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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 June 2006, 10:56 GMT 11:56 UK
Losing touch with Innocent

By Andrew Harding
BBC News

In 2004 I was in Uganda doing a report for the BBC about the Lord's Resistance Army rebels when I met a young boy who had lost his parents. I have been trying to find out what has happened to him since then.

Innocent Odongo in 2004
'I often dream about you,' Innocent said. 'Can you take me away from here?'

It is two years now since a scrawny boy grabbed my hand on a crowded street and started to sob.

His name was Innocent. He was 13.

He blurted out that his mother, father, brother and sister had just been hacked to death in front of him.

We were in a place called Lira, in Northern Uganda.

I had actually been to their village the day before, just a few hours after the massacre.

I had walked through the hot ashes. Seen the dogs at work.

I kept hold of Innocent's hand.

It was a frantic day. There was a lynch mob at work up the street and our Ugandan driver was missing, perhaps dead.

He had driven over a landmine somewhere to the north and we were waiting for an army convoy to bring him to town.

It was much later that afternoon when I put in a call to a local orphanage, run by a Dutch woman called Jozina.

"The House of Grace" is a tiny, three-roomed building on a dry, red hill outside town.

Traumatised children

It looks after a handful of the many thousands of children orphaned and traumatised by the crazed killers of Uganda's rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army.

Jozina's colleague came round the same evening and took Innocent away on her bicycle.

A month later, I went back to see him.

He sprinted out to the car and gave me a grin and a hug I will never forget.

Then he proudly showed me round his cramped dormitory, his school further up the hill and his new friends.

He was bright, headstrong and energetic - at times almost manic.

"I often dream about you," he said. "Can you take me away from here?"

A couple of months later, I got a new job and left Africa altogether, moving east along the equator to Singapore, where I am now.

I told Innocent I would write and kept in e-mail contact with Jozina.

The first signs of trouble appeared almost immediately.

Boarding school

Strangers began coming to the House of Grace asking for Innocent, trying to lure him away from the orphanage.

Presumably they thought he might have money because of his links with me.

Jozina decided he would be safer in a boarding school.

It took a while for staff to track him down and, when they did, it was too late

She e-mailed me to tell me how smart he looked in his new uniform. And later that a local amateur dentist had pulled out a perfectly good front tooth.

"Innocent's a nice kid," she said, "with a lively imagination."

Then came another e-mail. He had just been expelled, for attacking some students with a knife.

No-one seemed too sure about the details. Jozina did not sound too surprised.

"What can you expect?" she wrote. "All these kids know is war."

The headmaster of a different day school reluctantly agreed to take him on.

Jozina said he was getting counselling and drama therapy.

It seemed to be helping, but he had stopped studying and could not stand being told what to do.

Then in the middle of last year, an uncle turned up out of the blue.

Good news, you might think, maybe even a happy ending.

Selling oranges

But the uncle was extremely poor, even by local standards, and he simply wanted Innocent to come and work with him on the street, selling oranges.

Innocent talking to Andrew Harding
Andrew's report about Innocent provoked a huge public response

He forced his nephew to leave the orphanage and the school.

It took a while for the staff to track him down. By the time they did, it was too late.

Innocent was now a very tall, savvy 15-year-old, with no interest in returning to school.

He had found work as a truck driver, delivering oranges, and seemed to have convinced himself that he was now 18.

"We tell him he's too young to drive, and urge him to come back," Jozina wrote. "But he just smiles and says 'bye-bye'."

A couple of months after that, I got a different e-mail.

It was from our Ugandan driver, John - the one who had hit the landmine.

He had nearly lost an eye, and a soldier in the passenger seat next to him had died.

But now John's insurance money had finally come through and he was on the mend.

"I would have e-mailed sooner," he said, "but we keep getting power cuts here in Kampala."

Letting go

Jozina was having the same problems.

"The power came on at 4.30 this morning," she wrote, "so I rushed to the computer to do some work. We eat by candlelight. There's no gas for the stove. It's still not safe here."

As for Innocent, well, he recently got in touch with the orphanage one last time.

The staff made a huge effort, finding him a place at yet another boarding school - the best in the region.

"We had great hopes that things were turning round for him," Jozina wrote.

But when the time came Innocent disappeared again.

"We now have 93 other children to look after," she went on. "So in the end, we said goodbye to him."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 24 June, 2006, at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Rebuilding Innocent's life
19 Mar 04 |  Africa
An innocent in Uganda
17 Mar 04 |  This is BBC News

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