Gulu — Gulu Town in northern Uganda has an increasing number of street children, some as young as age seven, who are unable to return home - or simply refuse to. They often have stories of losing parents, drug addiction and domestic violence.
After losing his father when he was still a toddler, Charles Opio was originally left in the care of his paternal grandmother when his mother married another man. But when his grandmother died, he was forced to join his mother in her new marital home in Nwoya district. By then, his mother and her husband had four other children.
"The man did not want me in his homestead. He did not like me and mistreated me, so I ran away from home," says Opio. "So I packed my few clothes in a polythene bag and together with a friend boded a pickup and came to Gulu Town to start life afresh in a place I barely know." Now age 15, Opio has been living it rough on the streets of Gulu since 2011.
Street children are a new phenomenon in northern Uganda. Unlike the time of the 1986-2007 war, when children walked over five kilometres to sleep on the streets Gulu Town to avoid being captured by rebels, the 'new' street children come from surrounding villages like Nwoya, Lira and Amuru and aimlessly roam the streets day and night. Because it is a new situation, non-governmental organisations aiming to help these street children are unsure about their exact numbers.
Between 10 and 15 juveniles seek shelter for the night at the Gulu central juvenile detention centre, according to Northern Region child protection police officer Agnes Apolot. But the children have to leave every morning since they are not considered criminals and the facilities are simply not designed for them.
"Most street children are orphans, unruly youth whose parents failed to control them, school drop outs, drug addicts or those who face domestic violence at home," according to Apolot.
While some juveniles seek shelter from the police, others such as Opio sleep on outdoors. During the day, he sells empty mineral water bottles to make money for food and clothing. "We sit near the petrol stations and sell bottles to whoever comes to buy kerosene. They pay between hundred and two hundred shillings [less than a euro cent] each, depending on the size of the bottle."
Charity for Peace, one of the organisations that aims to rehabilitate these street children, is currently offering them vocational hands-on training in different fields such as mechanics and welding, according to Juliet Apio, an administrative assistant at the organisation. Charity for Peace also offers counselling and some simple medical care twice a week.
The organisation is currently building a centre to house some of the children in Abwoci village in Koch Ongako in Gulu district. Attempts at reuniting some of the children with their families usually prove unsuccessful, according to Apio. "Months later, you find the same child back on the streets."