Lira, the fourth-largest town in Uganda (with a population of just over 100,000) is located in northern Uganda, 215 miles north of the capital city, Kampala. Although our ministry site is located in the nearby village of Anai-Okii, Lira is the main city in the region where we serve.
Once upon a time, Lira could have been described as the quintessential sleepy little African town where one could enjoy the drive along tree-lined roads coming in to town from the Ugandan savanna. Today, the town once nicknamed “the jewel of the north” is struggling to recover from one of Africa’s longest-running civil wars.
The near 20-year conflict was led by rebel guerilla and self-proclaimed “spokesperson of God,”Joseph Kony, whose Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) raided villages, burned homes, slaughtered civilians, and recruited child soldiers through abductions from the villages and schools of northern Uganda. Thousands of children were robbed of their childhood and, in many cases, of life itself. Boys and girls were turned into killers who became seared by the atrocities they saw and were forced to commit. Children as young as ten years old were taught to kill, often beginning with their own families.
During the height of the war, an estimated 20,000 fled to Lira in search of safety from the threat of the LRA. By day thousands filled the streets looking for food or work. By night, no one was found on the streets—no one except the hundreds of orphaned children who found a safe haven from life’s hardships under the city’s storefront verandas.
In 2006, peace talks put an end to the fighting, though Lira remained overwhelmed with people who had fled there to find a place of refuge. The town was overcrowded with ten of thousands of refugees seeking protection, needing food, shelter and medical attention. It was then that Children of the Nations US staff, together with a team of African Bible College students from Malawi, conducted a ten-week outreach to this region, working with 180+ pastors and lay leaders who represented thirty-eight different churches and ministries. The team also provided trauma counseling services to adults and children living in the nearby IDP camps (Internally Displaced Persons camps).
The following year (2007) the government forced the closure of IDP camps in an effort to encourage the population to return to their homes or communities. However, since countless communities had been completely destroyed and families killed, many were left with nowhere to go and no one to go to. Orphans and widows were among the hardest hit, as they were left to fend for themselves—either on the streets in Lira or in the remains of dismantled IDP camps on the outskirts of town.
It was at this time that Children of the Nations officially began ministry in Lira, reaching out to thousands of orphaned and destitute children, providing food, medical services, and trauma counseling, and opening a Children’s Home to bring the most desperate orphans into full-time care.