Ugandan children work on dangerous rock pile

Stephen Batte, who lost his mother in the quarry in January when she was buried by a mud slide, breaks rocks in the Acholi Quarters, a slum outside the Uganda capital.
Stephen Batte, who lost his mother in the quarry in January when she was buried by a mud slide, breaks rocks in the Acholi Quarters, a slum outside the Uganda capital.Vanessa Vick / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Stephen Batte works in a quarry under the blazing sun, chipping rocks into gravel with a homemade hammer. It's tiring, boring and dangerous.

Stephen is 9 years old. He's been on the rock pile since he was 4.

"Life has always been hard here," he whispers, carefully positioning a sharp rock before striking it with well-practiced accuracy. "But since my mother died, things have been much harder."

His mother, the woman who taught him to smash rocks when he was a toddler, was killed here in a landslide in August.

His T-shirt torn and his feet bare, Stephen is one of hundreds of people who work in the quarry on the outskirts of Uganda's capital, Kampala. Their shabby figures sit hunched over their heaps of gravel. The chink of metal against stone bounces off the rock faces.

12-hour days to earn a pittance
Most of the workers are refugees who fled a civil war in northern Uganda. Now they make 100 Uganda shillings, 6 U.S. cents, for every 5-gallon bucket that they fill with chipped rocks. Stephen works 12 hours a day to fill three buckets.

There's no safety code or protective clothing. The children's arms and legs are covered in scabs from flying stones. Stephen says a friend lost an eye.

Rock falls are frequent. Stephen remembers the one that killed his mother.

"She had left the house early to work," he says through a translator. His voice falters. "We did not know that she was underneath the rocks — not until we saw her sandals.

He remembers her when she was showing him, as a toddler, how to crush stones.

"I sat next to her and she showed me how to hold the hammer. It's not easy and at first I would hit my fingers so I cried a lot. It made my mum very sad but she said we had to earn money to buy food."

Now he works alone at the quarry and spends his meager earnings on food. He sleeps in the crumbling mud hut he used to share with his parents and baby sister. He says his stepfather abandoned them after their mother's death. The sister, 8 months old, was put in an orphanage.

"If I stay in the house I feel lonely and I fear the memories," he explains. "So even though I'm tired when I leave the quarry, I go and play football with my friends."

No help for urban refugees
At the height of the 22-year conflict between the government and a brutal, shadowy rebel group called the Lord's Resistance Army, almost two million people fled. Most ended up in squalid government-controlled camps, but advocacy groups estimate that there are up to 600,000 in the cities.

A truce has enabled many of the camp-dwellers to go home, with food, tools and building materials provided by the government and aid groups. But the urban refugees don't qualify for help and have remained unregistered and invisible.

When Musa Ecweru, the minister of relief and disaster preparedness, visited the quarry, relief workers had to meet his car two miles from the site because his driver couldn't find it.

The normally talkative Ecweru seemed at a loss for words at what he saw, and unable to make firm commitments to help. He admitted that the government "may not have appreciated fully the magnitude" of the problem, and promised to bring it to the government's attention.

Then he gave a group of women and children with whom he spoke $30 and told them to divide it among themselves.

Two months after the minister's visit, Stephen's situation is unchanged.

"I wish I could be helped," he said, picking at a large scab on his knee, "but I cannot see another life for me."