It is seven in the morning, and 20 children at small, Dutch-run orphanage just outside the town of Lira in Uganda are saying their prayers before sitting down to a silent meal of steaming porridge.
Among them is 13-year-old Innocent Odongo.
Three weeks ago he was living on the street. Alone, hungry, and in mourning for the family he had just lost.
Ad: Vacation? City Trip? Weekend Break? Book Skip-the-line tickets
But today he is in good hands.
Innocent is surrounded by children who know what it is like to lose a family.
Beside him, 10-year-old Violet is busy feeding her baby brother, Ivan. Their parents were also killed in a recent massacre by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a crazed militia which specialises in kidnapping and brainwashing children.
It was during a violent protest against the latest Lords Resistance Army massacre, at the end of February, that I bumped into Innocent.
Or rather he grabbed my hand and poured his heart out – telling me how he’d watched his father being murdered.
“They killed him, they cut him and they killed him. I saw it. They burnt my mother in the house, along with my brother. I lost my home and my family. I can’t do anything. I can’t go back to my village, there’s war there. If I go back I will die.”
Close to tears he added: “I was forced to sleep outside. And I come here today without having eaten, with nothing in my stomach.”
That was three weeks ago, and now Innocent is being well looked after at the orphanage. He’s also attending a nearby school.
Love and support
A warm motherly figure, Grace Aye, is his matron.
“Innocent is very happy,” she says, “and he’s going to go to school, he’s an intelligent boy and I love him so much.”
The orphanage is situated in the countryside. I asked her if she feels safe.
“This area is safe,” she tells me.
Well it is for the moment, but much of northern Uganda remains a war zone. A few miles down the road from the orphanage, I found dozens of families camped out in the open – they’d just fled from yet another LRA atrocity.
Through an interpreter I spoke to a woman who told me that she’d lost her husband, had nowhere to sleep, nothing to eat and no change of clothes.
An official turned up at the makeshift camp. He was holding a list of the names of people who were killed recently.
“Ten people were massacred, including one woman,” he said. “The killings are going on not far away from here. These ones took place about 22km from Lira on 8th March.”
And what’s so extraordinary about this conflict is that the killers themselves – by and large – are children.
In the town of Lira, about 100 girls and boys sit in the shade – singing earnestly about peace.
All of them were abducted by the LRA. A recent offensive by the Ugandan army enabled these youngsters to escape.
Their stories beggar belief. One 14-year-old boy called Wilson told me how he was abducted by the LRA and taken into the bush.
“I had to carry things, like a porter. Then I was made to kill a man who tried to escape. They brought him back and I was told to beat him to death,” he says.
“So, along with others, I helped to beat him. But while I was beating him, others were also beating us. I knew that if I didn’t beat the man that I would be killed myself. It took two hours to kill him.”
Back at the orphanage, Innocent sits down on a step, and starts tackling his homework. He, at least, has been spared the ordeal of abduction. But his nightmares are not over yet – nor are Uganda’s.
He tells me: “I feel so very bad when I think of my family. I will not go back to my village until this war ends. We have suffered too much.”
Book skip-the-line tickets to the worlds major religious sites — or to any other place in the world.
We appreciate your support
One way in which you can support us — at no additional cost to you — is by shopping at Amazon.com.
Our website includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission — at no additional cost to you — for each qualifying purpose. For instance, as an Amazon Associate Religion News Blog earns from qualifying purchases. That is one reason why we can provide this service free of charge.