every night to avoid being abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). The "night commuters," as they're called, return to their parents in the morning, only to repeat the cycle—every night—as darkness falls.
Numbers are thrown around so often in refugee and humanitarian emergencies that it's easy to lose sight of what they really mean. I'll use MPI's home base of Washington, DC to put it in context: the displacement of 1.5 million Northern Ugandans is equivalent to more than two times the entire population of DC suddenly being forced to flee their homes and take makeshift refuge elsewhere, dependent on handouts and the kindness of strangers for their survival. The admittedly low estimate of 50,000 night commuters is equivalent to just over half of the entire under-18 population of the District, abandoning their homes and parents every night to sleep in the open around schools and hospitals sometimes more than five miles away.
The precarious situation of children in Northern Uganda:
The situation in Northern Uganda is horrifying even for those used to reading about or dealing with displacement crises. That horror exists on at least two levels. First of all, the prospects for an end to the conflict that is at the root of the mass displacement are, at least in the short term, bleak. Few analysts have been able to find a motive or goal behind the actions of the LRA beyond merely self-preservation and aggrandizement, particularly on the part of LRA leader Joseph Kony. Further, neither Kony nor the rest of the LRA leadership is well understood, and it is therefore unclear what could drive them to the negotiating table, let alone cause them to observe a ceasefire or compromise for the sake of peace. The LRA's use of abducted children as frontline combatants not only makes military "victories" by the Ugandan army ring hollow, to say the least, but protects LRA leadership even through major army offensives. The recent intensification of fighting has therefore resulted both in increased abductions and the death of more children.
Secondly, the Ugandan government has pursued a policy of forcing wide swathes of the civilian population of Northern Uganda into camps where, in theory at least, they can be better protected against the LRA. In reality, however, the camps have been less than adequately defended, and in fact have become targets for the LRA, who attack at night, abduct children and loot food and possessions. Recently the Ugandan government has begun inviting civilians to form so-called "Local Defense Units" (LDUs)—basically small paramilitaries—within the camps. The effectiveness of the LDUs has been questioned by many observers, however, as they are armed, yet typically poorly trained—a dangerous combination in any case, let alone one of widespread misery, poverty and forced displacement. Human Rights Watch and others have raised concerns that underage boys have been recruited into LDUs.
Given the lack of security in the camps, it is not surprising
that recent reports by the Women's Commission for Refugee
Women and Children have found that significant numbers (given
the transient nature of night commuters, precise statistics
are hard to come by) of night commuters are in fact fleeing
camps, not just outlying hamlets. This fact in itself is extremely
troubling. Forced displacement of civilians by governments
is always controversial, but in a situation of extreme and
pervasive insecurity, temporarily and as a protection tactic
of last resort, it could be allowed by the Guiding Principles
on Internal Displacement (particularly Principles 6 and 7).
However, the mere fact that children are fleeing abduction
from the camps and seeking "shelter" in the open in towns
far from their families is clear evidence that protection
is sorely lacking in the camps. Having forced civilians to
leave their homes, belongings and source of livelihood to
"wait out" the conflict in camps, it is clearly the responsibility
of the Ugandan government to ensure the protection of civilians
in those camps.
The better of two bad choices?
Things aren't necessarily that much safer for the night commuters than for those who remain behind. Leaving their families each and every night to walk, often miles, each way, they frequently end up sleeping on the ground in the open next to hospitals, schools or government buildings, sharing blankets if they have them and without protection from rain or the elements. In some towns, most notably Gulu, there are a limited number of organized shelters where the children are registered and, at least to some extent, looked after by adults. In most other towns, however, there is neither organization nor any kind of protection and adult supervision.
The combination of pervasive insecurity, poverty and lack of protection has proven extremely problematic for the night commuters, particularly girls. The Women's Commission's recent field research in Northern Uganda found widespread incidence of sexual harassment, abuse and assault of girls by men who wait for them to pass by on their way to the towns each night, as well as by other night commuters. The Women's Commission also found that girls will frequently engage in sex with men in exchange for food, money or other items—a clear indication of the dire situation of many of the girls and their families. Girls are in particularly precarious positions since they are often required by their families to remain at home until late in order to finish their chores, forcing them to make the trip into towns after darkness has already fallen, when they are more vulnerable to predators.
In effect, then, night commuters are trading one bad choice for another: either they stay in camps and villages with their families and risk being abducted by the LRA, or they flee every night and risk being attacked on the way. This is a choice that clearly no one would want or should have to make. Now imagine having to make that choice at age 12.
Note: the title of this month's Hot Spot is taken from a statement by Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF,
following her visit to Northern Uganda in July 2004.
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May 5, 2004