The number of children seeking refuge in Gulu town centre, northern Uganda, has dramatically increased following a spate of rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) attacks and abductions in the area, officials said on Thursday.
Thousands of children are now abandoning their homes in Gulu’s suburbs and surrounding areas to spend their nights in the relative safety of the town centre, before returning to their villages during the day.
“This seems to be a routine thing, now,” said Dennis Okwee, a Gulu resident who works in a local hotel. “There are masses of them in the bus park.”
Peter Buitendijk, field director of Noah’s Ark Children’s Ministry Uganda (NACMU), a new Gulu-based project specifically set up to house children fleeing rebel activity, confirmed the increase in children moving at night.
"Last night we reached a record influx coming into our centre of some 1,203," he told IRIN. "This place was packed. In previous months we had planned for 300 a night; now we are truly overwhelmed.”
The rise follows a period of heightened rebel activity that has seen incursions getting closer to Gulu town. On Wednesday, the LRA launched an attack on a residential suburb near the prison, only 1km from Gulu town centre. “They took 26 abductees,” Buitendijk told IRIN. “Though most have been returned, except two.”
That same evening the rebels attacked the town’s Catholic Mission and Chirombe village, 2km from Gulu, the town's deputy Resident District Commissioner, Semei Okwir, told IRIN.
“The new ones coming into our camp are from Chirombe,” confirmed Norman Omono, NACMU's team leader responsible for keeping and counselling the children.
“The rebels attacked last night [Wednesday] and took 30 children. We also received some from Bangatira, 8km away, also recently attacked,” he told IRIN.
Other children were fleeing Laliya (4km from Gulu) and Pece (3km from Gulu), both of which have been attacked recent days.
The NACMU project is the first of its kind. It was set up in March with the intention of providing a secure shelter for children in high-risk areas to spend their nights, free from the dread of abduction. But since becoming established, the number of children in and around Gulu coming to the centre for a safe night’s sleep has risen dramatically, putting a strain on its
According to officials of the project, the Ugandan government has placed tight restrictions on the centre, saying it is not allowed to feed the children or provide blankets. The government fears that that centre may create a dependency that could be hard to break and would be damaging in the long run.