By Gloria Laker Aciro in Gulu (AR No. 193, 20-Nov-08)
Irene Laker said she'd had a restless night because her village near Gulu had just been attacked by members of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army, LRA.
In the morning, she walked out the back of her house. "As I moved, [there was] a big bang. I had stepped on a landmine the rebels had planted at night," she said, recalling the incident in May 2001 that wrecked her life.
Laker was taken to the local Lacor Hospital, where her leg was amputated. After two months, she was fitted with an artificial limb donated by an Italian organisation.
Over the years, thousands of people in northern Uganda have either been maimed or killed by landmines and other forms of unexploded ordnance such as hand grenades and mortars.
Laker, now 29, said her life was devastated by her injury. The man she was set to marry called off the wedding when he saw her condition in hospital.
Then she said all her good friends deserted her and finally she lost her job.
"Before the accident, I had got a job as secretary in the office of the resident district commissioner. But when I reported for work one day, I was told to leave because I had become disabled," she said.
Women have been particularly hard hit by the landmine problem, say experts, because they generally are the ones who gather firewood and cultivate gardens.
William Odong, a Gulu district councillor who represents people with disabilities, said women constitute 70 per cent of landmine cases in the north.
"The fact that ... women are more engaged in agricultural work, collecting fire wood, and fetching water [puts] them [more] at risk of being hurt," he told IWPR.
Women with amputated limbs are often shunned by family and friends.
"Most of the women who are victims of landmines have been abandoned by their husbands, who either marry another woman or send them away," he said.
Small children are also victims of landmines, says Odong, because they accompany their mothers to collect firewood, work in gardens or go to fetch water.
He adds that landmine survivors can also face workplace discrimination because some jobs can't be performed by the disabled, and some are disqualified simply because of discrimination against amputees.
"People see landmine survivors as a [undesirables] and try not to get close or give them support," continued Odong. "Unless we move away from this kind of behaviour, the survivors will never be happy."
Odong was also critical of demining operations which he said wait for people to report suspected landmines rather than go out searching for them.
He says it's risky to have villagers look for landmines and other unexploded devices - something that should only be handled by experts.
Mark Livingstone, a landmine expert with a Danish de-mining group, said progress has been made to remove these hazards from northern Uganda during the past couple of years.
"We have deployed more men on the ground lately in smaller teams so that they can identify, respond and clear larger areas a lot faster," he said.
"However, the main threat in northern Uganda is unexploded ordnance, [as] people move back to their villages and start to clear the ground for agriculture."
More is being done to warn locals of the dangers of landmines and other unexploded devices, he says, through school programmes and local radio.
"We teach them that if they see an object like a landmine, they should mark the area ... and quickly report [it], [so we can] move to verify and detonate," he said.
But, said Livingston, the de-miners fear that in the next year more casualties are likely as people clear more land for cultivation.
Despite the setbacks, life has begun to improve for some landmine victims.
Laker, for example, joined the Gulu-Amuru Association of Landmine Survivors and now works with the organisation as a secretary, helping to set up support projects for victims.
One such project provides small solar panels to victims who live in villages where there is no electricity. The survivors earn money by using the panels to recharge mobile phone batteries.
Association coordinator Stephen Okello, who is also a landmine victim, said others are engaged in bricklaying, pig-raising and poultry projects.
In addition, homes are being built for some victims in Gulu and Amuru - and the first 15 are almost complete, says Okello.
More help may also be coming from the Ugandan government.
Gulu resident district commissioner Walter Ochora says documentation of victims of war who have lost limbs or been mutilated began last year.
"Victims of war including landmine survivors are faced with a number of challenges," said Ochora. "They are categorised as persons with special needs, and soon all will be compensated by government of Uganda."
Gloria Laker Aciro is an IWPR-trained reporter.