Framework

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At an orphanage in Goma, three young sisters described witnessing the murder of their father. The rebels then cut off their father's hands and forced the girls to eat them, they said. The girls told me they were from northern Uganda but that someone had taken them into eastern Congo. It was because of this chance meeting that I did the LRA story.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

Lokeria Aciro, 40, at Saint Joseph's Hospital near Kitgum, northern Uganda. She was one of two women at the hospital healing after having their lips and ears cut off by the LRA. The two had been collecting firewood with a larger group of women. The other women were abducted by the rebels.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

Karla Abur, 58, holds the hand of her grandson Peter Ojok, 5, in the Patongo Internally Displaced Persons Camp in Pader district, northern Uganda. She said they were on their way to the hospital when about 30 LRA rebels attacked them, beating her and leaving her naked on the side of the road.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

Wokorach Ochen Albert, 16, inside the Patongo Internally Displaced Persons Camp in northern Uganda. Rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army abducted him and cut off his fingers, ears and top lip.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

Orphans Alimo Sarah, top, and Abony Vicki sleep on the floor of the feeding center at St. Joseph's Hospital in Kitgum, northern Uganda.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

Nancy Adong, 1, sits on her mother's lap in the feeding center at St. Joseph's Hospital in northern Uganda. Nancy, malnourished as a result of post-measles complications, lives in a displaced-persons camp where adequate medical care is lacking. When residents leave such camps to seek medical attention, they risk being abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

The Lord's Resistance Army abducts mostly children, turning them into soldiers, porters and sex slaves. For safety, children flock into town centers at dusk. The children are known as "night commuters"; here they sleep side by side in the bus station in Gulu, northern Uganda.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

Okite, 1, a malnourished boy at the therapeutic feeding center at Gulu Hospital, northern Uganda. He died one week after this photo was taken.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

A Ugandan soldier stands guard against a Lord's Resistance Army ambush between Kitgum and the Patongo Internally Displaced Persons Camp in northern Uganda.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

A child gathers grain from the dirt beneath World Food Program trucks in the Patongo Internally Displaced Persons Camp in northern Uganda.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

"Night commuters" arrive at St. Mary's Hospital Lacor.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

A "night commuter" bundled in a blanket walks outside St. Mary's Hospital Lacor.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

Charles Okello, 23, lives in the Patongo internally displaced persons camp in the Pader district of northern Uganda. Okello was abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army outside his camp as he was cutting sugar cane. The LRA suspected him of being in the Ugandan military. They beat him on his stomach and back, and cut his head with a machete.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

One of the notebooks photographer Francine Orr kept in Uganda in 2005.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

Yakobo Ojera, 85, one of the elders in the Awach internally displaced persons camp in northern Uganda weaves a floor mat. Since the Lord's Resistance Army arrived in the area, he said, "it feels like people are just waiting for their time to die because you can't do anything. You're not allowed to move. They just sustain you; no one dreams. How can we bear the stress of living here each day with the knowledge the rebels can come any moment."

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

Soldiers guard food supplies after a food convoy broke down.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

A World Food Program convoy is escorted by 120 soldiers in the Uganda People's Defense Force.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Francince Orr / Pakak, Uganda

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The Accidental Story

By Francine Orr
Los Angeles Times

I had arrived in Kenya motivated, but wide-eyed and inexperienced in Africa. Davan Maharaj, the East African bureau chief for The Times, recognized that look in my eyes.

He organized a dinner with another journalist. That night I sat and listened to firsthand accounts of the Rwandan genocide. The Indian restaurant was bathed in candlelight, which seemed to make the story even more evocative.

The next day I flew to Rwanda, drove cross-county, and walked across the border into the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. I was there to work on a series of stories about people living on less than a dollar a day. I clung to the advice shared during dinner: “Listen to your instincts.”

I slowly became fearful of the man I had hired as my guide and “fixer.” He took unusual interest in the value of my camera gear, how much trouble I would get in if someone stole it. Something didn’t feel right.

After a few days, I called my fixer and explained I would pay him for the day, but would be not working with him. I knew I needed to be around other people.

I went to a clinic, then an orphanage in Goma. Someone asked me if I wanted to meet some of the children and hear their stories. I agreed.

With tears streaming down their faces, three little girls, sisters, told me about witnessing the murder of their father. The rebels then cut off their father’s hands and forced the girls to eat them, they said. The girls told me they were from northern Uganda, but that someone had later taken them into eastern Congo. I closed my notebook and hugged the children. What could I do?

I was haunted by the girls’ story. I didn’t want to believe it. Was it possible people could be so cruel? I thought Uganda was a place of peace. I had never heard of any rebel activity in Uganda until then.

I never forgot those children and their story. The irony that I was hiding from my spurned fixer that day when I came across those girls, also hiding, was never lost on me.

I learned about the Lord’s Resistance Army, or the LRA, a rebel movement led by Joseph Kony, which had been terrorizing northern Uganda for almost two decades. Children were kidnapped by the rebels and forced to become soldiers, porters and sex slaves. Once kidnapped, the captives often were put through a spiritual ritual or “blessing.” They were told that once they were blessed they would be protected against bullets and could never escape.

The abductees were forced to commit atrocities such as burning, rape, murder and torture, including dismemberment and forced cannibalization.

For decades children by the thousands walked from outlying villages into town centers at dusk, to evade abductors. They were known simply as “night commuters.” They slept in schools, hospitals, bus stations, verandas and doorways, seeking safety in numbers.

Nearly 1.6 million people were forced to live in internally displaced persons camps, where there is insufficient clean water, inadequate food and little security, employment or medical treatment. The IDPs were stuck between two fires: Leaving the camps to grow food, search for firewood or seek medical treatment, they risk being attacked by the Ugandan military or the LRA.

I visited numerous IDP camps in Pader, Kitgum and Gulu districts in northern Uganda. At times I would accompany food convoys protected by armed soldiers. Occasionally I traveled with nonprofit agencies, with no armed escort and no protection from land mines.

Once, the food convoy broke down and we had to spend the night in one of the camps. I knew the rebels could attack at any time. That was my reality for the brief time I spent documenting people’s lives; it is their reality every day. I could always go home. They have no exit.

Word got out in the camp that there was a journalist interviewing people about their experiences with the LRA. One by one, people would come into a small room to tell me their story and have their portrait taken. Next… Next… Next.

The convoy was finally ready to leave. I was not finished recording stories. I walked outside toward the convoy and saw more than a hundred people quietly sitting on the ground, waiting to be heard. But I had to leave.

Almost seven years since my last trip, not a day goes by that I don’t think about the people in northern Uganda, the NGO workers, and the girls in Congo who brought me to this story. I think of the stories I was not able to tell from that camp.

I spent several days in another IDP camp, where an old man weaving a floor mat told stories of his life. As I was leaving, he thanked me for coming and said when journalists stop coming to a place, that place is dead. My visit, he said, breathed life into the camp.

The war in Uganda is over. People have gone home from the IDP camps. Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army operate in Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudan. There has recently been a great deal of interest in Kony, including a video that has gone viral on the Internet. I am still waiting for the suffering to end.

Note: Some images may be disturbing due to their graphic content.

Read the Los Angeles Times story Video on Ugandan militia leader Joseph Kony sparks an uproar and watch the video on YouTube.

11 Comments

  1. March 9, 2012, 7:44 pm

    not much i can said here, but i cant never understand what war they are fighting for, i meant for what cause? territorial? new oil pond? religion? just see how their children begs for food on the street? yet those solider or rebel are proudly brandishing their automatic rifle with bayonet ready and even with a RPG ready! and in their big and shaggy BDU, how they think they could rule a country once they thought that they could win the war with their cold blooded looks in their eyes, and the composure of their faces is even more worst than that of the holocaust or the khmer rouge! while here in my country, we are living harmoniously with many races and i dont understand why you people choose that hard way! adillah joni , malaysia

    By: mayau
  2. March 10, 2012, 8:35 am

    Thank you for your story.

    If this cruelty happened to my mother, my sister, my child. I would not forget. It would not matter to me that Joseph Kony today is some fading warlord leading a small rag tag army. He must pay for what he has done. I am reminded of Jewish organizations that hunt down aging Nazis for crimes committed decades ago. I understand. There is no statute of limitations for certain kinds of atrocities.

    By: EDW
  3. March 10, 2012, 8:37 am

    Kony 2012 has managed to punch through a very thick layer of American compassion fatigue. If the video achieves nothing else, this is huge. Millions of young people who have never thought about Africa are asking themselves for the first time "what can I do, is there a role I can play?" Many will be wide eyed and inexperienced like you were when you first arrived in Kenya. There will be missteps and naiveté. Yes, Invisible Children should have partnered and shared the megaphone with Ugandan/ African organizations. It should have African voices on its board to lead and to provide ground truthing and reality checks. It should decide whether it is an advocacy organization or a program implementer and if the former — identify organzations to help beef up their programs on the ground. But it is not too late. All of these are fixable problems.

    By: EDW
  4. March 10, 2012, 8:41 am

    Kony 2012 tells a story in stark black and white terms. Invisible Children knew its audience. I know the policy wonk types and academics are frustrated by the absence of historical context, and lack of analytical rigor. But this story was never intended for them. It was intended for a mainstream, mainly white youth audience — it's aim was to speak into their listening. And it did that by first establishing that the guy behind the camera was like them…not only was he like them, he was one of them. I was not offended that a white child was used to establish this link and to create the bridge to overcome cultural distance that would prevent young white (and black) kids from identifying with their African counterparts half way around the world. I have no problem with that.

    And I would add this….because the whole world is watching I would predict that the chances of Kony being captured are higher now than ever before. We have Kony 2012 to thank for that. I ain't mad at em.

    By: EDW
  5. March 10, 2012, 12:49 pm

    what year were these pictures taken??

    By: jennifer
  6. March 10, 2012, 5:32 pm

    Shocking and repelling. The brutality of the LRA is not new unfortunately in that part of the world but how can we help those poor children?

    By: ;li
  7. March 11, 2012, 8:38 am

    These are among the most shocking and important photographs that I've ever seen.
    Having returned to them several times during the course of a day during which I found it difficult to speak to others, I know that I will never forget the horror and fear in the faces before me.
    They chasten and humble me–they compel me to fight and work on their behalf and to try very hard to be an even better man…
    In a political climate where clergy and would-be leaders hurl insults, negate and dehumanize people different than themselves, I am reminded of the importance of civility, decency and kindness in my interactions with others–all others. Would that those who sing that "All are welcome in this place" indeed welcome and tend to the needs of others– the command to "love thy neighbor" should never be met with the words, "but that's not my neighbor". So long as machetes, votes and guns are cheaper than the cost of a good education, proper health care, decent food and clean drinking water, we're all at risk–and we're running out of chances to get it "right".
    Thank you for publishing these pictures.
    R.W. Kirchhoff
    Jeddah, KSA

    By: rwrw
  8. March 13, 2012, 9:53 am

    I am very motivated to get involved in this. I found myself crying as i looked thorough those pictures and i couldn't help it. This is the biggest thing i have wanted to get involved in, in years

    By: Sydney
  9. March 15, 2012, 11:39 pm

    Please Lord, help these people. The photos are very tough to look at. They make me realize how complacent we are, or at any rate I am. Folks, donate RIGHT NOW to charities that provide food and water to starving people, do it right now before you forget, before you get caught up in something else. Do it this instant and may God bless you.

    By: handel30@comcast.net
  10. March 16, 2012, 5:20 pm

    Enact military action. Charity is simply not enough.

    By: Zac
  11. April 3, 2012, 1:41 pm

    Thank you for your thoughts. They are profitable. Americans do have compassion fatigue, but the young people can be easily stirred and motivated, yet the correct means to provide the solutions to the problems are really in the minds and hearts of the wise and experienced. Americans, being so disconnected to any real hardship, and the young people who sometimes have the greatest compassion, being idealists, have a real disadvantage as to where to put their newly found benevolent energy and are in danger of placing their loyalties in the incorrect channels. May we not put this issue aside but persevere with a long-lasting sympathy and thoughtful considerations for the genuine help of these people.

    By: Daisy

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