Shelters protect childhood of Ugandan children


MSF ClinicThe scene is surreal: a small hospital stands on one side of a dirt road; timber dwellings and storefronts align the other. Three roads meet nearby and out of the darkness children emerge, hundreds of them, walking in long processionals converging in the light at the gate of the hospital. Welcome to Gulu, northern Uganda.

The "Night Commuters", as they are known, walk in from surrounding villages and urban centres to stay at shelters like the one established by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in the grounds of Lacore Hospital in 2004.

Many children walk distances of up to 10 kilometres every night to get to the shelters and the reason is simply safety. It is estimated that over 20,000 children have been abducted during the 20 year civil war between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF).

Boys are easy targets for the LRA to bolster its military ranks. They are also easy to psychologically manipulate, indicated by the fact that many current high-ranking LRA officers were themselves abducted as boys.

Children's shelterWhile some are used for military purposes, most girls are abducted for use as sex slaves and some are given in marriage to officers.

It doesn’t take much to see that the shelters have become not just a safe refuge for the children, but somewhere where they can actually be children. "It’s a great paradox," said MSF’s resident psychologist in Gulu, Tine Meyer-Thomsen. "If you look around Gulu you see all these children, yet there are no children in Gulu. They’re not allowed to be children."

One of the biggest problems Meyer-Thomsen sees is an increasing amount of parental responsibility falling on the shoulders of elder siblings. In many cases they are taking on more of a parenting role as the parents are either killed, wounded or succumb to any one of the social problems like alcoholism, or HIV, affecting northern Uganda. "From such a young age, 12, 13, they have no life anymore," she said.

The children also know many others who have been abducted, killed or have simply disappeared, and have to live with that constant fear themselves. "It’s insecurity about the present moment and about the future," Meyer-Thomsen said. "They are completely lost and feel deflated because they have no future perspective."

Boy in a BlanketAn average of 1,200 children now sleep at the MSF shelter in Gulu every night. However, that number has risen to over 10,000 during times of regular LRA activity. A survey of all shelters around Gulu in April 2004 found 20,000 children were sleeping in the shelters at that time.

Meyer-Thomsen runs individual and group counselling sessions to help the children cope with their constant fear and anxiety and has found that many children go to the shelter because they see it as a "stress-free zone" and a place to "relax their mind". Her concern now is the rumoured closure of the shelters.

With recent peace talks between the LRA and UPDF held in Juba, Sudan, ending in a cease-fire agreement, it is believed that the government will push for the closure of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps (1.5 million people, roughly 80% of the Acholi population—Gulu, Kitgum and Pader districts—live within IDP camps). If the camps close and the people are returned to their homes and land, it is most likely that the shelters will also be closed.

BoysSo much of MSF’s success is achieved through building trust and relationships with the community. "It’s impossible to work with children without having some kind of connection to their community," Meyer-Thomsen said. "We have made this commitment and it’s very hard to get out without having any responsible partner who can take over in a good way," she added, concerned that a hasty decision regarding the closure of the shelters could leave the children of Gulu high and dry.

It’s still early days since the peace talks and the lasting result is yet to be seen. "What they will show, we don’t know. Things could get worse; things could get better. We’ve seen it before: peace talks have gone on and everything just turns around and it’s worse and more children come to the shelter," Meyer-Thomsen said. "They have a saying up here: you don’t know anything about the day until the sun has gone down."



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Existing comments

Thank you for the amazing article. One can only imagine that these children have many, many heartbreaking stories. Hope to read more of your work soon.

Aurora Lowe | 03 October 2006  

An excellent piece. Very sad that these children lead lives of such squalor.

andrew johnson | 10 October 2006  

Well written story Matthew we can only hope that the shelters remain for the sake of these desparate childrern

RICHARD LEWIS | 30 October 2006  

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