***The information in the following captions dates from January 2005. As such, it represents what was happening over a decade ago in Northern Uganda. Please click here for a basic history and update of the situation.
Almost the entire maternal side of my family was slaughtered in the Holocaust along with millions of others. Since I was a kid, I could never understand how the world could allow so many to die. When I asked, people responded that they didn't know it was happening until it was too late. When I heard about what has been happening in Northern Uganda, I realized that if I know now, it is my responsibility to tell as many people as I can. We were always taught to say "Never Again". When I began researching this crisis, I found out what that phrase really means to me as a photographer: Never Again to allow catastrophic suffering to continue in secret, Never Again to afford the international community the alibi of ignorance.
Described by Jan Egeland, the United Nations' Special Advisor to the Secretary General on Humanitarian Affairs, as "…the world's greatest neglected humanitarian crisis", the 19-year war in Northern Uganda (Acholiand) has killed, abducted, disfigured, terrorized, displaced and starved over 1.6 million people. I saw that the symptoms of this war have actually become a daily part of Acholi life and culture as a second generation is born into its horrific legacy.
Although the numbers are in the hundreds of thousands, there is no official count of the death total in this war, and although the numbers are in the tens of thousands, there is no official count of the number of children that have been abducted and abused. In reality, no one is counting. If the totals are ever counted, and the world wakes up to the tragedy, the claim that we didn't know will not help the children, women and men of Northern Uganda. That claim didn't help my family, nor did it help the Rwandans ten years ago.
What could I answer when I was asked by Abraham, an Acholi man, why the world did not know about them? He wanted to know why when one person is killed in Israel or Iraq, the whole world knows, but when thousands are killed there, no one knows. Questions like "Are we not miserable enough?" and "Do we not count?" have haunted me since the moments they were asked. Appeals from kids such as "The children of Uganda are calling on the world to help" and "What kind of world are we living in? Please, as you have a willing heart to help, please do!" kept me intent on telling this story.
For 19 years, rebel leader Joseph Kony has lived in southern Sudan where he has commanded members of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). Since the conflict began in 1986, well over 20,000 youth have been abducted by the LRA and are forced to become soldiers, porters or sexual slaves. While in captivity, they are routinely tortured, beaten, mutilated, raped and forced to kill.
Our days in Kitgum district, Northern Uganda, were overshadowed by this headline. The Ugandan government’s position is that there are hardly any rebels left, that there is little trouble from them, that they are very close to capturing or killing Kony and ending this war. Our experiences and the people we met firmly contradict the government’s position on this crisis.
We met Livingston and Jema at Muchwini IDP camp in Kitgum District. We needed a military escort to venture beyond the camp to the site of their family homestead, which now lies abandoned to the encroaching corn fields. Their three children were killed in a massacre by the LRA in July of 2002. They now live, childless and landless in an Internally Displaced People’s (IDP) Camp. I noticed that Mr.Okong discreetly filled his pockets with corn before heading back to the camp.
1.6 million people have been forcibly displaced into camps by the Ugandan government for their own 'protection' from the LRA. In Acholiland (the districts of Gulu, Kitgum, Lira and Pader), 90 % of the Acholi population live in camps. The Ugandan government began this policy of forced displacement into gazzetted camps in 1996 and they continue to enforce that confinement through armed intimidation. In a recent report by the Civil Society for Peace in Northern Uganda entitled “No where to hide”, overcrowding and improper access to food and water were named as the greatest dangers to the population at large. Surveys conducted by MSF this past October in 6 internally displaced people’s camps in Lira and Pader districts found a crude mortality rate of 2.8 deaths/10,000 people per day for the general population. According to the internationally agreed benchmarks a rate of more than 2 per 10.000 a day is classed as an ‘emergency out of control’. The mortality rate was even more alarming among children under five years of age at 5.4 deaths/10,000 children a day, with the rate as high as 10.5 deaths/10,000 children a day in one location.
One night in Kitgum, we drove down one of the main roads leading to town. By the light of the headlights I could make out a steady stream of children holding packages walking along the side of the road. The stream continued for miles and for hours. I could not believe the quantity of children on the move, nor the fact that this was a daily part of their lives.
In constant fear of abduction by the LRA, tens of thousands of children walk up to 10 kilometers each night - some carrying babies too young to walk on their own - so that they can sleep in the relative safety of towns. They huddle in the corridors of hospitals, on empty store verandas and in temporary shelters erected by humanitarian workers. They are known as “night commuters”. According to a report by the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children in July of 2004, the number of night commuter children within the three districts that comprise Acholiland is well over 50 000.
Palaro IDP Camp. A woman voices her frustration as the WFP finally delivers monthly rations- 3 weeks late.