The LRA's abusive manner of waging war, through abductions, killings, and attacks on civilians, has produced a desperate situation for northern Ugandans. This has been compounded by the fact that the Ugandan government has frequently failed to protect civilians from military attacks.
These failings are illustrated by the "night commuters," the spread of poverty and associated "survival sex" and spread of sexually-transmitted diseases, and the sad state of education in northern Uganda.
In villages and outlying areas around Gulu, Kitgum, and Pader towns, LRA raids have resulted in the abduction of children and the looting of personal property. Parents faced with the continued insecurity send their children to sleep in town for their own security while they themselves stay at home to guard their property. While the LRA abducts both children and adults, adults tend to be held for a few days and released whereas children can spend years in captivity.
Children's fear of abduction was poignantly reflected by a survey of school children in Kitgum. When asked if they had ever been abducted by the LRA, 75 percent of those who had not replied by saying "not yet."346
Around dusk, streams of children known as "night commuters" begin to flow into Gulu, Kitgum, and Pader towns to seek shelter and return home the next day at dawn.347 Often clutching reed mats or other sleeping materials, these children travel alone or in small groups searching for places to sleep. A few children are able to stay with relatives in their homes; many more sleep in groups on verandas, at the bus park, on church grounds, or in local warehouses. Those living to the west and north of Gulu gather at Lacor hospital at night, joining a group of displaced persons living there.
In February 2003, some 1,000 children were coming into Gulu nightly while at the hospital more than 2,500 people, mostly children, were seeking shelter. During the months of October and November 2002, when insecurity reached its highest level, over 40,000 individuals, the majority unaccompanied children, made this nightly sojourn.
Despite these high numbers, no official assistance is provided to the children and abuses to them, both while en route and at night, have taken place. An assistant of the Chief Administrator's Office confirmed to Human Rights Watch that the municipality was as of February 2003 providing no assistance to these night commuters.348
Since February, the number of night stayers in Gulu has tripled, to 13,400 in mid-May 2003. U.N. OCHA's Gulu office sent out a plea for assistance for these children.349
In Kitgum, thousands come to sleep at the Catholic Mission every night, according to a priest. Even during the day, approximately 500 children stay in the Mission because they are too afraid to return to their nearby villages. "Many have refused to leave the mission. Sometimes their parents bring them." The army has deployed troops to protect the thousands sleeping in the Mission buildings at night.350
Children travel on foot, alone or in small groups, from as far as four miles away. Children as young as five are generally accompanied by older siblings or neighbors in their commute, which can take up to two hours.
According to one international NGO worker, the night commuters are vulnerable to theft and physical and sexual abuse from other children and adults. He cautioned that children, particularly those who are not staying in more well-established areas, may also be tempted into drinking, drugs, and sexual activities.351
Human Rights Watch researchers met with night commuters in Gulu town on two evenings, visiting the bus park, the church mission, and two warehouses where children sleep. The children have no access to water, and limited toilet facilities. In these areas, no assistance or formal supervision was apparent.
Two girls aged thirteen and eleven explained to Human Rights Watch why they choose shelter in town. The thirteen-year-old said that LRA rebels abducted her sister from her home some two kilometers outside of Gulu town in November 2002. Following the abduction, her parents, who are displaced from the interior of the district, began sending her into town to avoid possible capture. The eleven-year-old girl spoke of three neighborhood children who were abducted from her village, about a one-hour walk from Gulu. She fears the LRA because they "burn homes, loot property and abduct children."352
Lacor Hospital is located four kilometers outside of Gulu town. The LRA has not attacked the hospital in over a decade and so it serves as a place of safety for children and the displaced. Approximately 1,500 internally displaced persons live behind the hospital in a make-shift camp, venturing out during the day to search for food or casual employment and returning in the evenings. In addition, in February 2003, more than 2,500 people, the majority unaccompanied children, came to the hospital at night to sleep. Some children sleep in a partially constructed hospital ward, others in the courtyard, on terraces outsides of rooms, or elsewhere on the hospital grounds. The hospital is considered a safer area for children to sleep than on the street. But children who spend the night, mostly coming from a three-kilometer area around Lacor, continue to face harassment on their way each evening and from other children at the hospital.
A group of boys and girls, aged ten to fourteen, interviewed inside the medical compound, said that it takes them about one hour to reach the hospital in the evening. Sometimes while en route drunkards leer and shout at them, but none had been physically abused. Since the hospital gate is closed at 9:00 pm, they must walk quickly or risk being shut out if they don't arrive in time. They stressed that once inside the hospital grounds, they are harassed and bullied by older children when they are sleeping and that they need shelter especially during the rainy season. Another problem they identified was the lack of blankets for sleeping; three of the four children interviewed had blankets stolen from them in the past when they were asleep.353
A twelve-year old girl, traveling with her two younger brothers, interviewed just outside the hospital gates, explained that they make the commute each night because they fear rebel abduction. Twice in the last year, the LRA passed near their home, so they walk more than a mile each night to reach the safety of the hospital. This group had never experienced abuse on their walk. However, a local volunteer at the hospital reported that some men, including UPDF soldiers, sexually harass or abuse girls along the routes children typically take to arrive at the hospital.354
In one case, a ten-year-old boy was raped by a nineteen-year-old youth at the Mission in late December 2002. According to the boy's female relative, the ten-year-old would leave the outskirts of Gulu and sleep at the Mission for safety with other children. One night, the nineteen-year-old slipped through the open window, covered the mouth of the boy, and raped him. The children sleeping in the same room were either not awakened or too afraid to come to the child's assistance. The boy recognized the nineteen-year-old rapist as someone who occasionally played soccer with him. The family learned of the case the following day and brought it to the attention of the LC-I and LC-III authorities, but two months after the attack, the man had not been charged. The boy's family believed that the young man was related to local officials who prefer to keep the case quiet.355
Local Acholi leaders say that increasing poverty coupled with the increased presence of the UPDF has also facilitated an increase in "survival sex," where girls and young women find no alternatives but to exchange sex for food or money. Often it is UPDF soldiers who engage in these transactions. A volunteer at Lacor Hospital told Human Rights Watch that fourteen- and fifteen-year-old girls taking shelter at the hospital at night are particularly susceptible to sexual exploitation: "The UPDF should protect the people. Instead, they go to young girls and use money to bribe them. Other UPDF are being treated at the hospital, and the soldiers take the girls to their rooms."357
A camp leader at an IDP camp near Gulu said that when the LRA abducts women or girls, it is for them to be taken as "wives." On the government side, he continued, "the soldiers give money or small presents to women and girls under eighteen in exchange for sex. Everybody knows about it."358
Soldiers also use boys to put them in contact with women in the camps with whom the soldiers then seek to have consensual or forced sex. "They pay the boys a little money, so the children would lure the women to the army installations." Then the soldiers would force the women they could not buy. "Normally the women would get money for a compensation, since they cannot report the rape, for they have to stay in the camps with those soldiers."359
Rape, sexual abuse, and exploitation (including the use of women and girls who engage in "survival sex") by UPDF soldiers-as well as LRA rapes of women and "wives"360- contribute to the transmission of HIV. UNAIDS reports that military personnel are especially vulnerable to STDs, including HIV/AIDS. During peacetime, STD prevalence among armed forces globally is generally two to five times higher than in the comparable civilian population; in times of conflict, it may be much higher.361
Although overall HIV prevalence in Uganda has reportedly declined substantially in recent years from previous highs, lingering high prevalence in the north and among other populations is a continuing concern. Gulu reportedly has the second highest rate of HIV/AIDS prevalence after Kampala.362 An antenatal testing program for mothers at Lacor Hospital found that of those who chose to be tested, 11 percent tested positive for HIV in 2000, and 12 percent tested positive in 2001.363 In Kitgum and Pader, between May and December 2002, testing programs at three hospitals found HIV prevalence between 4.8 and 10.4 percent of women tested.364 Nationally, the rate of HIV was estimated at 5 percent of the adult population in 2001.365
The government's failure to live up to this policy was glaringly evident to a primary school teacher from Omoro County, seven kilometers from Gulu. He described the conditions at his school, which has been displaced:
He predicted that of 2,000 pupils at the beginning the school year, only 700 would complete the year. Another teacher estimated that the teacher: pupil ratio was low in general in areas of displacement: "In areas of displacement, you can find more than 100 students to a teacher. Drop out rates are high. There are several factors: abduction, defilement [rape of minors] leading to early pregnancy, and economic hardships."367
In a different IDP camp near Gulu, there were some 200 children in each class. Each room was small, and with just one teacher, there were too many students for each to be attentive, according to the camp leader. The WFP provided food for the school, and the government paid school tuition. Parents were required to bring firewood and to pay the cooks in order for their children to attend. But the Parent-Teacher Association and the school management charged additional fees. Although these were waived for orphaned or destitute children, the camp leader acknowledged that even this was not enough in some cases and the children simply dropped out because of the overcrowding and economic pressures:
War has sharply reduced families' ability to make a living and limited many families' ability to pay school fees. Although Uganda officially adopted a policy of universal primary education in 1997, expenses per child per term (there are three terms per year) can exceed 50,000 Ugandan shillings (U.S. $ 30). These include costs for textbooks and notebooks, uniforms, lunch fees, and extra charges established locally to pay for school maintenance and construction, school furniture, and transportation, accommodation and incentives for teachers. Families living in camps, with restricted sources of income, rarely have the ability to pay such fees.
In late January 2003, government officials announced that the budgets of some ministries, including the Ministry of Education, would be cut in order to increase defence spending. The Ministry of Education was directed to cut its budget by ten percent.369 A teacher observed that "Since the NRM came into power, the government's priority has shifted from education and agriculture to security." 370
344 See, for instance, "Commission provides EUR 500,000 for vulnerable population groups in Uganda," European Commission, Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO), October 9, 2002, IP/02/1447. The release by the European Commission noted that since 2000, ECHO had provided close to 2.5 million Euros to support vulnerable populations in Uganda.
345 Human Rights Watch interview with European donor representative, Kampala, Uganda, June 18, 2003.
346 Human Rights Watch interview with Geoffrey Oyat, Save the Children Norway (Uganda), in Geneva, March 31, 2003.
347 The U.N. OCHA also refers to these as "night stayers" and notes that they throng the cities of Gulu, Kitgum, and Pader between the hours of 6:30 pm and 6:30 am. U.N. OCHA, "Humanitarian Update - Uganda," vol. V., issue 3 (March 2003).
348 Human Rights Watch interview with official, Gulu, Uganda, February 10, 2003.
349 U.N. OCHA Gulu office, "Night Commuters to Gulu Town," May 17, 2003.
350 Fr. Carlos Rodriguez, "War In Acholi: What Can We Do?" Kitgum, Uganda, June 2003.
351 Human Rights Watch interview with Santa Odwar, Gulu, Uganda, February 6, 2003.
352 Human Rights Watch interview with sister, Gulu, Uganda, February 7, 2003.
353 Human Rights Watch interview with night commuters, Lacor Hospital, Gulu, Uganda, February 8, 2003.
354 Human Rights Watch interview with a local volunteer, Lacor Hospital, Gulu, Uganda, February 8, 2003. .
355 Human Rights Watch interview, Gulu, Uganda, February 5, 2003.
356 Human Rights Watch interview with medical officer affiliated with the Gulu District Office of Health Services, Gulu, Uganda, February 10, 2003.
357 Human Rights Watch interview with volunteer at Lacor Hospital, Gulu, Uganda, February 5, 2003.
358 Human Rights Watch interview with IDP camp leader, Gulu, Uganda, February 9, 2003.
359 Human Rights Watch interview with Godfrey Alango, Caritas contact person for Pagak camp, Gulu, Uganda, January 31, 2003.
360 There were in fact only four reported LRA rape cases during LRA attacks from June to December 2002 in Kitgum and Pader districts, according to the ARLPI (see www.acholipeace.org). However, many women and girls abducted by the LRA are subjected to rape as "wives" of LRA commanders but do not have the opportunity to report it until they escape, as described in the section entitled "Slaves, `Wives' and Mothers: The Experience of Girls," above.
361 See U.N. Joint U.N. Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), "HIV/AIDS and uniformed services," http://www.unaids.org/security/Issues/uniform_serv.html, (accessed April 6, 2003).
362 "Gulu HIV Rates High," New Vision (Kampala), August 7, 2001.
363 Human Rights Watch interview with medical officer with the Gulu District Office of Health Services, Gulu, Uganda, February 14, 2003.
364 Information provided by the Associazione Volontari per il Servizio Internazionale (AVSI), March 6, 2003.
365 UNAIDS/World Health Organization (WHO) Epidemiological Fact Sheet, 2002 Update, http://www.unaids.org/hivaids/info/statistics/fact_sheet/pdfs/Uganda_en.pdf, (accessed March 4, 2003).
366 Human Rights Watch interview with primary school teacher, Gulu, Uganda, February 5, 2003
367 Human Rights Watch interview with lecturer from a teacher training college, Gulu, Uganda, February 9, 2003.
368 Human Rights Watch interview with camp leader, Gulu, Uganda, February 9, 2003.
369 "Defence budget to increase by 49 bn," Sunday Vision (Kampala), February 2, 2003.