The years of war in Northern Uganda: 1986-2006

From 1986 the rebels (from 1987 known as the LRA) began to systematically target schools, churches, villages and internally displaced camps: kidnappings, sexual violence, mass abduction and forced enrolment of child soldiers were daily occurrences. Attacks on vehicles and the use of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines also intensified. Mutilations became commonplace (especially cutting off ears, lips, nose). The population fled from the countryside to places that were considered safer, such as towns and missions, or to the government created “protected camps”. Over the years, as many as 30,000 children between the ages of seven and fourteen in Northern Ugandan are estimated to have been abducted.

At the height of the conflict, about 1.2 million in Northern Uganda were displaced in the “protected camps”, where up to 60,000 people (in the largest camps) lived in dramatic conditions due to overcrowding, lack of basic services, and survived on assistance offered by humanitarian organizations. Furthermore, each night, children between the ages of 8 and 14, referred to as “Night Commuters” would walk up to 20 km (12 miles) from their homes or from IDP camps to larger towns, especially Gulu, in search of safety.

During a November 2003 field visit to Uganda, United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland stated “I cannot find any other part of the world that is having an emergency on the scale of Uganda, that is getting such little international attention.”

Despite the failure of reaching a peace agreement in the 2006 peace talks between the government of Uganda and the LRA, by mid-2007 the improvement of security in Northern Uganda led thousands of IDPs to move into decongestion camps or even to return home. To date, although the LRA are blamed for civilian attacks in Southern Sudan, the DR Congo and the Central African Republic between 2008 and 2010, Northern Uganda enjoys peace after decades of war.

The hospital during the years of war

From 1996 almost 2,000 people settled permanently within the hospital compound, in large tents offered by WFP that the hospital set up within it’s northwestern boundary. These “unofficial” internally displaced were re-located by the authorities in 2003. In addition, between 1996 and 2006 thousands of “night commuters”, mostly children and women, would enter the hospital compound every evening between six and eight PM, after having walked up to two hours, to avoid nocturnal rebel attacks and kidnapping. They would settle in the corridors, verandahs, buildings under construction, rooms not used for hospital activities during the night, and even in the courtyards. The next morning, between six and seven AM they would leave the hospital and return to their homes, only to start the journey anew in the evening.

“November 11, 1996. This morning I witnessed the now usual exodus of people. For a good half hour, an uninterrupted flow of humanity exited the gate with their poor bundles on their heads. The mothers are truly a sorry sight with a child in their arms, one tied to their back, one in each hand, and with another bundle and a papyrus mat on their head. It’s an unbelievable event that shows no hint of diminishing, and there is no indication of how long it will last.”
From the diary of Brother Elio Croce.Extract from the book To make a dream come true containing letters written from Lacor Hospital between 1959 and 2003, published by the Corti Foundation in 2010 to celebrate Lacor Hospital’s 50th anniversary.

This placed a huge demand on the Hospital’s infrastructures, especially for water and sanitation (new wells, dozens of latrines, a new waste water treatment plant which had to be provided in order to prevent the outbreak of water and sanitation related diseases (recurrent cholera outbreaks occurred in the region, especially in the IDP camps, in these years).