Uganda's northern districts of Gulu, Kitgum, and Pader are just over 200 kilometers from the country's bustling international capital of Kampala. The majority of the 800,000 inhabitants of these districts are ethnic Acholi, who make up 4 percent of Uganda's total population. Traveling north out of Kampala is to experience the divide between rich and poor. The capital's paved streets lined with air-conditioned shops turn into long stretches of deteriorating roads dotted with thatched huts and corrugated tin roofs. Traffic jams give way to streams of bicycles laden with harvested grass and sorghum. Women and girls sling baskets of fruit over their shoulders, balancing containers of water on their heads while infants cling to their backs. The landscape is a brilliant mix of burnt orange earth and vibrant green trees, of rich arable land and apparent tranquility.
But the calm is a mirage. Since 1986, the region has been ravaged by a conflict between the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the government of Uganda. The decades of war have seen some of the worst violence committed against children and adolescents in the world. The LRA professes to fight a spiritual war on behalf of the minority Acholi people, but has been responsible for countless atrocities committed against civilians in northern Uganda, southern Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), including the abduction of thousands of children and adolescents to serve as child soldiers, porters, cooks, and sex slaves. Neither is the Ugandan government innocent in this conflict. The Ugandan People's Defense Forces (UPDF), which is responsible for providing security for all of the nation's civilians, has failed spectacularly to do so--and has also committed human rights violations against millions it is sworn to protect, although to a far lesser extent than the LRA. In the course of this long war, schools, families, and communities have been torn apart. Children and youth in northern Uganda have known virtually nothing else but war--a war in which they are a prime target.
It is in northern Uganda that I met Angom Jennifer, who works every day, weeding and harvesting crops with her 18-month-old child, Amato Innocent, strapped to her back. Since she was 15, Jennifer has been the head of a seven-member family consisting of her younger brothers and sisters--Odien Geoffry, now 15, Onek Nicholas, 13, Adugo Angela, 10, Nono Alfred, 8, Lokwiya Kenneth, 5, and Kidega David, 3. Their parents died when Jennifer was young, and her older brother took care of the family until he was abducted by LRA rebels. Since then, Jennifer has had to move her family to an internally displaced persons camp. This camp itself is a cesspool of poverty--overcrowded, dirty, and lacking in all types of basic services, from water and sanitation facilities to health care and education. Moreover, there are few legal opportunities to earn a living wage. What skills training exists--on bicycle repair, tailoring, and farming--lead to few jobs or viable markets. Jennifer's family, and thousands of others, were forced to abandon their farms and fields for the relative security of camps where UPDF soldiers could better protect them from LRA attacks. However, as a result, the fields where Jennifer works each day are a six kilometer walk from the camp. This walk itself is dangerous, given that roads are insecure and prone to rebel ambushes.
Each day she risks abduction, rape, or murder for the 33 cents that she earns harvesting crops. She uses the money to buy beans and grains and--during the rainy season--vegetables and fruit, such as cassava and mangos, so that her young family may eat. When she has extra money left over, which is rare, Jennifer buys soap for bathing and washing clothes. The six children under her care each have only one set of clothes, which is particularly embarrassing when Jennifer is menstruating. This also puts her at risk for rape. Many men in these parts assume that a menstruating girl may be a virgin because she is not pregnant; and further, that having sex with a virgin can cure HIV/AIDS. It is a twisted logic, but without a sanitary towel or pads to soak up the blood, she fears for her safety every month.
The family's only material object inside their tiny, thatch-roofed hut is one cooking pot that sits atop a makeshift coal grill. They don't even have a water jug. Jennifer must beg other families for the use of their container when she needs to fetch drinking water from the camp pump. As night falls, all of the children take their places on the dirt ground, curling up on colder evenings under a single thin blanket.
No member of her family has ever gone to school.
Struggling to Survive
The war in...