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Street Kids Reunited With Relatives

Hundreds of children, orphaned or separated from parents during war, now live rough in northern towns.
By Patrick Okino
Juma Ongwen began his life on the street at the age of nine after his parents were killed in the February 2004 massacre at the Barlonyo camp by rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA.



“I was not given food for two days, prompting me to come to the street to look for what I can eat,” said Ongwen, describing how the streets of Lira became his home for the next five years.



Ongwen was a street beggar, joining a throng of youngsters who did what they needed to survive after having been orphaned, abandoned, or victimised by abuse and neglect.



Ongwen’s life on the street ended last month when he was picked up by the Lira police and turned over to an aid agency, and finally to relatives in an effort to help him and others like him rebuild their lives.



“I resorted to the street because I had no where to go,” the now 14-year-old Ongwen told IWPR. “My parents are among 300 people brutally massacred in cold blood at Barlonyo internal displaced camp in 2004.”



Because of that attack and many others like it during the two decades of war fought by the LRA in northern Uganda from 1986 to 2006, hundreds of children across northern Uganda were left to live on the streets.



Now that calm has returned to the north for the past couple of years, the number of street children has drastically fallen as most families return to their villages and farms.



Attention now has focused on the hundreds of street children who have become a persistent problem in northern towns such as Lira and Gulu, about 70 kilometres to the north.



Ongwen is among 130 youngsters in Lira who are part of a new programme across northern Uganda that will take them off the streets.



Officials say the initiative, which will cost the government 10,000 US dollars to implement, will focus on reuniting children with relatives.



“We shall do everything within our power to hand over these children to their relatives and again make a follow-up,” said David Okec, a project officer with Save the Children in Uganda.



Ongwen said he is happy to be leaving the streets and looks forward to living with his uncle Jimmy Angena north of Lira.



Angena told IWPR that his earlier attempts to find Ongwen had failed, “I wanted to take him to school, but nobody could give me information leading to his whereabouts.”



While the authorities are reconnecting children with relatives, at least 15 parents have been accused of child neglect.



Yuventino Akali, a resident of Obutowelo village and father to street child Jimmy Omara, was charged with the offence by Lira magistrate judge Juliet Atanga.



Akali claims he is innocent. He said his son, James Omara, has a mental illness and each time he had taken his son home, the boy returns to the street.



“I have been arrested several times and charged with child neglect over this child,” said Akili. “Yet, it is not my decision to [leave] him on the street.”



Omara, now 15-years-old, said he has lived on the street for the past two years, despite having been reunited with his parents on three occasions, because he had nothing to eat at home.



“The situation in our home is not favourable to me,” said Omara. “At times I spend days minus food. My father said I am mentally ill. How do you expect me to stay at home when there is no nothing to eat?”



The authorities in Lira say that of 130 young people taken off the streets, nearly one third aren’t children. Of those collected, 42 face charges of disorderly conduct because they are above the age of 18.



“Those above the age of 18 are treated as adults and would be handled under criminal laws,” said Lira police officer Tom Okello.



Another 12 of those rounded up in Lira were found to have been from other communities in the north, and one was from the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC.



“We have one child from DRC who traveled to Uganda in 2000 with his mother,” said Okello. “But we are trying to coordinate with [the United Nations children’s agency] UNICEF to repatriate him to Beni in DRC where he said the relatives live.”



Those who cannot be placed with relatives or who have committed crimes are sent to the juvenile centre at Mbale in southeastern Uganda, said officials.



“The stubborn children and those unwilling to be united with their parents would be taken to Mbale remand home,” said Okec.



Some street children say they don’t want to return to their parents because they are fearful of what might happen to them.



Bonny Opobo, 12, said he would rather die on the street than be forced to go back to his village to live with his father.



Because of the death and killing by the LRA rebels that he witnessed when he was young, he fears that he too will be killed if he returns.



“I survived three times. That is why I don’t want to trek back,” said Opodo, whose lived on the streets of Lira since 2003.



“I saw the dead body of my grandfather and how it was butchered,” he said, and the memories are still fresh in his mind. “That is why I can’t forget.”



Patrick Okino is an IWPR-trained journalist in Uganda

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