Most people displaced by war prefer to return home when peace returns. But in Gulu, which bore the harshest brunt of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army insurgency, a group of troubled displaced children is succeeding in staying away from home long after peace returned.
At least 60 children still sleep and eat off the streets of Gulu town, six years after relative peace returned to northern Uganda. In many towns in northern Uganda, more so in Gulu town, living off streets became a way of life for children running away from the rebel LRA as night approached.
With relative peace now prevailing, however, it is surprising that children are reluctant to get off the streets and return to their homes. Some have since grown into adults and turned corridors along the streets into their homes.
They play cards, smoke substance and stare at passers-by. These children are aged between 15 and 22. At midday, about six boys sleep in the corridor between Coronation road and Main street in Gulu town.
Another prepares chicken offals, collected from hotel garbage bins, for lunch. Anyone walking towards them is eyed suspiciously. The number of street kids usually goes up in the evening when many return from their odd "jobs," like selling mineral water bottles in town.
I trailed them for days just to get their narrative. At first they were hesitant, but once they realised I meant no harm to them, a few opened up and told their stories.
Godfrey Oloya, 17, is fondly referred to by his colleagues as Arsenal. He passes the substance he has been smoking to another boy as he readies himself to speak. He has a bruised face and a swollen left eye, injuries he sustained from a fight for a blanket with his friend the previous night.
Forgiveness seems to come easily because the two are already chatting away like nothing happened. Oloya, like many of his other colleagues, is an orphan who ran away from an abusive grandfather in Kigumba sub-county, Kiryandongo district.
"My mother remarried in that family when I was a baby. I never had any problem with my mum and my father [her husband] because all along I thought he was my father and he treated me like his own child," he explains.
Oloya's troubles started when his parents died. His father died first, in 2001, followed by his mother in 2003. Aware that Oloya was not his grandchild, the old man became violent.
"He kept beating and telling me to go away because I was not his grandchild. He told me to go and look for my father," Oloya says. He consequently found himself on the streets of Gulu.
Similarly, Muni Ochigo, 22, is from Busia. He came here seven years ago aged 12. "I was living on the streets of Busia but often I had running battles with the police; so, I boarded a bus and came to Gulu because at that time children fleeing the LRA rebels were freely sleeping on the streets and there were no police arrests."
Ochigo says he ran away from the brutality of his aunt who was asked to take care of him after his mother died in 2002.
Without money, no education and without relatives, one wonders how the boys survive. "We steal," Oloya is quick to say as his colleagues roar in laughter and others protest.
"No, we don't steal, we survive on leftovers from hotels," says another and soon a heated argument begins.
"Ok, it's true we survive on leftovers but even the leftovers are not free. We buy them from hotels because they sell [them] to people who want to feed their dogs," said another as the rest clapped.
A plate of Azanzira, as they fondly call the leftovers, goes for Shs 200 in most hotels in Gulu and many residents buy the food to feed their dogs. The boys sell mineral water bottles at petrol stations in the evenings and spend the money on their meals.
But on a hard day, they steal. The chicken offals and maize meal are collected from the dustbins and cooked, in case money doesn't come in handy.
The boys also smoke and to many this helps them block out their traumatic thoughts. However, drug abusers too frequent the boys' corridors to smoke in peace without the watchful eye of the community and police.
The officer in Charge of the Child and Family Protection unit at Gulu central police station, Shelley Ngamita, says "the children's street life is a big security threat not only to them, but also to other town dwellers."
She says the children often break the law and end up in remand homes.
"Our biggest challenge is that when they are cleared by the law, they come back to the street because they have no homes to go to," Ngamita adds.
But if Oloya's submission is anything to go by, then Ngamita's concerns about security are spot-on.
"We also get little jobs" Oloya says, referring to a girl who paid one of them to stab her in the chest so she could claim that her stepmother did it during a fight. The friend was paid 5,000 shillings for the work.
Abwola Richard Oryang is the programmes coordinator of the Initiative for Community Concern Uganda, a community- based organization that is urging children to leave the streets.
"It is unfortunate that the public is using these children for criminal activities, especially theft. Some people have used them to steal goats and they get paid as much as Shs 20,000 and 25 of them confessed to having been to the remand home," he says.
Oryang emphasizes that these children could easily breed conflict. "Any act of hostility is still very fresh in people's minds and whatever triggers it needs to be treated with a little emergency," Oryang warns.
Annet Ajok is the child protection officer at the Centre for Reparation and Rehabilitation. She says "The home environment that the children are exposed to could be hostile; so, you find that sometimes they turn to themselves for survival or join street gangs."
Asked when they intend to leave the street, Ochigo looks me straight in the eyes and asks sternly: "Where do you want us to go? This is our home. Whoever wants to take us away from here should empower us with skills so that we leave and become independent. Personally, I do not want to go to any body's home."
Gulu district secretary for Community Services Carol Adong says: "We talked to some of these children and they need skills that will enable them to be independent, especially now that most of them are growing up. We are lobbying development partners to train them and a few have shown interest already; so, we hope the best comes their way," Adong explains.
The police are also developing a more flexible solution to the inconvenience caused by these boys as the acting regional police commander, Paul Nkore, explains.
"We intend to assign such children to religious leaders and political leaders such as pastors, reverends and LCs to mentor and watch over their well-being. After that, they would be recommended and if they improve, they would reunite with their families," Nkore says.
But the programme is yet to start and if it is successful, Nkore emphasizes, the police would roll it out throughout the country as a way of fighting juvenile crime.
Homeless children in Gulu remain a big challenge to police and local government authorities.
Figures show that out of every 10 juvenile cases reported, two of the children are not pursued by their parents. If this trend persists, there is likely to be more abandoned/street children in the near future.