Uganda

THE UNKNOWN WAR

In their battle against government troops, rebels force children to fight—and die

SAMANTHA NUTT,ERIC HOSKINS January 12 2004
Uganda

THE UNKNOWN WAR

In their battle against government troops, rebels force children to fight—and die

SAMANTHA NUTT,ERIC HOSKINS January 12 2004

War has ravaged northern Uganda since 1987, when the newly formed Lord’s Resistance Army began its rebel campaign against the government. While the horror has been widespread, children have particularly suffered as the LRA has abducted them and forced them into service. In this special feature for Maclean’s, the first in a series examining the impact of war in Uganda, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Samantha Nutt and Eric Hoskins of War Child Canada, both doctors with extensive experience working in warzones, report on the plight of the young in northern Uganda.

Kabila Oloya is 10. He walks at a determined pace, nervous that in the growing crowd of children he will lose sight of his older sister just ahead. He takes a minute to reposition his bag, a burlap sack on his back that runs the full length of his tiny frame, then disappears into the night.

Except for the rare generator-powered light bulb, the town of Kitgum in northern Uganda, near the Sudanese border, is dark. Still, these children know their way, because it is an all too familiar journey. They are among some 40,000 children who have been streaming along the roads of this area, known locally as Acholi, every night for more than a year. They are known as the “night commuters,” and their lives bear witness to one of the most brutal and senseless emergencies to hit this corner of Africa in recent years. Every evening, the children trek from their rural villages into the downtown cores of larger centres to sleep wherever they can in churches and public parks, on store verandas or the floors of overcrowded hospitals. The process leaves them vulnerable to disease and abuse, but as bad as it is, the alternative is worse: staying home and risking abduction by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group active in northern Uganda since 1987.

The LRA has abducted more than 20,000 children since the beginning of the conflict, with almost half of them being taken in the past 18 months alone. Attacking mostly at night, the rebels have indiscriminately looted homes, raping and killing, forcing children into LRA camps in southern Sudan, close to the Ugandan border. There, under the direction of self-declared prophet and LRA leader Joseph Kony, the boys, some as young as she, are taught to fire Kalashnikov rifles, while girls become cooks, servants or porters— and sometimes fighters. Even worse, the vast majority of abducted girls are pushed into sexual slavery, sometimes through forced “marriages” to LRA commanders, some even before they have started menstruating. More than 80 per cent of those fighting with the LRA—which is on the U.S. Department of State’s list of terrorist organizations—are believed to be abducted children.

CONCY, 18, is currently living in a rehabilitation centre for formerly abducted children in the town of Gulu in the district of the same name, some 100 km from the Sudanese border. She was 12 when the LRA attacked her village, burning her family’s hut, raping her mother and killing her father. As Coney tries to console her 20-month-old child, she explains that “four of my brothers and sisters were abducted.” As was she. “When we arrived at the training camp, I was made the wife of a sergeant. He was 38 years old.” At 16, she gave birth to her first child while still in LRA captivity. But in December, after learning that the sergeant had been shot, she managed to escape, fleeing with her baby back to Uganda, where she surrendered to the Ugandan army. She is now undergoing a six-week counselling program.

The staff at the Gulu Support the Children Organization (GUSCO), which runs the centre, acknowledge that child mothers like Coney are their biggest challenge. Counsellors do their best to teach parenting skills, but the trauma experienced at the hands of the LRA is difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. The future is bleak for other reasons as well. Like other formerly abducted children, the young women are burdened with problems that can only lead to further destitution and despair: little or no education, few marketable skills, and, in many instances, no families to support them. And while HIV testing is voluntary, nearly half of those young mothers who agree to be checked are found to be HIV positive.

Vicky, 18, shares a large tent with Coney and more than 50 other young girls at the GUSCO camp. At 14, she was abducted by the LRA along with her younger brother (who was later killed in battle). An LRA commander gave Vicky a gun and asked if she would rather fight or die. She chose the former. During an attack against the Ugandan army last fall, she was shot in the face and left for dead. She is now missing an eye; a thick scar runs across her right eye socket and down to her painfully swollen jaw. Tears constantly flow down the side of her face because of damage to a duct. “My parents live in a camp,” Vicky says, wiping her cheek. “It is very difficult for them to care for me. And if the LRA finds me, they will kill me.”

Like Vicky’s family, an estimated one million people, roughly 80 to 90 per cent of the population in northern Uganda, are living in these camps for “internally displaced persons” (IDPS). Conditions are appalling, characterized by a lack of water, food and health care. Tragically, the population of the camps has increased dramatically over the past 18 months, for several reasons. In March 2002, the Ugandan government launched Operation Iron Fist—an attack on LRA strongholds in southern Sudan. Instead of being destroyed, the LRA hit back with a campaign in northern Uganda, carrying out further atrocities and swelling its ranks with even more abducted children. With homes ablaze, their possessions looted and their children at risk, Acholi families had no choice but to turn to the camps. Compounding the problem, in late 2002 the Ugandan government made it mandatory for all vulnerable citizens in the north to relocate to the camps—even as LRA raids on relief convoys and aid workers have severely hampered efforts to assist those living in them.

At the Awer camp in Gulu district, Benjamin Oballim, the chairman, struggles to deal with the plight of more than 26,000 IDPs under his charge. In the mid-1990s, Oballim lost everything when fighting between the Ugandan army and the LRA broke out near his home. “We just remain here until we die,” he says, as others standing around him nod in agreement. “We can see no future for our children.”

Walking through Awer camp, it is easy to understand why. Families are crammed into small mud huts, children play around rancid garbage and human waste, and even though it is only noon the chairman must contend with interruptions from a rowdy group of drunken men. After 17 years of war and displacement, cultural norms and traditions have been all but obliterated. HIV infection in northern Uganda is thought to be twice the country’s national average, which the UN estimates is five per cent. All that, coupled with young and old living without opportunity, has resulted in a growing sense of defeat. “If the whole world cannot see our suffering,” concludes Oballim, “then they should just dig a pit, put all the Acholi people in it, pour gasoline on us and set us alight because we cannot go on like this.” 

The residents of Awer are, in relative terms, luckier than others. Last month the LRA attacked a small village less than a kilometre away. Thirteen children were abducted and several homes burned, but the camp was left untouched. And earlier this year, the community received some good news. One Awer couple was reunited after 10 years with their eldest son, Charles. He was eight when he was taken and began fighting for the rebels. He put aside any thoughts of escape when he witnessed the torture of another boy his age who had failed to obey orders: the child’s mouth was padlocked shut, with the lock’s metal hook driven through his upper and lower lips. “I was instructed to kill,” Charles says. “One night they made me leave a land mine in the grass near a well where many people go to collect water. I knew they would kill me otherwise.”

‘During heavy fighting against the Ugandan army, Charles was hit in the head by shrapnel and then picked up by government troops. Doctors removed a portion of his skull; although his wound has healed, he suffers from chronic headaches. “When I first saw Charles in hospital,” says his father, “he started crying. He was ashamed of what he had done. But I told him he has escaped his biggest problem, and now we must look to the future.”

With so many LRA fighters being child soldiers, most of the casualties sustained during clashes with government forces are also children. “When you hear that 20 rebels were killed,” explains Catholic Archbishop John Baptiste Odama of the Gulu archdiocese, “you have to stop and remind yourself that 18 of the dead are children. How can we turn the very same guns and the very same soldiers that are supposed to be used to protect our children into the instruments that kill them?” Odama is a member of the inter-denominational Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, created in 1995 to try to negotiate a peaceful end to the hostilities in northern Uganda. Despite some initial progress, the group’s efforts stalled last year when fighting intensified and, according to some sources, the LRA turned against the Catholic Church after some junior LRA commanders defected following peace meetings with Church intermediaries. In June 2003, a Catholic mission school in eastern Uganda was attacked, and nearly 100 schoolgirls were abducted.

While the fighting and civilian suffering will likely continue in northern Uganda, many are hopeful that negotiations currently underway in Sudan itself, between the Sudanese government and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army, will result in peace there—which might make it more difficult for Kony and the LRA to use southern Sudan as a base for their violent activities. But with so much international attention focussed on Iraq and Afghanistan, it will be a challenge to create the kind of momentum required to bring peace to this part of Africa. Last fall, during a visit to northern Uganda, Jan Egeland, the UN’s undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, declared that he “cannot find any other part of the world that is having an emergency on the scale of Uganda, that is getting such little international attention.” Egeland’s assessment is echoed across northern Uganda. “When will the world come to help us?” sighs chairman Oballim. “Will they wait until all the children are dead?”*