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First Day of School, At 14

Uganda, March 5, 2007

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Young Bosco Odongo in the village classroom. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

Ogonyo IDP Camp, Uganda - It might look like any other day for 14-year-old Bosco Odongo. Dressed in a pink shirt and brown shorts like his classmates, he carries a crisp new notebook and walks the dirt path leading to the village school.

The truth is, however, he's never been to school before today - it's his first day ever to sit in a classroom with other students and be taught by a teacher.

For most of the last twenty years, many village schools in northern Uganda have been closed because of a brutal war between government forces and a rebel faction called the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). Schools were a particular target for the LRA, whose strategy was to abduct children and press them into military service. The LRA has abducted at least 20,000 children during the war.

Bosco escaped abduction on at least one occasion - he remembers with fear the day that LRA rebels broke into his home and threatened his family at knifepoint to give them food and other supplies.

He's lived most of his life in cramped, squalid displacement camps where food and clean water were in short supply - and time in the classroom was non-existent.

Last September, he moved with his family from the huge displacement camp where he'd been living to a smaller "return camp" that's closer to the village where he was born. This "return camp" - called Ogonyo after the village that once existed here - has more land to farm, space to play and, best of all, a school for Bosco and his siblings.

In the light of recent peace talks aimed at ending the long-running war, Mercy Corps is helping families like Bosco's as they begin their journey home. We're supporting agriculture in the "return camps" while planning activities to help children like Bosco heal from war.

As Bosco enters the cement classroom - bare except for a chalkboard - I ask him what he wants to be when he's older.

"A doctor," he says without hesitation. "I want to heal people and save lives."