Patrick, our driver, uses all of the red dirt road ahead. He gingerly steers our Land Rover from ditch to ditch to avoid the potholes and ruts in hopes of giving the “visitors” a smooth (let’s say smoother) ride as we make our way along Amuru Road.

“You would not have survived this trip at the height of the conflict,” announces our translator Evelyn. The trip she refers to is one through the villages of northern Uganda.

As recently as 2005, the tight corners, uneven bridges and six-foot high roadside grass that we race through today made this area an easy target of attack for the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Those ambushes were in search of food, water, supplies — and children, the prize possession of the LRA.

Since the start of this 21-year civil war, over 60,000 children have been abducted from their homes to serve as child soldiers, porters and sex slaves. However, an expired ceasefire and revived peace talks between the LRA and the government of Uganda have the violence on hold.

What remains though, are the abandoned children.

We continue past kilometre after kilometre of open space. We’re moving over fertile land that lies fallow, at a time when all this community really needs is an opportunity to return to their roots to farm, and to provide for the next generation of Acholi.

The saying here goes that, “All that has survived this war are the mango trees.” And every mango tree we see, which jut out from the empty fields every thirty metres, is where a family home once stood.

It’s been over ten years since the entire population of northern Uganda was forcibly moved from their villages into the displacement camps that they still call home.

The conflict between the government and Lord’s Resistance Army has seen 100,000 people killed and over 1.5-million forcibly displaced into the squalid camps that lack even the basic necessities including food, water, sanitation and health care.

There are over 37,000 residents in the internally displaced camp at Amuru, where we arrive today. It’s a subdivision of clay huts, 10-feet in diameter, with thatched roofs that sit so snuggly together that almost every roof is touching another. Some huts are placed so tightly together that I’m forced to slide sideways between them.

Flies pick at our eyes and the smell of the camp sits in your nose — but what is most overpowering is the upbeat determination of the Acholi people, and that’s when I meet Irene Ayoo.

The steely glare of this sinewy 12-year-old is that of a prizefighter. The tallest in her class, Irene is a battler; she is also a family of one.

Just past her first birthday, Irene lost her mother to tuberculosis, and less than two years later her father was abducted and killed by the LRA. The only family she has ever known is her aunt, who she describes as, “âe¦a great drunkard.”

“My aunt has never provided for me,” Irene so matter-of-factly explains. “If I don’t eat at school, I go hungry. If I don’t make money, there is no one else to pay my fees for school.”

So, every Saturday morning Irene rises from her straw mat, without having to fold and put away a blanket. That’s a luxury she can’t afford. Barefoot she heads out to work as a hired hand in nearby gardens where she digs and weeds for 1,000 Ugandan shillings (70 cents) a day.

She does all this for an education, and it’s an education that every child I talk to believes is their ticket to a life better than the one they are enduring today.

And education is a place where the government of Uganda could step up immediately, and haven’t yet. There is plenty of animosity and mistrust between the Acholi in the north, and the government that has failed to protect them.

However, a “catch up plan” for the children may be the best way start rebuilding that trust. A “no strings attached” education and training initiative that empowers the youth of northern Uganda would be an incredible first step.

Consider Irene’s dream. She wants to be a doctor.“They save lives. If there was a doctor, my mother could have been saved.”

Along with a childhood.