Day Three:

Posted: August 16, 2007 in Blog

The first two days I was so awestruck by what I was seeing that I really don’t think the poverty and despair sunk in. When we were out at the land protest on Day Two, I barely winced when I looked down at the feet of the man standing beside me to see his left foot was swollen to about five times the size of his right foot. Nor did it effect me when I saw the mud brick huts that entire families call home. But on this day things finally started to hit me. At yet another trading centre trying to get electricity, I asked the local chairman (sort of like the community mayor) how much his community of 300 could afford to contribute towards the 30% cost of getting electricity. After a quick consultation with those around him, he turned back to me and said they could probably manage 500,000 shillings.

500,000 shillings…. I looked at the translator to make sure he got it right. He did. That’s worth about $310. So barely $1 per person in the community. It wasn’t necessarily the fact that this community could only afford $1 a person. It was more that there is no way that 500,000 shillings will come even close to paying their 30% share. So basically you had this huge group of people who just spent hours talking about all the ways getting power will improve their lives… and yet they’ll likely fail to because they couldn’t afford to scrape together more than $1 per person.

It proved to be the start of an eye-opening day. We went to visit a recently-reopened school. “Hey, this could be a feel-good story,” I thought. Y’know, school re-opens after rebel activity quietens down. People getting their lives put back together, etc.

What we found were 981 smiling children’s faces. Smiling, despite not having any clean water, no toilet (“We use the bush,” the assistant headmaster said.) The whole school has 10 chairs (nine plastic, one wooden) and only 14 teachers (do the math on that teacher-to-student ratio). One grade three class I visited had 116 students jammed into the room, all sitting on the ground. I use the term “class” lightly. The children are taught in two crumbling brick structures with corrugated iron sheet roofs. But there aren’t enough sheets to cover the entire roofs.

After doing interviews and surveying the kids to see what they want to be when they grow up (one brave one out of hundreds raised his hand when asked whether anyone wanted to be a lawyer), the deputy headmaster called them in from recess by banging a rusty pot hanging from one of the three mango trees on the school grounds. We got back into our car, trying to think of their smiling faces, and not the Sisyphean climb these kids are embarking on.

Next we set off for the site of the Barlonyo massacre. On February 21, 2004 LRA rebels attacked the Barlonyo IDP camp, killing over 300 and abducting an unknown number of children (though the government only acknowledges 121 dead). We crested a small hill and there before us was a sea of thatched roofs. We drove through the camp, to the far side where a memorial has been built for the victims. In the middle of a peaceful clearing sat a white memorial with a plaque. Encircling the edge of the clearing was a concrete ring circle. These were the tombs of those who died that day.

People, young and old, were in the clearing. Some were sitting on the tombs. They had only returned home to Barlonyo in February after three years in camps elsewhere because the government evacuated the area following the attack.

I was snapping pictures when I heard my name.

“Christopher, there are some people here I think you should meet.”

I walked over. There was an older man, wearing a ripped sweater, who was the first to see the rebels approaching when he was walking to a nearby village to harvest honey.

Seeing them, he ran back to the camp where the soldiers guarding the camps heard his warnings and took off down the path to meet the rebels before they reached Barlonyo. But by this time, the rebels had moved and came into the village from the other side of the camp. Only a few militiamen were left to fight and they were quickly over-taken. He was shot by the rebels as he tried to yell at people to run. He pulled up the sleeve of his sweater to show me the scar.

Wounded, he hid behind a tree that suddenly became no-man’s land between the soldiers on one side and rebels firing on the other.

I asked him if I could take his picture next to the tree he hid behind during the fighting. He agreed, and we walked towards it across the clearing. I glanced down momentarily to adjust the settings on my camera and I’m pretty sure I let out an audible gasp when I looked up to find him clinging to the tree in the exact position he was in that day. I snapped a quick picture, I had to, but then using hand gestures to tell him that no, it was okay just to stand beside the tree. I brought the camera up to take another picture of him:

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I thanked him (“Apwoyo” in the local language) for telling me his story.

Now it’s time to meet Bosco.

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Through a translator, he told me about watching his older brother get executed. “Right there,” he said, in a newly-mature voice. The spot he was pointing to lay about 20 feet away. He was abducted by the rebels. Like many others, he, at 13, had been abducted to be trained as a child soldier and labourer.

“They were killing people as we walked,” he said.

“How were they killing them?” I asked, feeling uncomfortable having just asked that question so matter-of-factly. “They were using pangas (machetes) and spears,” he said. “They were trying to save bullets.”

He was beaten regularly, part of a “training” regime to toughen-up the kids. But one day, they were on an exercise when he suddenly recognized the landscape around him. “I know how to get home from here,” he realized. So that night, he and two others escaped at 2 a.m. It took them until 8 a.m. to walk to the nearest army detachment. He had been with the rebels about a month.

The soldiers took him back to Barlonyo. But there wasn’t a single person there, and everything had been burned to the ground save for one brick building.

I asked how he was coping. The translator turned to the teen with a look that said, “How the hell do you think he’s coping?” … Yeah, yeah, I know but I have to ask…

How is he coping? Not well. The other kids at the camp accuse him of being a rebel fighter. “Sometimes I really want to hurt them when they say that,” he said. He’s the oldest son, now that his brother his dead. He had to leave school in grade five to help support the family, especially now that both his parents cannot walk because they were shot in the legs. So he, at 16, supports them both, along with his younger brother and sister.

Our last stop for the day was at another trading centre trying to get electricity. Behind the trading centre were the remnants of an IDP camp. After sitting with the group for a while under the shade of yet another mango tree, Nandutu (the other reporter) and I got up to walk behind to the IDP camp. Only a few small groups of mud and thatched-roof huts remained. A group of kids followed us and we had a great time playing with them. I took their picture and showed it to them, which of course sent them running off giggling, only to return a moment later wanting another picture. A woman was stirring sim-sim in a pot over a fire and so Nandutu and I each took a turn stirring the pot.

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I took one last picture of the kids, crowding around to get in the photo, before we left.

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That night there was no power at the rooming house when we returned. There’s not much to do when the power’s out, so Nandutu and I each took one end of my iPod headphones and listened to music in the dark while talking about the articles we were heading home to write.

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Comments
  1. Bryn says:

    Hey Chris, great post there from the North – some of those refugee/IDP stories are intense as hell. Have you run into any cases of children being abducted by rebels/bandits and ransomed back to their families? That’s become a huge problem in CAR and even southern Chad.

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