- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2006

GULU, Uganda

The number of barefoot children leaving home by the thousands each night for the safety of nearby towns has fallen sharply amid a lull in fighting and amid peace talks to end a two-decade-old insurgency in northern Uganda.

Three years ago, more than 40,000 children — known as “night commuters” — filled the streets of Gulu, Kitgum and other towns every evening. They slept on sidewalks, on storefront verandas and at bus stations — anywhere they could find safety in numbers — and returned home the next morning.

The movement into towns began during an offensive by Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which kidnapped 10,000 children from June 2002 until October 2003, according to estimates of the United Nations.

The kidnappings have nearly stopped as Kony holds peace talks with the government of President Yoweri Museveni. The talks, which began last month, are being hosted by southern Sudan.

Even if the war between Uganda and the LRA were to suddenly end, the trauma of two decades of predatory kidnappings probably would last generations.

The LRA snatches children ages 6 to 15, thinking they can be turned into fearless soldiers provided they survive a series of initiation rituals, which include beating another hostage to death. If they refuse or attempt to escape, the kidnapped youngsters are beaten to death themselves.

“I cannot take any chance. The children have to go [to the shelter] every day because you never know when [the LRA] will come back and start taking children again,” said Margaret, 30, who survived the 2002-03 offensive because she was pregnant with Sharon, now 3.

“The rebels came into the village at about 8 p.m. and spent the night. They waited until about 6 a.m. and separated the pregnant women, lined up all the other adults, killed them and took away the children,” Margaret said.

On orders from Kony, who claims to get his instructions from the spirits of dead people, pregnant women can’t be killed because their children provide LRA soldiers.

Margaret moved from the village of Atiak, the site of some of the LRA’s deadliest massacres, to Gulu about two years ago.

As soon as Sharon was old enough to walk the two-mile round trip to Noah’s Ark, a shelter for children, she began the daily commute with her two older brothers and two orphaned cousins who were taken in as siblings.

Among about 300 children who showed up at Noah’s Ark on a recent evening, Sharon was difficult to miss. She was the youngest and smallest child there, feigning a shyness that hid a disarming confidence.

Sharon walked alone and unafraid, about 10 steps ahead of a pack of her siblings and other children from her neighborhood. Noah’s Ark is among about 20 shelters for children set up in 2003.

During the peak of LRA terror, Noah’s Ark sheltered more than 1,000 children each night in a walled compound the size of several football fields.

Then, the children slept shoulder to shoulder on concrete slabs topped with canvas tents donated by UNICEF. Some of the tents are empty today, and others are half-full.

Though the number of children making the nightly trek has declined, they are unlikely to stop coming anytime soon, said Rasmus Bjerngaare, who coordinates a shelter for the aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres at the Lacor Hospital in Gulu.

“If the LRA problem disappeared magically, the question is whether the commuting would go away. We don’t think it would,” Mr. Bjerngaare said.

“It’s basically unsafe for a child to be out there,” he said. “We give them a place to relax, feel safe and be children.”

Staff photographer Maya Alleruzzo contributed to this report. To see more of her photographs of Uganda’s “night commuters,” please visit The Washington Times on the Web at https://www.washingtontimes.com/photogallery/index.php.

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