The Night Commuters

Issue #2 of Unknown Soldier has just hit the stands and so, as it will go for the remainder of the first story arc, installment #2 of our web-extra series is up as well. Here you can follow the creative process on the book from script to page. You can also read further into the complex political and social world of Northern Uganda. This month we focus on the Night Commuters.

Here’s some helpful terms, names and acronyms…

  • Acholi: Ethnic group from the districts of Gulu, Kitgum and Pader in northern Uganda (an area commonly referred to as Acholiland), and Magwe County in southern Sudan.
  • IDP Camps: Internally Displaced Persons Camps. An IDP is a person forced to flee their home but who, unlike a refugee, remains within their country’s borders.
  • LRA: The Lord’s Resistance Army. A rebel Christian guerrilla army operating mainly in northern Uganda and parts of Sudan.
  • Joseph Kony: Head of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Spiritualist rebel who claims to posses mystic powers.
  • UPDF: The Uganda Peoples Defence Force. The armed forces of Uganda.
  • Yoweri Kaguta Museveni: President of Uganda since 1986.

Last month I talked about the forced migration of virtually the entire Acholi population onto the IDP camps. President Museveni’s government claimed this move would be in the interest of the Acholi people and would protect them from the ravages of the war between the government and the LRA. What it actually did was displace them from their lands and rob them of their autonomy.

On top of this, the quality of security in the camps was extremely low. Even when each camp had its stated pre-requisite of one Army detachment, safety was far from guaranteed. UPDF soldiers were known to flee at the first sign of an LRA attack. Worse, fear of possible conflict has been reported to drive UPDF guards to unpredictable and dangerous abuses. Including beating people in the camps who made too much noise at night. There was also the danger of soldiers raping the women in the camp. The youthful make-up of the UPDF (a child of 16 can enlist – making what some have called a government-sanctioned child army), fear of Kony’s perceived military and mystical power and the fatigue the government soldiers felt – many of whom had been re-stationed immediately after Congo War II – made for an ineffective, and easily routed fighting force.

Since the LRA almost always came at night to abduct future soldiers, workers and wives into their ranks, and often operated right in the heart of the camps, the ever self-reliant Acholi children began to take the matter of their safety into their own hands, and in so doing, created a phenomena that eventually became one of the strongest images to emerge from the war. They began to “commute” daily by the thousands. Before dark, vast swarms of children from 6 to 16 years old began the trek from their camps, scattered across Gulu District, to the larger towns. The blankets they carried and the clothes they wore were their only possessions in the world. They traveled from four to ten miles each day, simply to sleep in schools and dispensaries, in the awnings of shops and in Catholic Missions. Only to wake up at the crack of dawn and begin the journey back to their respective camps to tend to their families or avoid being accused of rebel activity by the UPDF. By 2004 it was estimated that every night more than 25,000 children where taking to the roads in search of safety before nightfall. At one point Noah’s Ark, one of Gulu’s shelters for night commuters, stated, that it was taking in more than 6,000 children per night. Each and every one of them terrified for their safety. But even this massive, daily movement of human beings could not guarantee protection. Reports of young women transacting sex for safe harbor in the night was not uncommon and if the shelters were full, sleeping under a car did not, in any way, offer a strong sense of security.

This was all part of the natural outgrowth of the terror campaign waged by Joseph Kony on the Acholi (his own people). The LRA would target very young children in their raids. Smashing the heads of infants and throwing toddlers into fires. These stories spread fear amongst youth who had not yet been a part of an LRA attack. And if abducted, then the child’s fate was unpredictable. Would they be a worker, resigned to constant physical abuse while carrying goods for miles and miles, only then to be let go immediately afterward? Let go to spread the word of LRA cruelty, their very freedom born from the whims of a man with a gun, the child’s life a symbol of the LRA’s power and the child’s powerlessness? Would the child be forced to kill their own parents as an act of indoctrination into the new moral order that exists inside the twisted LRA culture, leaving the child ripe for programming and training as a soldier in their forces? Would the be forced (if they were a woman) to marry a highly placed officer in the LRA, a man often much, much older than themselves, who would regularly rape them, who has complete control over them, and who will, most likely, be the father of their child? You can see how the fear of abduction becomes a strategy. It displaces the culture, keeps them from organizing, takes the already palpable dread of the enemy to a legendary level that cannot be psychologically coped with or rallied against. The persistence of the Night Commuter phenomena throughout this war is a testament to the effectiveness of the psychological aspect of the abductions.

However, it has also backfired on Kony. The images of thousands upon thousands of children – owning nothing, dragging tired bodies, walking on swollen barefoot feet across miles of dusty road simply to sleep in safety – stunned the world when they finally began to matriculate out into the global mainstream press, which had, up to this point, been criminally negligent in its coverage of the conflict. It could be argued that transmission of the Night Commuter imagery through various media outlets in developed nations brought about a public awareness that would eventually force President Museveni to take more seriously the possibility of peace talks and by 2007, Night Commuting had ended.

Despite the failure of the peace process between the Ugandan Government and the LRA, and even minor reactivity on the abduction front as of last month, the Night Commuters have not taken back to the roads. This is a good sign. A sign that the Acholi are done with war. That they are done with empowering a madman (Kony). Done with his fear tactics. They want to rebuild, to reclaim, to have their culture be reborn. What the new Acholi people, the post-war Acholi people, will act like, think like, is anybody’s guess. Wounds run deep. More than one generation is scarred by this conflict. The old Acholi ways, living in the villages, nightly gatherings to tell stories, rural traditions, these things are most likely gone forever, ground up by the all-consuming conflict. But there will be peace, if only because the people of Northern Uganda are too exhausted for anything else. And with this comes new hope.

-Joshua Dysart

A BBC photo-report on the Night Commuters from 2005.

The Wikipedia Page for the Global Night Commute, a worldwide protest in the name of the Acholi children that took place on April 29, 2006.

A video featuring night commuters talking about why they flee and how one organization is trying to give them purpose in their lives now that the war is essentially over. It has some audio problems, but it’s still an interesting view.

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