“I was living together with my mother Rose Ayulu, but when people were leaving Koch Goma camp [on the outskirts of the northern Ugandan town of Gulu] in 2009 she abandoned me and went to [the capital] Kampala. I had no choice but to work and sleep on the streets,” says 14-year-old Charles Opio with tears rolling down his face.
Charles is only one of over 500 children in Gulu who have ended up on the streets following the closure of the various camps for internally displaced people in the region. “For the past five years I have survived on my own by selling used water bottles I collect on the streets,” says Charles. On a good day he makes 1,200 shilling (about 40 euro cents).
“I wish I could go back to my mother, because life here is very hard sometimes,” he says. “It’s not unusual to go to sleep hungry for two days in a row. What’s more, our older colleagues beat us and steal our money.”
Charles points at one of his friends whose hand was allegedly burnt by older street children when he refused to hand over the day’s earnings to them.
11-year-old Emmanuel Owach has a similar story to that of Charles. “My parents were killed by the rebels [of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army]. I grew up in Koch Goma camp until 2009, when it was closed. Having nowhere to go I ended up here, like my friends,” he says.
Like Charles, Enmanuel also survives by selling bottles. He says he sleeps in a culvert. “Sometimes I raise my hands to the sky and ask God to send someone who can help me off the streets, because people in this town hate us so much.” Owach says the locals don’t want to see them near their homes or business premises.
“The police should do something and help us with these street children, because they are a menace,” says Joyce Oyema, a shop attendant. “They will steal anything they can get their hands on. I am forced to hire a guard to keep an eye on the merchandise that is displayed outside my shop.”
“We have launched an operation to arrest all the street children following the citizens’ complaints,” says Johnson Kilama, a spokesperson for the police in northern Uganda. “As a result, there are already of less of them around now.” Be that as it may, the local authorities say they have no contingency plan to house the more than 500 street children in Gulu.