Dispatches From The Road: The Unaccompanied Children of Uganda’s Refugee Crisis

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It comes as no surprise that the vast majority of South Sudanese refugees coming into Uganda are women and children. For the past few years trends and data from the region have shown that when violence breaks out, the men stay behind. However, perhaps one of the most heartbreaking and forgotten demographics of this statistic are the unaccompanied minors. Young boys and girls who flee their villages alone, or lose a guardian along the way.

In my trips to refugee camps, and in interviews with relief workers, it became clear that children who left without their families – or lost them along the way – will face a dangerous uphill battle. That’s because, as it was explained to me, they have so few real protections. Refugee aid workers can offer their best of care, but with the sheer numbers of unaccompanied minors flowing over the border, it’s impossible to keep an eye on them all.

And the numbers, I learned, were staggering.

According to the UNHCR, “Children have been separated from their families on an unprecedented scale. Over 34,000 separated or unaccompanied children have been registered, representing 10%, of the total number of refugee children in some of the countries of asylum.” These statistics are staggering from a humanitarian perspective, which UNHCR goes on to point out, “With almost 70% of the refugees from South Sudan and Sudan under the age of 18, both conflicts are nothing less than a war on their children.”

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Interviews with workers at refugee centers highlight the humanity of refugees – who despite lacking their own resources – often take on unaccompanied children under their wing, at least until they reach Uganda.

Catherine Ntabadde with UNICEF told me that unaccompanied children are targeted first for special care. She says that education tents and a group of rotating psychosocial workers have been deployed in Northern Uganda’s refugee centers and camps. However, unaccompanied minors still face an increased threat of sexual and gender based violence as well as increased risk of exploitative child labour practices.

Aid agencies are working to register these children and ensure that unaccompanied refugees are offered all proper protections. Yet with overflowing camps forcing many refugees to move on a moment’s notice – unaccompanied children can too easily fall through the cracks.

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The UNHCR says that legal framework and enhanced policy must be enacted to ensure children are well cared for under these refugee programs. It also encourages monitoring and reporting to enhance our current data on the crisis.

Yet on ground participation from local communities, offering some semblance of normal life is a must for recovery. This includes access to schooling, a safe home life and a team of advocates to ensure that the most vulnerable, among an already dispossessed population, have a place to call home.

The People And Their Police

Police in Uganda are facing a narrowing space in local communities with relationships between civilian and officer deteriorating. The Ugandan Police Force is attempting to rehabilitate its image. Yet many feel that unless police actively prosecute their own for wrongdoing, the community outreach means very little.  This short photo essay focuses on the often tenuous relationship between the people, their spaces and their police force.

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Smoke rises behind a police officer at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. Sent into quash protests, police often engage in running battles with students – ending in tear gas and destruction of property.

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Police officers often make their presence known without actively engaging angry citizens. This method can and does keep violence at bay. However, some citizens say that it also doubles as intimidation against their right to assemble.

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During the 2016 Presidential Elections both Military Police and local police units conducted heavy patrols throughout Kampala. In some communities there is still considerable anger over what they saw as encroachment on their right to vote. Although this anger is rarely seen in the open, it can manifest in surprising ways. In one instance, a group of boda riders left a man who had been stuck by a vehicle on the road to die after finding out he was a local police officer. Such divisions are often ignored by local leadership.

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Supporters of political opposition leader Kizza Besigye assemble across the street after being denied entrance into his court proceedings. Situations where crowds amass in an “us vs. them” mentality can increase the likelihood of violence between citizen and police officers. Later that day, a number of supporters were arrested after staging an impromptu march down the road.

Burundi Peace Talks End in Stalemate – Uganda Statehouse

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The Burundi opposition as a moment of prayer is called before commencing peace talks.

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The Burundi government as a moment of prayer is called before commencing peace talks.

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Members of the Burundi opposition take notes before the meeting begins.

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The Burundi opposition listens in as President Museveni speaks. Museveni focused on the meaning of sovereignty during times of violence.

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President Yoweri Museveni listens as the Burundi government says they are battling with insurgents inside the country.

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Alain Nyamitwe, the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Burundi, says the Burundi government will not attend the next meeting in Arusha without consensus.

3 Ways the International Community Can Support LGBT Ugandans

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When it comes to admonishing Uganda for its anti-homosexuality stance, millions are ready to weigh in. However, in all this admonishment, many forget that LGBT Ugandans actually exist — Ugandans who are willing to put their lives on the line for what they believe in. So as Pride nears (yes there is a Pride Parade in Uganda), let’s take a look at three easy ways you can support the LGBT community here in Uganda.

Support Local Causes

While it’s true that Uganda’s LGBT community faces daunting threats both to their rights and personal security, there are a number of out and proud Ugandan activists who run LGBT programs inside the country. These includes organizations such as Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG) and Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG). Both organizations have been on the front lines, overturning the Anti-Homosexuality Act last year and implementing healthcare and outreach programs across the country.

In addition, local news magazines, such as Bombastic, help give LGBT Ugandans an outlet to speak. Bombastic is headed by the legendary Ugandan LGBT activist Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, who was one of the grand marshals in this year’s New York Pride Parade. Bombastic’s message is unique in that for many Ugandans this is the first (yes first) time they are hearing about life from a LGBT point of view, rather than from hateful evangelicals.

By showing your support for these groups, you can help support legal battles, local health initiatives, security training and events like Pride.

Don’t Scare Monger

While the Anti-Homosexuality Act was realized with the help of Western evangelicals such as Scott Lively, it was challenged and repealed by Ugandans. When talking about Uganda and how much they “hate” homosexuals remember that LGBT Ugandans are proud of their culture and heritage and know that it can exist without hate.

In fact, before colonialism and English laws were implemented, prominent kingdoms had gay men in positions of power. In the West Nile region, a marriage between same-sex couples were considered normal. It takes time to rediscover culture when the demonization of local beliefs has been entrenched for decades. Let LGBT Ugandans and their allies do their work, and let’s not treat the country like a monolith.

Be Careful as to Which Evangelical Missions You Support

There are a massive amount of church groups that take yearly trips to Uganda in order to “help” the country. While some missions do truly care about the well-being of the community, a number of them are discriminatory and hateful. They spread this hate to local communities, scaring them into believing that the homosexuals prey on children and attempt to convert them into sexual deviants.

Rather than supporting missions that may or may not spread hate, why not support local Christian groups that are LGBT-friendly? Think that’s crazy?

Read more: http://www.care2.com/causes/3-ways-the-international-community-can-support-lgbt-ugandans.html#ixzz3gf8vlADx

Aerialists in the Sky: Uganda’s Hiccup Circus

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Back in January I did a story for VOA on Uganda’s Hiccup Circus which can be found here. In it, I detailed how this circus troupe was bringing educational messages and entertainment to children in poorer regions of Kampala, as well as refugee camps around Uganda.

Many of the aerialists in the circus are self taught, and spend hours practicing dangerous drops and loops to entertain their fans. Here are some photos from the shoot, which highlights the incredible skill of these young men.

One of the senior aerialists in the Hiccup Circus gets wrapped up in his work (ba-dum-ching!)

One of the senior aerialists in the Hiccup Circus gets wrapped up in his work (ba-dum-ching!)

The silks stretch slightly to allow give when aerialists do particular drops. Because of this, climbing them can be a momentous task and takes serious upper body strength.

The silks stretch slightly to allow give when aerialists do particular drops. Because of this, climbing them can be a momentous task and takes serious upper body strength.

Instructions from the ground are called up to the aerialist as he practices his performance.

Instructions from the ground are called up to the aerialist as he practices his performance.

Keeping a cool head while hanging by one leg is a must.

Keeping a cool head while hanging by one leg is a must.

Peeking through, the series of wraps performed by this aerialist has allowed him some time to relax while suspended in the air.

Peeking through, the series of wraps performed by this aerialist has allowed him some time to relax while suspended in the air.

To take down the silks, climbers shimmy up the pole and untie it. This is far more dangerous than most of the moves performed while on the silks because he's outside the radius of the crash pad.

To take down the silks, climbers shimmy up the pole and untie it. This is far more dangerous than most of the moves performed while on the silks because he’s outside the radius of the crash pad.

The Price of Gravel

Although dangerous, this quarry remains a main source of income in the area.

Although dangerous, this quarry remains a main source of income in the Acholi Quarters.

Most slums in Kampala are situated in low lying areas, muffled by the hills around them. Wealth here is a vertical concept, but the Acholi Quarters in Kireka break this mold. One of the few low-income areas perched with a view, the neighborhood is a world away from the hustle of Kampala.

This small community is made up almost entirely of Northern Ugandans who had fled the LRA’s bloody insurgency years ago. Many here suffer from PTSD and psychosocial care is badly needed. However most NGOs in the area focus on skill creation for the women.

While well intentioned, this has created its own disparity. Focusing primarily on women, and leaving out men, has been blamed for the high rates of alcoholism in the area. Some men say that they are being left behind, and without the ability to contribute, feel worthless.

Those who do find work spend their days cutting and hoisting large stones out of the pits. They are brought to the surface where women sit, pounding them down into gravel. Most workers are paid less than 5,000UGX per day (about $1.50 USD) for up to 12 hours of labor.

A heavily pregnant woman spends her day pounding larger stones into gravel. Most residents are paid by the kilo for their work.

A heavily pregnant woman spends her day pounding larger stones into gravel. Most residents are paid by the kilo for their work.

It is a poor neighborhood but residents say that crime is low. This is because it’s a tight knit and somewhat secluded community. Discrimination against northerners, and Acholis in particular, is high in Uganda. Those with darker skin and thinner bodies (hallmarks to many of Acholi ethnicity) are often ridiculed. This is particularly true with children. It is because of this discrimination that many residents have a strong preference to keep to themselves.

A few years ago the Acholi Quarters opened a modern primary school for their children. They say that when their kids were finally allowed to learn without being picked on, they excelled in their studies. Many of the women bragged about some of the best students in Uganda coming from their schools.

Homes on the outskirts of the Acholi Quarters. The community could be seen as self-contained, with schools, shops, clinics and bars within the small area.

Homes on the outskirts of the Acholi Quarters. The community could be seen as self-contained, with schools, shops, clinics and bars within the small area.

Although there has been progress in recent years, dangers still exist throughout the area. Last year at least 3 children died falling into the quarries. Many families need both parents working outside the home, and with little time for supervision, accidents are common.

Yet this small ethnic enclave, which started as a refuge from violence, has high hopes that extend far beyond the quarry pits. Rather its the newly built schools, funded in part by the residents themselves, that leave most parents optimistic. Hopeful that their own children will never have to learn the price of gravel.

Just feet away from this quarry, trucks sit waiting to carry the gravel into the city.

Just feet away from this quarry, trucks sit waiting to carry the gravel into the city.