They called them the night commuters.
Every evening when the sun set, children from the remote villages of northern Uganda would make their way through the darkness towards the nearest town.
It was fear that drove, at its peak, 40,000 children every night on 10- to 12-kilometre walks to relative safety.
For Erin Baines, a researcher and advocate who spent parts of the last several years in the region, it was a surreal sight.
"It was a flood of kids," she says. "You could be laying in your house at night and ... hear them going past, chattering."
Baines remembers one of these trips in particular.
"It's pitch black, and you know there are rebels around. And you're there with thousands of children," says Baines.
Their destination was a night shelter in the town of Gulu where humanitarian groups had created shelters and programs for the children, some who were babies being carried by young teens.
These weren't orphans. They were children whose parents, or government, could not protect them from the rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army, which has waged a two-decade long battle with the government. It's now turned into one of the longest-standing conflicts on the continent.
When the government turned up the heat on the rebel group in the early 2000s, the LRA responded in kind. Children were the immediate victims, the target of brutal abductions.
Research suggests as many as one-third of boys in some areas have been abducted to fuel the LRA. Some are only gone for a few days; some never return. Some are put into forced labour. Many are forced to join the rebels as child soldiers.
According to a study by the Survey of War Affected Youth in Uganda, 78 per cent of abductees surveyed had witnessed murder. Almost two-thirds, 63 per cent, had been beaten. One-fifth were forced to kill a stranger, while eight per cent reported being forced to kill a family member.
And so while children fled each night, helpless parents remained in villages, unable to protect their own kids.
"You can't imagine the absolute terror that you feel and how horrible it feels when your daughter's screaming, 'Save me Daddy, save me,' and you're watching her being taken away by the rebels," Baines says, recalling research interviews with victims' parents.
"You hear story after story; tragic stories of people deciding to stay together as a family, and half the kids get abducted the next night, the parents killed."
There is nothing ordinary about the conflict in northern Uganda. But even at its peak, it barely registered in the minds of many Canadians.
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