Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Alan’s dropped his phone

It’s me Joseph! So I finally make it inside the camp, I look around and realise I don’t know who to turn to or what to do. The huts all look the same and the camp is so huge. I’m completely lost and alone. I don’t care who sees me, I just sit down on the spot and cry like a little kid. Then I look up and I see the journalist, Alan. I spoke to him a few days ago about how the Red Cross is trying to trace my mum. He’s writing about people like me who are looking for their families in the camps. He’s the one who said the messenger was coming to Hopetown today. Alan himself had just arrived too and he was talking to a guy who looked a community leader. I know Alan can help me and so I interrupt and he recognises me. I think my moment has come and I’m just about to ask him to help me find the Red Cross messenger when there’s a sudden burst of gunfire in the forest to the West. These days we don’t hear gunfire all the time like we used to but just the sound is enough to send everyone in the camp into panic. Alan reaches into his bag; he’s hitting his satellite phone and swearing at it. I ask him what’s wrong with his phone and he says it’s useless; it’s meant to be a GPS videophone but the signal keeps cutting out. I try to get Alan further into the camp saying we should get away from the gunfire when really I want him to get on the Internet with his phone. He’s not listening though, with his old camera he’s running towards the gunfire and he drops his phone. I pick up the phone and when I look up, he’s gone. So I’m left holding the satellite phone. I give it a thump and it comes alive.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Memories of Sweetville

Whilst visiting the nearby town I met quite a few young people who had fled from a various towns and villages for many kilometres. One young man I spoke to affectionately refers his home town as Sweetville, as if it now remains in his memory like a childhood dream or nightmare, like Oz or Neverland, or Limbo. The young man, whose name is Joseph, is trying to find his mother and here he tells me his story

08 10 08 / IDP camp, N. Uganda
Present: Alan Hackston, Reuters, Joseph

Subject: Joseph’s account of Hopetown

JJ: My name is Joseph, I’m sixteen years old and I’m on my way to Hopetown.

AH: Ah Hopetown!

JJ: You've heard of it? Hopetown’s not its real name but that’s what I’m going to call it. There’s about five thousand people camped there, people like me who’ve got caught up in this war and had to leave their homes. Have a look for yourself; more than one and a half million people were made homeless by the war so there’s a lot of camps of different sizes. They’re not great places to live, but they’re safer than my village was. I mean they’re not like holiday camps. I’ve heard on the radio as a kid the music festivals that you guys go to in the UK and they look like brilliant fun. Now imagine being there without the music, without your friends, not knowing if you can ever go home. You have to have hope, right? Take me for instance; I know I’ll see my Mum again even though we got separated five years ago. I don’t know where she is but I know she’s alive, I can feel it in my heart and I’m never going to give up looking for her. She’s all I’ve got left in the whole world, her and the skanky pair of old trainers I’m wearing that are way too small. And so today, I’m leaving for Hopetown.

AH: So how did you get here?

JJ: Things haven’t quite turned out the way I planned if you know what I mean. Imagine, five years ago I’m living with my Mum and Dad and my little sister in a town that is actually not that far from here. It’s about 100 kilometres away but it might as well be another world. You can call it Sweetville. Look, there’s my little sister sitting in the shade under that Sequoia tree; she’s always reading because she wants to be a teacher. Me, I play soccer. After we’ve done our chores my friends and me practice for hours everyday because we all want to try out for the professional team. My Mum and Dad are farmers, I mean we keep a few animals, grow our own food and we’re able to sell some of it. We have an ok time you know, yes there are way too many chores to do day and night and there’s plenty of things I want but it’s a sweet life. People are always talking about the war but it seems so far away, it’s something that can only happen somewhere else and I don’t pay attention. This one afternoon though, the war comes to Sweetville. Men with guns seemed to just appear out of nowhere. I’m kicking a ball around a car park when I hear rapid gunshots. At first I can’t work out what it is then I hear it again and then someone runs screaming past me and I get a really bad feeling in my stomach. I run towards our house and the men are already in our street. I see my Mum hiding in a doorway with a look on her face I’ve never seen before. I ask her where my Dad and my sister are. They’re on their way home from their reading class but sometimes they stop and buy mango as a treat on the way home. The men are outside our house now and I see two of them grab our old neighbour and throw him onto the ground, he’s pleading with them not to hurt him when my Dad arrives. He tells them to leave the old man alone but this makes things worse. My Dad tells my sister to run but she won’t let go of his hand. We want to shout to her but we can’t. My heart is beating so fast I think I’m going to pass out. Then it happens. They grab my Dad and because my little sister won’t let go of his hand they just shoot them both. My little sister’s body fall on top of my Dad’s. Everything after that seems to go silent as a dream. I stand there frozen until my Mum pulls me away. She knows we can’t go back for their bodies we just have to run. I can’t remember much about the rest of that day I just remember my feet in these same trainers running across the fields with everyone else until there’s nothing but around us but dust. We come to the river and there are crowds of people all desperately trying to get into these few tiny boats. My Mum pulls me by the hand as she tries to push her way through to the boats. If we can cross the river we’ll be a lot safer. Then suddenly there’s gunfire again nearby and everyone’s pushing so tightly around us that my Mum loses her grip on my hand and she disappears. That’s the last time I see my Mum, after that I have to keep running away from the gunfire and I end up a long way in the forest. I hide in the trees all night and eat some leaves because I’m so thirsty. It’s impossible to go back to the river and in the morning I start walking along a track made by all the other people. No one has any food or water; they’ve all had to run for their lives just like me. I feel a kind of numbness all over and can’t get the images of my Mum, my Dad and sister out of my mind. I just keep walking and following other people, until two days later I’m suddenly kind of brought out of my trance. There’s this man riding around on a motorbike with this loud speaker in his hand. He’s telling everyone to go just a kilometre in this other direction, where we can get help. For some reason I suddenly find him really hilarious. I start laughing and can’t stop, I laugh hysterically until my sides ache. I then start walking in the direction he’s pointing and end up in a camp.

When I arrive in the camp there are already thousands of people trying to get in where they think they’ll be safe. I’m thinking that it’ll be ok to stay here for a few days until I find my Mum, and then we can probably go back home together in a week or so. I was wrong. There I meet a woman who I recognise as my Mum’s cousin and I end up staying with her.

I didn’t stop trying to find my Mum, though. The Red Cross has helped a lot of people in the camp find their missing loved ones. I tell them about my Mum, I tell them her name and that we’re from Sweetville; I draw a vague map of where our town is. I can’t believe how little I know about the geography of this part of the country. I tell them about all the relatives I can think of that she might have talked to – a few of them escaped from the country a long time ago, when the fighting was really bad. The Red Cross say that I’ve done good and they’ll try to find her but it might take a long time, it might be never. They said maybe one day I’ll get a message.

For five years I lived in that camp and no word about my Mum. I’ve no idea whether anyone is even close to finding my Mum yet. Everyday I wait and wait but don’t know who to turn to find out more. I met a journalist today called Alan – he is following the Red Cross and he knows today is the day when the messenger comes to another camp, nearer my village, called Hopetown. I’m tired of waiting. Today I’m heading for Hopetown to find this messenger to see if they have any news of my Mum. He’s only going to be there for one day. Today’s my last chance; I have to find the messenger. And so I’m walking to Hopetown.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Food Grown at the Camp

Today I ventured out of the camp on foot, to see seeds and hoes being distributed by the Red Cross. They were supplying maize and other vegetable seeds to some of the camp inhabitants who were once farmers and are now able to start growing food again on small patches of land near the camps. Against the backdrop of the camp it’s hard not to be surprised by this scene of normality; farmers farming. But after walking in and out of an IDP camp you can’t help but feel anxious for the farmers’ chances. I find myself willing day after day that the camp can live up to its name, Hopetown.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Running Through Bandit Territory is No Game.

Every day the women and girls must leave the camp to look for firewood and other supplies. I have seen them walking back carrying what look like incredibly heavy loads of wood and cans of water on their heads – I’m not even sure I could lift them, but they seem to be very comfortable. However it’s not simply a question of making the 2km walk- in blistering heat each day, they must also be aware of armed men who roam the territory around camp. Gunfire, although increasingly unusual, is still a fact of life.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Simple Advice For Burn Victims Goes a Long Way

I saw a young woman here today, carrying a child whose arm was wrapped in a plastic bag. The woman told me her baby had been caught by red hot sparks in last night’s terrible fire but was now doing OK. Thinking quickly and with her little bit of first aid training in mind, the young mother had been able to save her baby from being scarred by dousing the burn with water and wrapping it in plastic. It makes me appreciate what we take for granted on the NHS back home.

Still, even in the UK, how many of us would know what to do to treat burns on the spot? Perhaps we are too keen to automatically pick up the mobile and call an ambulance or run into A and E, whereas a little basic first aid training could be useful for all of us. Like Joseph and millions of his compatriots have discovered you can never be too prepared for the unthinkable happening, when everything you have come to rely on is taken away.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Sanitation Engineers Make ‘Street Map’.

Today I interviewed some of the engineers who are building new toilet and washing facilities in the camp. These are really badly needed. Right now, they’re just huts with grass curtains across the doors and there’s only one for every 35 or 40 people.

The engineers showed me a map of the services they’re planning – on their QuantumSat phones! Everyone’s got them out here it seems. You can see how they have tried to map out the alleys and spaces between the huts. They would only have to name the streets and it really would be just like a town. I managed to get a copy of the map. I’ll upload onto my Flickr account when I get a chance.

Just When You Thought You’d Lost Everything…

Today I saw dozens of huts burnt to the ground in one part of the camp. No wonder the people I spoke to 2 days ago mentioned theft and fire as their biggest worries, with one leading to the other. The women are well aware that the sight of food and anything of value outside their hut will most likely draw the attention of thieves. In such desperate circumstances, I don’t think any of us can honestly say we might not be reduced to stealing. So to keep their few possessions safe the women cook inside their huts but a strong gust of wind can quickly whip a small fire from one hut to the next, eating up the dry thatched roofs and destroying great areas of the camps. And so people end up losing whatever small belongings they have managed to scrape together in the months or years they’ve spent in the camps

Sunday, 21 September 2008

First Aid Centre in the Camp.

I can now confirm that I am definitely neither macho nor intrepid. I was sitting in a family’s hut while they told me their story – on my way out, I managed to smack my head on the doorframe and ended up with a bleeding gash to my head.

There’s a small first aid centre in the camp where they managed to sort me out. Located in the south of the camp near the main road, the centre is staffed by overworked Ugandan volunteers who can perform basic first aid; they also decide who, if anyone, will be transferred to the hospital. The hospital is several kilometres away by truck – or even bicycle ambulance. There are serious shortages of staff and supplies at the hospital, so they only send the people who absolutely have to go. Fortunately, Im not one of them!

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Disease Spreads Like Wildfire

As well as the heat, one of the things that has overwhelmed me here is the sheer number of ill people I seem to see in the camp. The huts are so close to each other that any disease that takes a hold here spreads very quickly and easily. As well as all the complications of HIV and AIDS, malaria is also common. I keep coming across open drains and pools of stagnant water with clouds of mosquitoes around them. Some people and in particular pregnant women have mosquito nets: they are provided as part of the kits given out by the Red Cross for expectant mothers within the camp. They’re called ‘mama bags’ and also contain sterilised medical supplies and nappies. The worst sight I have come across here is babies who are sick with malaria who were unlucky or just did not have access to malaria nets–

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Moving to Hopetown

Moving in and out of an IDP camp called Hopetown. It’s like nowhere I’ve ever been – a world within a world. Like a town in some ways – streets and streets of identical huts packed together, children playing, people everywhere. But somehow there’s not a lot of activity. Thousands of people are here, but it doesn’t feel like they’re doing anything. I suppose there’s nothing for them to do, apart from just exist. Some of them have been here for 15 years and seem resigned to never being able to leave and get back to their normal lives.

It’s not a happy place. I don’t feel totally safe here – for this to be a refuge for these people, their alternative must have been unthinkably dangerous.

But it’s not all bad. I’ve seen people singing, dancing and laughing with each other. There are people cooking outside their huts and selling crops and other goods. There are makeshift schools in the camp. People are incredibly resourceful and they’re making what life they can here, improvising a community.

And overall things are getting better in Uganda. The conflict is dying down and some of these people may be able to start going home – those that have anything left to go back to.
Hopetown’s not the camp’s real name, just a nickname I’ve heard a lot of the residents use. Maybe it was meant as some sort of grim joke when the camp was started at the height of the war, but I think it’s becoming more appropriate.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Memories of Sweetville

Have been to a village a few kilometres away and met some of the people, mostly women . There were some teenage girls and boys there who were just kids when the war separated them from their families and many saw family members and friends killed. Some of them were even recruited as child soldiers themselves. Thinking back to what I was doing at their age (mostly thinking about girls), it’s almost impossible to understand what these young people have been through and the choices they’ve had to make. Some of them have been trying to trace what’s left of their families through the Red Cross. This is done by filling in a form, giving as much information as possible about the relative they’re trying to find and how they were separated – maybe drawing a map. The Red Cross uses its global network to try and put them back in touch – and that can lead to them being reunited with their missing loved ones.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Red Cross, Looking For Loved Ones.

I’m here in Northern Uganda to report on how the Red Cross tracing and message service works. It tries to put people in touch with long lost family members who’ve been separated by conflict or disaster anywhere in the world. You wouldn’t think it would be hard these days – between email, mobile phones and the rest, we take it for granted we can track our friends and family down pretty easily if we need to. But in a lot of these war-torn countries, it can be like a needle in a haystack. If there’s one message here, though, it’s that there’s always hope.

I’m out in the field tomorrow following some internally displaced persons (IDPs) in transit between urban camps to smaller camps nearer their villages. IDPs are like refugees, but they don’t actually leave their country. Apparently their case in Uganda was described by the UN as the “world’s worst forgotten humanitarian crisis on earth”. They fled far and wide while the conflict was in full force, and cluster together in these camps for safety, but hostilities have died down now and a lot of people are cautiously heading back towards their homes. It’s still not completely safe for them to go home, though, and many are looking for lost relatives. I’m keen to finally get out there.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

I’m Not Quick With Quantum

Couldn’t get through on the QuantumSat phone so no news of Wiffy. Very worrying that I can’t get the phone working properly. At least I can use the email function to send these blog entries. The world will not stop turning after all! Making the most of the indoor bathroom with flushing loo while I can. Apparently some of the places I am about to cover have just one outdoor loo shared by 40 people!

I’ve been reading the QuantumSat manual again this morning. Despite the flak jacket and aviator sunglasses I’m not really your macho, intrepid journo type but as far as I can tell, these fancy new phone/web combo apps mean that if I ever get shot, kidnapped, hospitalised with malaria or trampled by other, more macho and intrepid journo types who know how to use their QuantumSat phones – I can share video messages with other contacts and see my exact location on a map and therefore save my neck if I’m lost or in great danger. This is the state of modern news reporting. I might never be awarded the Pulitzer Prize but I could be remembered as a dot on a map! Still, I’m not off to the field until tomorrow.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Finally Arrived in Northern Uganda

Finally arrived in one piece after a very long indirect flight from Heathrow to Kampala and a blistering drive across country in an old army truck. I’ve not really been outside much yet. The hotel is OK; can’t complain about the hot shower and clean sheets though there was a cockroach on my pillow – it’s the little touches that make all the difference.

Unpacked, forgot my deodorant! However, managed to get my new sat phone up and running. Hopefully this will work better than the last one, I really don’t have much luck with technology – we seem to have a natural enmity. Apparently this new QuantumSat phone is connected to a website and has some fancy GPS map type things, which I’ll probably never learn to use. It comes with an online interface thingy. Just as long as I can phone the cat-sitter back home in Dulwich and make sure Wiffy is getting her worm medicine.