By Ashley Rowland
GULU, Uganda Gulu is a city that has become a fortress.
By day, it looks like an ordinary Ugandan town, except for the all-terrain vehicles emblazoned with logos from the United Nations or other aid organizations that share the roads with ambling longhorned cattle.
Women tidy the dirt sidewalks outside their businesses with hand brooms. Shoppers crowd a bustling outdoor market near the center of town to buy vegetables and clothing. After work, people drink Nile Special beer at outdoor cafes.
But nearly all the citys businesses close by 9:30 p.m., except for a few restaurants where the last customers are paying their bills. Being outside after dark within the city is risky; being caught unguarded outside the citys borders day or night can be gravely dangerous. "You cant go 10 kilometers beyond Gulu. It would be suicide," said Edward Gitta, program manager for Orphans Project Hope in Uganda .
Gulus streets remain mostly silent and empty until 7 a.m. Thats when 21 centers in Gulu release the "night commuters," children who walk miles at dusk to sleep in shelters run by aid organizations. They fear being kidnapped from their homes by the Lords Resistance Army, which targets children between the ages of 7 and 14.
Dennis Onen and Simon Komakech walked barefoot into Gulu one recent evening, two in a stream of ragged children entering the city at dusk. Both are 13, and both said they were abducted from their homes last year.
They spent a week with the LRA, walking each day until their legs were sore. They still dont know where they were being taken. They escaped in the confusion of a Ugandan army attack on the rebels who captured them.
After Dennis and Simon wake up in Gulu, they walk an hour and a half to school. After school, they go home, eat, and then walk back to the night commuter center. Their parents, like those of the other children, wont know if they arrive safely at the center until they return home the next day.
Gloria Agenorwot, 15, became a night commuter a year ago after a wave of LRA abductions near her home, about 5 kilometers away. She walks each night with a group of girls for safety. "There are bad boys that go to rape the girls," she said.
Kevin Azaw, a doctor who works at a clinic in Gulu, said men sometimes give female night commuters sweets and shillings, and then rape them. At the Charity for Peace center, about 200 children go to sleep at 9 each night on plastic mats boys in one brick building, girls in another and wake up at 6 a.m. They leave an hour later, when there is enough light to lessen the chance of an attack on their walk home.
Zachariah Otto, volunteer manager at the center, said a few thousand children slept at Charity for Peace each night in 2003 and 2004, when the LRA abductions were at their height. The city center of Gulu becomes a sleep center for children and adults alike when the attacks are most intense. They sleep under verandas, in yards, any place they can find, to escape the LRA, said Timothy Jokkene, director of the Child Care and Development Organization, which works to help children affected by the war.
Before the war, entire clans lived in homes built next to each other. That community support is gone because of killings and forced moves, said Mr. Jokkene, a lifelong Gulu resident.
"I dont think there is any family that has not been scarred," he said. His own brother was abducted by rebels and kept for six years, until he was shot in the leg by a Ugandan soldier and rescued.
E-mail Ashley Rowland at email@example.com