The lost generation

It's the world's worst forgotten humanitarian crisis, and for 18 years, the children of northern Uganda have borne the brunt of the country's bloody civil war. Helen Mirren reports on a heart-rending conflict. Photographs by Brian Moody


Day one

Day one

I wake with a sense of trepidation. I'm due to fly out to northern Uganda with Oxfam today and I don't want to go. I want to close the door, stay with my husband and live my lovely life. I don't want to confront the feeling of inadequacy and guilt at my own luck, or be that overfed white person asking banal questions. But I keep telling myself, "Just do it, some good may come out of it." On my way to the airport I pass Harrods, with all its Christmas lights, and know that in 24 hours I'll be a world away, in a world where children are being cynically and violently used. It's a night flight and when I wake up over Africa the adrenalin hits. I am about to confront a horror story.

It is inexplicable to me that the world stands by and does nothing. The war between the Ugandan People's Defence Forces and the Lord's Resistance Army has been going on for 18 years. There is a history of tension between the north and south. In 1986, Yoweri Museveni, who is from the south, took power and set about trying to control the Acholi in the north. The LRA now dominates resistance, fighting, so it says, to reclaim Uganda for the Acholi. Now led by Joseph Kony, it is one of the world's most brutal armies and has terrorised its own people. At least 25,000 children have been abducted, the boys ordered to kill or be killed, the girls used as sex slaves. Half a million people - mostly children - have been killed in the conflict.

Day two

We have a day in Kampala before flying north, so we visit an Acholi squatter village on the outskirts of town. Gabriel, the chairman of the community, shows me around, explaining that some people here are so tormented by what they've seen in the north that they live like wild animals. There is extreme poverty and the women - who are the ones keeping everything together - spend their days at the quarry, smashing rocks into tiny stones. Watching the women hammer and break the rocks, there's a moment when I feel mortified to be here. I feel so conspicuous but also want to show my solidarity.

Three-quarters of the village is made up of children but at least they seem happy enough, especially when Gabriel buys them sugar cane. It takes ages to cut the long strips into equal portions but the children wait patiently in line. Gabriel tells me that if peace is ever declared in the north, half the people here would head home within 24 hours.

Just before leaving, I meet David Toorase and his wife Alice. They welcome me into their tiny home. They used to be farmers in the north but fled when it became too dangerous to go to the fields. David is wearing massive flares and at first I'm convinced these cool loons must be a fashion statement but then he pulls them up to reveal the worst case of elephantitis you can imagine. His legs are like huge tree trunks, his toes spreading into the ground like gnarled roots. It's a terrible sight. David tells me the disease took hold during his long trek south.

Day three

The alarm is set for 5am but I wake much earlier. Oxfam has chartered a small plane from Kampala to Kitgum, right in the heart of the north. Ninety-nine per cent of the people here have been herded by the government into IDP (internally displaced people) camps, ostensibly for their own protection.

Looking down from the plane, Uganda appears wonderfully green and tropical, but then, flying over the north, I suddenly notice all these abandoned villages - one after the other gone to seed or burnt out. It's a very sad sight. On landing we're greeted by a group of chanting women dressed in their best - no mean achievement in this environment. Lenyeno Esteu, a mother of four, is one of the 18,000 "night commuters" - mostly children - who walk three to four kilometres into Kitgum to escape the LRA raids after dark. She's been a night commuter for three years, ever since one of her children was abducted when she was just six years old. "Every night I can't sleep for thinking of my boy," she says.

At Hotel Bomah - the only hotel in this dusty town - I'm shown to my room. I've been given the so-called presidential suite, but there's nothing very presidential about it. It's quite a salutary contrast from the Elton John Suite at the Paris Ritz, where I just stayed while touring Europe with my husband [the director Taylor Hackford] to promote his new film, Ray.

At the hotel we are given a security briefing by Craig Hollingsworth, the British man who runs the Oxfam programme here. There's a curfew at 10pm and no one - not even Oxfam staff - is allowed further than three miles from town at any time. In the afternoon, I meet Okot Lapolo Santo, a district Commissioner. He is full of outrage. "The world has never seen people cooked in pots and eaten but this is what this conflict is about," he declares, referring to just one example of the depths of depravity the LRA are accused of. "When there was a massacre of 400 people, the world didn't even raise an eyebrow. When there was a massacre of 200 people, the world kept quiet." The UN Security Council is right when it calls northern Uganda the world's worst forgotten humanitarian crisis.

Lastly, I have a meeting with some religious leaders working for peace, who put me on the spot. They've received a stream of representatives over the years and are frustrated that nothing changes. They want me to bring this story to the wider world. I don't just want to be another voice in the wilderness but nor do I want to be drawn into the politics of this extremely complex situation. I've always sat back from politics and I was never as much as a political activist in my youth as people make out. I guess I'm like the camel in the Iraq war which plods through the night not taking much notice of the soldiers on either side. It's tempting to get sucked into the drama of it all but that can easily become slightly self-aggrandising.

Day four

The Labuje camp is one of 18 IDP sites in the Kitgum area and one of 118 in the whole of northern Uganda. To protect the people, the government has herded two million of them into these squalid camps. Squashing people together with nothing to do means Aids and domestic violence are on the increase, and these once self-sufficient people are now totally dependent on food aid. Lebuje is one of the smaller IDP camps; still, there are 14,000 people living here.

Sometimes I feel uncomfortable introducing myself. I tell the camp leaders that I am a well-known actress from England and that unfortunately people seem to need celebrities to bring other people's suffering to the world's attention these days. The small traditional mud huts are built so close together you can hardly squeeze by. They are about 8ft in diameter, with nothing in them - no bedding, just plastic sacking and a fire built into the ground emitting lethal fumes. It makes me so aware of how unbelievably much we have. It's not that I don't love shopping, but increasingly I feel nauseated by the masses of stuff we all accumulate in our houses.

In one mud hut, 16-year-old Anena Susan lives with four of her siblings. Her parents were murdered in front of her - something she's too traumatised to speak about. Another girl, Agnes, a former abductee, doesn't want to talk about her experiences. She bends her fingers back, over and over again. I feel uncomfortable asking her about all this. There's an enormous sense of dignity among these people and they don't want to blab on about being raped - well who does, whether in Kitgum or California?

While the girls won't look me in the eye, the children certainly do. They grab my hand and won't let go. As I'm talking to the adults, I can feel them poking at it. I'm sure they're thinking, "What's this weird white thing?"

Lying in bed at night I have a sense both of the horrific nature of humanity as well as its incredibly productive side. I feel immersed in Kitgum now. I've left my home and husband far behind. Actually, Taylor called at the most sensitive moment today, just when I was talking to Agnes. I rarely use my mobile and it was very embarrassing - a stark reminder of the chasm between our two worlds.

Day five

I hear gunshots in the night but it doesn't alarm me - I do live in LA after all. Then it's another 5am start, to see the night commuters heading home to their village for breakfast. We catch them going east out of town, hundreds of them, some as young as six carrying toddlers on their backs and clutching their bedding. It is the most extraordinary sight and a clear indication of who the targets are in this war. I walk with them a fair way up the road. For every 100 or so children there is one adult - a grandmother who comes to supervise. I walk with one. When I say goodbye, she calls after me: "Next time bring food." I feel awful - these people need food more than my questions and sympathy.

We visit St Joseph's Hospital. Patients walk up to 100km to get here. Dr Lawrence shows me round, beginning with the therapeutic feeding centre, where malnourished babies are given assistance, and ending at the wards with victims of the conflict. Many of the former abductees end up here, often with severe malnutrition. When the Sudanese government withdrew its support of the LRA earlier this year, in effect they cut off their food supply.

In one bed is 16-year-old Komakech who is brain damaged. His legs twitch all the time and I'm told his mind is "gone". His parents were killed in a raid. He was abducted and kept in captivity for two years. One day he was beaten up so severely by the rebels that he was left for dead by the side of the road where Government troops found him. When I sit down on the bed next to him and try to chat, I find that his brain is actually OK. He can even speak some English. He says he has many problems. Again he is looking to us for help. As we leave, I ask Dr Lawrence about David in Kampala and whether his elephantitis can be treated. He tells me that it sounds far too advanced and his legs are as good as useless. It's terribly disappointing.

The last visit of the day is to the Concerned Women's Association, which supports formerly abducted children. Again, I feel awkward prying into the lives of these children. I hate feeling like a vulture preying on people's misery. I don't want to dig around for horror stories and feed a salacious public who want to hear about the worst barbaric act. I want to make this a productive and honest trip for myself and for the people I meet. I absolutely don't want to make simplistic assumptions, tell people what they should do, or say "how terrible" and weep a few tears.

I talk to Patrick, and then to Mary. Both are very withdrawn. Patrick says he spent most of his time in the bush injured and not fighting, but there's no way of knowing if this is true or if he just can't face telling us what happened. Mary says her biggest fear is that she'll be recaptured by the LRA. She explains how the rebels use shea butter, spreading it on the children's palms, feet and foreheads as a part of an initiation ceremony to make them kill. Mary was in a band of 200 children, most of whom carried guns.

Later in the evening, we visit a school run by Oxfam for the night commuters. There are hundreds of children milling around in the dark, too excited by our presence to go to sleep. The children welcome us with a short play about hygiene, while the women sing and dance. I can't resist joining in. It's the first time I've felt like this since being here. And it's the first night I sleep well.

Day six

My last day in Kitgum and we visit the Concerned Parents' Association which helps rehabilitate older returnees. Many of the boys have committed appalling atrocities, most of the girls have been used as sex slaves and are now child mothers who live in fear of their rebel "husband" finding and killing them. Since last year, 1,700 returnees have come to the centre. Julie, the centre's director, tells me how the organisation was founded by parents of the Aboke girls who were abducted in 1996 from a boarding school in northern Uganda. There was an international outcry at the time but then the world forgot.

This is the ultimate horror story - one where your heart falls away from you. Julie tells me that the day after the abduction, 100 of the girls were released and the rest taken to Sudan. Over the years, most have been rescued but four died, including the head girl. Apparently, a handful of girls were caught trying to escape and when the rebel leaders threatened to kill them, the head girl said "take me instead". They agreed, but only on condition that the other girls hacked her to death. And that's what happened. It's the most terrible thing I've heard.

Everywhere we look there is a tragic story. One young man is playing a string instrument under a mango tree. He's a wonderful musician and apparently plays this music all day long, but is too traumatised to talk about his role as an LRA commander. Only music can obliterate the memories of the atrocities he committed. I must say he looks terrifying. The image of this boy lost in his music is something I'll never forget. It's the contrast between the beautiful, meditative sound and the fear, darkness and violence of his past that is so haunting.

Just before leaving, I meet Joyce Ayota, a 24-year-old who was abducted when she was 14 along with her father and sister. Her father was apparently released but she never saw her sister again. She tells me: "In Sudan, we younger girls were handed out to the men before the older girls because we hadn't been with a man before. I was given a man much older than me and I was terrified of him." But this is a complex story - Joyce continues to tell me that she grew to love the rebel commander who fathered her three children. While she's glad to be away from the rebels, she misses him. For many years, she lived in Sudan, cultivated the land and had friends. That was before 2002, when the Ugandan army launched Operation Iron Fist, hunting out the rebels in Sudan and driving them back into Uganda. Joyce has nothing and, without an education, she doubts she can support her children. She appeals to me to tell the world about her plight.

Day seven

It's time to go home. I've learnt so much from being here and my task now is to get others to listen. When people saw the horror of Beslan on their television screens, the world was in shock at what adults could do to children, but no one makes a noise about what must surely be the world's largest hostage crisis. What I've witnessed in Kitgum is nothing short of a massacre of childhood. I see myself as a messenger, trying to throw a search light on that part of the world which the rest has forgotten about. On the flight back to Heathrow, a woman from Kampala asks me where I've been. When I tell her the north she practically jumps out of her seat. "I'd rather die than go there," she says, and she means it. Even Ugandans don't want to know.

I don't like scrutiny so I'm glad this trip has not been about me, Helen Mirren, the actor. If at times I've felt overwhelmed by the tragedy of it all, that's irrelevant. This trip isn't about how bad I feel, but abut the plight of the Acholi people in northern Uganda. At the press conference today when a journalist asked me why I was over here, I said, "Because people like you wouldn't be here if a member of Oxfam was talking."

A week ago, I didn't want to come, I couldn't face it, but now it's over, I'm so unbelievably glad I did. It's unspeakably sad on the one hand but also incredibly inspiring because in a situation where you'd expect chaos and anarchy you still find a very structured, self-disciplined society.

I've always believed it's dangerous to dehumanise anyone, even those who seek to dehumanise us, so in order to succeed this peace process has to engage the LRA, which isn't easy when everything you hear about them is so inhuman and brutal. There was a ray of hope in November, when the first tentative stages of a peace process got underway. There was even a ceasefire. But then, on New Year's Day, the UPDF - government troops - attacked the LRA. The process has now fallen through.

For more information, visit www.oxfam.org.uk

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