Former Night Commuter Turned Photo Journalist

1837 Views Gulu, Uganda

In short
Anthony Akol, the Executive Director Charity for Peace Foundation, says many of the children became the seeds of street kids and criminality in Gulu Town because they were never properly reintegrated.

At the peak of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army-LRA in Northern Uganda, hundreds of children used to trek from Internally Displaced People's Camps to spend the night in the cold in Gulu town. The children would trek back to the camps to spend time with their families the next morning and return to the streets in the evening.

The trend continued for about five years because the children felt safe in the streets compared to camps where they were targeted for abduction by the rebel forces. The children later came to be known as Night commuters. The night commuters mostly aged five and above used to trek from as Unyama Sub County, some 9 Km North East of Gulu town.
Hundreds of others came from townships surrounding Gulu town such as Koro, Palenga, Bungatira, Labora and Ongako amongst others. Several shelters known as night commuter's shelters or centers emerged to accommodate the children.  Uganda Radio Network spoke to 30- year-old Stephen Okello, one of the former night commuters about his life.
He later went on to become a leader of night commuters at Charity for Peace Foundation, the very first shelter that operated at Gulu Public Primary School before it was relocated to another site. Okello spent five years at Charity For Peace Foundation Night Commuter Shelter after fleeing LRA abduction from Ora Pwoyo Village in Odek Sub County in Omoro district.
According to Okello, he is currently practicing photojournalism, which he learned from Charity for Peace Foundation Night Commuter Centre. 
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Okello's breakthrough came through came when a photojournalists from "Listen To My Pictures", a US based Organization came to Gulu to research on night commuting in Gulu in 2005. The group trained Okello and 59 other Night Commuters. Okello says the training woke up the genius that was sleeping inside him, adding that he will never look back at his choice.
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He however, says learning new skills, during war isn't easy. According to Okello, he met stiff resistance from his mother who wanted him to focus on formal education as opposed to photo journalism. He ended up pursuing a course in Carpentry and Joinery.
But the voice of his calling won the battle with the encouragement of his trainers and mentors to contribute pictures to Daily Monitor and New Vision. According to Okello, he concentrated on documenting the war as it unfolded with a donated camera. It was his photos of the IPD camps that secured him his current job with Daily Monitor.
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In order to train other youngsters, Okello registered Youth Photography Outreach Uganda in 2011. Youth Photography Outreach Uganda is a community based organization for economic empowerment of war affected youth in Gulu district.
The organization chose the vehicle of photography pegged on Okello's years of experience. "The organization trained more than 200 youth and many of them went on to establish photo studios in Gulu and other towns in the region. They call me Okello Camera and because of them, events such as weddings and funerals amongst others are properly being covered", he told Uganda Radio Network.
The organization also provided counseling to some of the youth to cope with trauma of the war.  Okello singles out Richard Olweny, as one of the former night commuters who excelled in Video and Television Production. He has since moved on to practice agriculture in Paicho Sub County in Gulu district.  
According to Okello, the absence of a comprehensive demobilization and reintegration program for the former night commuters is to blame for slow the recovery of many. He says there is a plan to have the former night commuters come together into a self-help group in order to mentor others to live better livelihoods.
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Anthony Akol, the Executive Director Charity for Peace Foundation, says many of the children became the seeds of street kids and criminality in Gulu Town because they were never properly reintegrated.
Akol, who represents Kilak North in parliament, says a large fraction of his former students managed to make it in life and are relatively doing well as well.
James Kidega Nabinson, the co-founder of Charity for Peace Foundation that operated one of the many shelters says night commuting was a community response to LRA abductions of children for enrolment in their ranks.
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He agrees with Akol that the demobilization and reintegration of the former night commuters was rushed.
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About the author

Peter Labeja
Peter Labeja has been a practicing journalist for the last 13 years during which he has covered part of the brutal conflict which bedeviled Northern Uganda as well as the painful transition to Peace thereafter. Emerging post conflict issues such as land rights of under privileged widows and orphans, challenges of access to social services in the immediate aftermath of Lord’s Resistance Army conflict in Northern Uganda.

Labeja is now the Northern Uganda Bureau chief in Acholi Sub Region since 2014 - Gulu, Amuru, Nwoya and Omoro districts as well as South Sudan falls within his areas of jurisdiction. He previously worked with The Vision Group for four years.

Labeja’s major career interests are in Climate Change; Agriculture and Environment - natural resources such as Water, Oil and Gas; Transitional Justice; Human Rights, Democracy and Governance as well as South Sudan’s humanitarian crisis. In 2013, Labeja was awarded a prestigious Pan African Journalism Award for excellence in journalism at United Nation’s UNEP headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya for Climate Change and Health Reporting.