These children have seen things that no child should ever see or experience

Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary talks to Cahal Milmo about the first day of his trip to Uganda
Click to follow
The Independent Online

5.30am: I arrive at Entebbe airport after an overnight flight, swapping London for the north Ugandan town of Kitgum and its nearby refugee camp of Padibe, where 35,000 people displaced by many years of conflict now live.

10.45am: Padibe is 50 minutes from Kitgum, reached by a twin-engined plane. Some 300,000 people in the surrounding province - some 90 per cent of the population - have been displaced by the conflict with the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), the guerrilla group which has terrorised the region for 20 years, abducting women and children and subjecting them to unspeakable violence and torture.

In Padibe, I'm shown part of the camp destroyed by fire in February this year. The huts, with straw roofs, are built so cheek by jowl that any fire spreads very quickly. Many of the huts are still burnt and have tarpaulin on their roofs. It is a measure of the density of these camps and the poverty of their inhabitants.

On the way I meet a woman who is having her sorghum milled to make flour. She pays for the milling by brewing beer and thus generating a small income. She tells me how she was recently abducted by the LRA and held prisoner for four weeks. Her tone is matter of fact, despite the nature of her ordeal. She knows that in some way she was fortunate - she managed to escape during a firefight between the LRA and the Ugandan army. I met another woman who told me she had been captured for nine years before she managed to flee.

11.50am: The camp's medical clinic is crowded with mothers and children - it is vaccination day. They are awaiting inoculations against measles. I am shown the laboratory where they test for tuberculosis - another of the diseases that stalk these camps. A doctor tells me the staff have been trained to administer antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV. But he says the drugs themselves have not arrived.

In the adult ward, there are 10 beds. None has a mattress. A man has been brought in by his family who say he has suspected malaria. He is lying on the floor. The staff explain that after a burglary they locked the mattresses away and only bring them out when they have a patient. They are looking for the key to the room with the mattresses to get one for the ill man.

12.15pm: It is the school holidays in Kitgum province. But the camp school is full of pupils attending "catch-up" lessons. The school has 1,300 pupils and 15 teachers, making an average class size of nearly 90. But despite the overcrowded classes, the children are enthusiastic. Today's lesson is about agriculture in California.

2.30pm: On the drive back to Kitgum, I notice that the road, which was deserted when I first visited northern Uganda two years ago, is now being used by people and vehicles. In the fields, people are tending crops. It is a measure of the small improvement in security which is persuading some Ugandans in the camps to start going home to the villages they abandoned in fear of the LRA and their kidnap gangs. I'm told that there are now fewer attacks by the LRA, who are thought to be predominantly based in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But people are still very, very fearful that the LRA might return. After two decades of conflict and instability, many refugees say they want to feel absolutely safe before they will consider going home. Many of the younger generation, who have only known life in the camp, tell me they do not want to go home at all.

3.30pm: During a meeting with aid agency representatives, including the Red Cross, Unicef and the World Food Programme, I am told that smaller dispersal camps are being set up to encourage and help returnees. But in turn they face difficulties in providing food and security for these camps compared with Padibe. The British Government has provided £20m in humanitarian assistance to Uganda in the past 12 months and a further £15m direct to projects in northern Uganda which I redirected from budget support for the Ugandan government last year because of concerns about parts of the political process. That money has been spent on badly needed assistance such as the building of latrines, provision of bed nets, and vaccinations for measles and polio. Some £7m has been spent on HIV prevention and £2m on an anti-corruption programme.

4.40pm: During the flight from Kitgum to Gulu, another town badly affected by the conflict, the landing gear has to be cranked down by hand after becoming stuck. The crew assure me there is nothing to be alarmed about. Lunch consists of sandwiches on the way to the DfID office in Gulu during a rainstorm.

5.30pm: Members of Empowering Hands, a group of former LRA female abductees who have come together to support each other and share their experiences, greet us with a song. The opening line is: "We had no peace in the world. Visitors, you are our comforters." They sing with great gusto. The women then explain their work and how they go out to contact other abductees and explain to others their experiences.

They talk in detail about the horrific nature of what they suffered. As children, they saw things that no child should ever see or experience. Young girls were given to LRA commanders as wives and had babies. People were mutilated. The LRA has been unbelievably wicked.

Earlier a woman had told me her story at the hands of the LRA. As she spoke, she could not look anybody in the eye. She was kneading her hands, almost as if she were driving out the memories.

6.30pm: During a meeting with local politicians, I am introduced to Norbert Mao, chairman of Gulu district. The irony of his name is not lost on him - he tells me he produces campaign posters with the legend "Chairman Mao".

9.45pm: I visit the "night commuter" camp - a shelter to which children from the surrounding countryside walk several miles each night to be in the safety of the town and avoid the kidnap gangs of the LRA. I am told that improvements in security mean the number of children has dropped from 40,000 a night at the peak in 2004 to a current level of 13,000. It is still a huge number. The question I am asked by everyone is this: When will it be safe?

Comments