Today I took a trip that I believe everyone should experience. I went to the Pader refugee camps. In the late '80s, The Lord's Resistance Army infiltrated neighborhoods and threatened people's lives, so they fled into the refugee camps to be protected by the national army.
The camps are completely isolated from outside life and are comprised of small mud huts with thatched roofs. There is no electricity, food, water, sanitation, or any form of business. At night it is pitch-black, not even candles, just mosquitoes...those that give you malaria. The only way that the 300,000 people living in the camps can get anything is by aid.
For PSI, working in these conditions places staff in grave danger and greatly challenges both the organization and the field staff. Everyday they see the same hopeless faces complaining of disease and hunger, but our staff, together with our partner UNICEF, soldiers on tirelessly.
I was joined by Dr. Milly and Rodio for our journey, a little four-seat plane leaving from a private air field in Kampala as our transport. Even though it was raining, the captain explained that it was much safer in a plane than by car. "If the roads don't get you, the rebels will," he said.
After a relatively smooth ride we landed in the bush. No real runway, just a dirt path. We piled into jeeps and went to meet the political government head of the camp, Peter Goven. He explained that he oversees 31 camps holding 300,000 "displaced persons" who "have been terrorized for 20 years."
We sat for a "welcome ceremony," where 12 people gave speeches and welcomed us. I was told that they had never had an overseas visitor from Washington before and that it meant that they must be receiving aid.
Then the PSI peer educators, who double as an orchestra and drama group, broke out in song. They sang about the dangers of unprotected sex and how to overcome them.
After the drama, hundreds of kids were lined up to get registered for our voluntary counseling and testing centers. Next door was the testing "tent," which gives results in just 15 minutes; it's called a rapid test. They then go to the next tent to get advice based on the result.
In our various tents the people in the camp get services and products: insecticide-treated nets, clean water solution, and condoms, all free. But what's important is that they get the relevant "behavior change communications" and understand why they need them.
After winding through the various tents, I was invited into a hut to meet Veronique. Veronique is HIV positive. Although she contracted HIV from her husband after he slept with another woman, he blames her for their condition. At just 36 she has seven children and lives in very rough conditions. However, she proudly showed me her mosquito net and her care package. She indicated that she is now able to give her children clean water.
Next, I met Francis, who was a child soldier. He is now 16, but when he was 11 he was kidnapped by the rebels and served in the LRA for two years. He remembers the abduction clearly. He was living in the Pader camp and went out at midnight to pee in the bush. On walking back he heard the heavy thump of boots walking quickly toward him. He was thrown on the ground, hit on the head, and tied up.
They carried him into the bush and struck him three times (the recruitment ritual). He passed out. When he came to, he had no idea where he was but was awakened by a boy screaming. A young boy who he recognized as his friend from his camp had tried to escape. They threw a gun in Francis' hands and ordered him to shoot the boy. He did. The rebels then smeared him with oil and told him he was a hero.
That was the first of many shootings. At this point, he was unable to look at me anymore. He told me that he had killed so many people he lost count. Next, the group moved to a camp. When they were hungry, they found a hut, shot the owner, and were able to eat what they found. This was the pattern for the next two years, but they kept moving. He could never really sleep at night. There was no escaping until the day they reached Sudan and he was selected to be a youth leader. He used this opportunity to escape with a small gun, letting nobody stand in his way. He somehow found his way back to Pader. He immediately went into rehab organized by the army barracks.