The Digital Journalist

by Francine Orr

While working on a six-part project on poverty in Africa, I met three young sisters in eastern Congo.

With tears streaming down their faces they told me a story of witnessing the murder of their father. They not only witnessed his death, but they witnessed rebels cutting off their father's hands and they were forced to eat them. The girls told me they were from northern Uganda, but had ended up in eastern Congo.

I was haunted by the girl's story. I didn't want to believe it. Was it possible people could be so cruel? I was also confused because I thought Uganda was a place of peace. I had never heard of any rebel activity in Uganda.

A boy about 11 years old cut her lips and ears off.

Francine Orr/ Los Angeles Times
I continued to work on my poverty series, but I never forgot those children and their story. When I returned home I began to research rebel activity in Uganda and was surprised the story does not get covered more often.

I learned about the "Lord's Resistance Army" or the LRA, a rebel movement that has been terrorizing northern Uganda for almost two decades. Children are kidnapped by the rebels and forced to become child soldiers, porters and sex slaves. Adults are at risk, as well. Once kidnapped, the captives often are put through a spiritual ritual or blessing. They are told that once they are blessed they are protected against bullets and can never escape.

The abductees are forced to commit atrocities such as burning, rape, murder and torture - including dismemberment and forced cannibalization. Children by the thousands walk into town centers at dusk, to evade abductors. They are known simply as "night commuters." They sleep on the ground - in schools, hospitals, bus stations, verandas and doorways. Fearful of sleeping in their own huts at night, they are seeking safety in numbers.

Outside the town centers, the Ugandan government has forced nearly 1.6 million people into Internally Displaced Person's Camps, where there is insufficient clean water, inadequate food supplies, and little security, employment or medical treatment. The IDPs are stuck between two fires: leaving the camps to grow food, search for firewood, or seek medical treatment, they risk being attacked by both the Ugandan military and the LRA.

Acen Santa (right), 35, cooks inside her home as her 18-month-old baby girl Apiyo (left) plays on her back. They live in an IDP camp in northern Uganda where everyday they risk being ambushed by LRA rebels. IDP camps are unsanitary, insecure, and overcrowded.

Francine Orr/ Los Angeles Times
I visited numerous IDP camps in Pader, Kitgum and Gulu districts in northern Uganda. I traveled to northern Uganda twice and researched the story for nearly two years. At times I would accompany food convoys protected by 120 armed soldiers. Occasionally I traveled with non-profit agencies that did not use armed escorts.

I spent several days in one IDP camp in Gulu, where an old man told stories of his life as he weaved a floor mat. As I was leaving he thanked me for coming and said when journalists stop coming to a place, that place is dead. He said my visit breathed life into the camp.

At the same camp, I met a woman standing in line collecting water. I followed her home and spent much of the day photographing her cook and feed children inside her hut. It was a spare and impoverished place, yet somehow beautiful, with light filtering in from the doorway and small windows above the cooking area.

While in the camps, I knew the rebels could attack at any time. That was my reality for the brief time I spent documenting people's lives; it is their reality every day. I could always go home. They have no exit.

The Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA, abduct mostly children, turning them into soldiers, porters, and sex slaves. For safety, children flock into town centers in northern Uganda at dusk for safety. They sleep side by side in the bus station, hospitals, schools, child centers, and on verandas.

Francine Orr/ Los Angeles Times
I found it difficult to sleep. I stayed awake, in the town centers or in the IDP camps, listening to every sound, waiting and hoping the rebels would not come. Every night there were rebel attacks just outside of the town.

There is not a day that goes by now that I don't think about the people in northern Uganda. I think about the girls in Congo that brought me to this story. I think about the children who have never known a life of peace. Children who have never had the luxury of sleeping in the safety of their own huts.

I think about the displaced people living in the camps - invisible to the outside world. Displaced within their own country, they live with fewer rights then international refugees. I think about the NGO workers that are on the ground working every day. Mostly I think of the woman I photographed who had been mutilated by a young rebel. He cut her ears and lips off.

I asked her if she had hope for peace. She told me she didn't know if peace was possible, but she did know one thing - when she leaves the hospital she would return to the IDP camps to care for her children, and live the rest of her life in poverty.

© Francine Orr

Francine Orr has been a photographer with the Los Angeles Times since 1999. She has traveled and worked extensively in Asia and the Pacific, and in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, South Africa, Angola, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Orr also spent several years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Federated States of Micronesia. According to the Los Angeles Times, her interest in covering poverty issues grew from documenting women living in poverty in India and America. Orr has received numerous awards for her photography and writing.

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