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In Uganda, terror forces children's nightly flight

In Uganda,  thousands of other children leave their villages each evening to sleep in the town, to avoid being kidnapped during the nighttime raids by the rebels.
Children in Noah's Ark shelter prepare to return to their villages after having spent the night there. They leave the shelter during the early morning hours.
Children in Noah's Ark shelter prepare to return to their villages after having spent the night there. They leave the shelter during the early morning hours.Candice Miranda / The Washington Post
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Night was falling quickly. In the faded red and orange light of Africa at dusk, two 15-year-old girls, Jennifer Adoch and Susan Oyella, arms linked, backs straight, hair tightly shaved, hiked dusty trails without shoes, their feet swollen and callused.

They walked with thousands of other children, all rushing away from the danger of nighttime rebel raids on their villages and toward the safety of the town center to sleep. Tiny boys in tattered clothing, girls with chubby cheeks clutching ragged dolls, others with foam mattresses balanced on their heads, others with nothing at all were walking.

Jennifer and Susan sang a marching song. "People in Gulu are suffering. Education is poor. Communication is poor. There are no more virgins in Gulu," the girls sang sweetly in English. "They were all raped. Hear us now: There are no more virgins in Gulu."

The children are called simply "the night commuters." About 15,000 young Ugandans trek every evening from more than 300 villages, some more than five miles away, into the safety of Gulu, about 175 miles north of the capital, Kampala. Other towns in northern Uganda, such as nearby Lira and Kitgum, also have their nightly flood of children.

Rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA, a guerrilla movement active in northern Uganda since 1987, raid villages at night, abducting boys and girls to fill the ranks of their army and to become sex slaves and porters. After the government launched an offensive two years ago, the kidnappings increased. Last year, an average of 30 children every day were snatched from boarding schools and homes, according to UNICEF.

Terrified of abductions, which almost always took place at night, the children began to sleep in the towns, where it was harder for rebels to attack. Parents stayed behind in the villages to watch over their possessions. They, too, have been the victims of rebel kidnappings, but children are the main targets. An estimated 34,000 children have been abducted since 1994.

"My family was killed by rebels so I started footing it to the bus park. So many [children] were there, too," said Jennifer, her large eyes shifting down. In the dark, three months ago, she was offered about 30 cents to sleep with a man. She said she closed her eyes and accepted the offer.

"I'm not lazy. I can run. I have been beaten. I have been taken to discos and raped. I am not scared anymore," Susan said.

The children
On the road to Gulu, Innocent Opinonya, 14, walked gracefully and with perfect posture. Also walking, but with her back hunched over and her shoulders folded into her body, was his sister Prossy Atimango, who was just 16 but seemed 60.

Prossy quietly recalled being taken as a "rebel wife" on a Tuesday in the last week of July 1998. She was mute for three months after escaping last year. Her first words to her brother were ones he still remembers: "I am still fearing in the village that they may abduct me. Let's hide in Gulu town."

Prossy looked so solemn that she appeared to be lost in nightmares.

She said she was raped many times. She described being forced to participate in killing a fellow prisoner -- a girl with light brown eyes -- who disobeyed a guerrilla commander.

"I am really ashamed. I was disrespecting my heart. I wanted to be dead, afterwards. I wasn't experiencing life. It was living a curse," mumbled Prossy, her eyes welling with tears. She pulled her jacket over her head and said again: "I wanted to be dead. I wanted to take my own life."

"Then you found me," Innocent piped in, touching her hand. "I was fearing, too, and I told you we could be together."

"It's true," she said, looking at her brother, and then hiding her face again.

He tried to defend her one night at a dank, dirty bus park in the center of Gulu when two men tried to rip her clothes off as she slept under a wooden bench. She woke up sweating and screaming.

Innocent, just under five feet tall, said he didn't know what to do because "the boys were so much bigger than me." So he started screaming, too, as loud as he could, and he bit one of the men on the arm before they hit him on the head, knocking him out.

Those who arrive in town at night know what to do. Some of the older children curl up into tiny balls, their chafed skin pressed against the concrete floors of government offices and the bus depot. Some huddle on the verandas of stores, in government buildings and in churches. The lucky ones end up in tents, with supervision and supplies, set up behind barbed-wire fences by aid groups.

Susan and Jennifer sat side by side on a log, their hands clasped, their legs swinging nervously, near three huge tent shelters called Noah's Ark in a field on the edge of Gulu. A wire mesh fence surrounds the encampment, topped with barbed wire. The two girls had been late to check in, but strutted past the counselor.

The night air was refreshing. But a bad cough had spread through much of the camp, and the teachers leading outdoor classes could barely be heard above the phlegm-filled hacking of sick children. It was 8:30 and time for evening activities. In front of chalkboards that were leaned against trees, teachers lectured on cleanliness, HIV prevention and the importance of trying to eat protein and not just fruit from trees. "Cha," Susan said with a laugh, meaning impossible. "I never take a protein. Where would I find it?"

Near the tents, under floodlights of painfully white light, another enormous group of children listened to a choir of their peers. "Looking for peace. No peace. See all the guns," the children sang out. "But when you die, don't worry. Jesus will save you. You can't carry this world into the next. You will be free."

The children have names and songs for almost every aspect of night commuting. They called the Noah's Ark shelter "Baghdad" because, according to Innocent, "There is a war against us children, just like there is a war with America and Iraq."

But Jennifer said she and Susan call it Baghdad "because the rules are so strict at the shelter, like Saddam Hussein."

Last week, a counselor caught the two girls trying to make money for school fees by offering their bodies in town. Susan explained with dead eyes: "We don't have sponsorship for schooling. This is the way we do it. We can't dig in the fields to sell vegetables because it's too dangerous."

A counselor with a cross swinging from her neck constantly scolds them. She confronted them after hearing they were trying to get other girls involved in a sex ring. Jennifer and Susan laughed, then looked despondent. They slumped away with Jennifer complaining that "this place really is Baghdad."

Later she slipped her arm around the counselor's waist, looked her in the eyes and stated: "I'm always in trouble."

Anett Korui, 24, who runs the shelter, walked around the compound announcing that it was time for bed. The children filed into the tents -- about 500 children in each -- and lay down squeezed onto wooden rafters and straw mats, side by side. With bloodshot eyes, they stared nervously at the openings of the tents. Quiet fell over Noah's Ark.

The parents
While the children slept in the city, their parents stayed home. Many were worried. Others were angry.

"It's true," she said, looking at her brother, and then hiding her face again.

The cool evening hours used to be a wonderful and intimate time in the Acholi community. Every village, for as long as anyone could remember, had a circle of sticks set up in the center for fires that burned every evening.

There parents and village elders used to tell their children stories, riddles and parables about honest behavior and customs. The children acted out dramas based on those stories and then had to explain the moral of the tales to the attentive audience. Afterwards, warm food was served. And everyone reviewed the day.

All of those traditions are gone now, because children commute at night. Instead, the children like to play a drama they call "alup," a kind of hide-and-seek with make-believe rebels looking for children to kidnap.

Under a canopy of mango trees and next to a pumpkin field, Bicenytina Akeio said she was reluctant to let her children go into town at night, even though the rebels kidnapped three of her 11 children in 1998. They have yet to return. Her husband died in 1996 from health problems.

With her curly hair and warm smile, Akeio, like many people from the Acholi community, was proud of her strong traditions and the ethics that she has worked hard to pass down to her children through song and storytelling, once a part of daily life.

She has begun to attend parent groups because she is so worried. On Jan. 13, a 13-year-old girl was run over by a car while she was commuting at night. If is difficult to see a child who begins the journey too late on the unlit road.

"I'm so angry sometimes," said Akeio. "We are too busy running from the LRA to teach our children anything."

Much of her anger is directed at the rebels' leader, Joseph Kony, the enigmatic recluse and self-declared prophet who is known to have dozens of child wives. His original power base was with the Acholi people, who have felt mistreated by the favored and richer south since the British protectorate of Uganda was created in 1894.

Kony said he would overthrow President Yoweri Museveni and even the score. But he ended up turning against his own people by kidnapping their children as soldiers.

Akeio is just as angry with Museveni. In March 2002 he sent more than 10,000 soldiers to crush the rebel bases. The rebels fought back, abducting children to fill their ranks.

About a year ago, some friends advised her that she should let her children commute into town at night. She thought it was not a morally correct thing to do.

"How do you live not sleeping with your child? It's like living with a broken heart," she said. "But I have to let them night commute. I am thinking of their lives. They are safer in the shelters."

Daylight returns
It was a chilly morning. Just before dawn sleepy children lined up outside of the water pumps to wash their faces and start their lineup.

Innocent, an appointed student leader in the camp, was in charge of counting everyone and helping them get into line. He also told a group of boys how they could join his crafts group.

Innocent started a boys' group that makes stick renditions of cell phones and local buildings, and armed rebel trucks out of wood and jerrycans. He calls the two benches and two tables set up to make the crafts his "office."

"I have my ideas and concepts," he said proudly, displaying his crowded table of work, including an accurate rendition of the bus depot and the town's Pan Africa Hotel. "I am improving on all of my knowledge. I want to be president of Uganda one day. I like schooling so much." Four of his other siblings were abducted over the years, as well as his father, who was taken in 1996. None have returned. His mother is in a hospital with cerebral malaria.

He put a torn sweater over his shoulders for warmth. More boys flocked over. Most of the boys were quiet. But Innocent couldn't seem to stop talking.

"We make these crafts to forget for a while what happened to us," he continued.

Nearby, lines and lines of boys waited to be dismissed. One filthy child was trying to steal a blanket -- awkwardly so -- by stuffing it down his shirt. He was brought in front of the entire crowd of children and mocked by a shelter leader. Then he was hugged and let go, without the blanket.

Innocent laughed and remarked sadly: "All of us children are lacking in moral fiber. Our values have been spoiled."

"When I was a baby boy, my mother covered me with a white blanket when the rebels came," he said to an audience of boys his age, who shook their heads in agreement. "Everyone has similar stories, right?" he said speaking directly to them. "If it weren't for her, I might be dead."

A counselor who watched Innocent said she wondered if she should put Jennifer and Susan -- especially Jennifer -- in charge of a project in order to give them an important role in Noah's Ark. She called Jennifer over, who seemed flattered and said she might want to start a hair-braiding clinic.

Jennifer, however, joked that she can also do male hair and then asked the counselor for money.

Still, these activities have worked well with some of the children, especially the ones who were fighters with the rebels before escaping. One stood in front of the gate as a guard. Another was in charge of directing short dramas in the evenings.

The counselor said it was time for everyone to go home. Innocent and his fan club got into line and all of them -- streams of little bodies -- marched out of the wire mesh gate.

Outside, a half-dozen giggling children stopped to balance on an enormous fallen tree branch. Girls rode sidesaddle on bikes steered by boys. Boys and girls raced each other home.

For a few minutes, Gulu looked like a giant elementary school campus. All the children seemed carefree. And in the bright sunlight, they headed home.