In-depth: Life in northern Uganda
UGANDA: LRA Human Rights Abuses
Photo: Sven Torfinn/IRIN
Child abductees often suffer brutal treatment at the hands of LRA commanders
The list of LRA atrocities against the children of northern Uganda is endless. Since war broke out in 1986 the rebel group has routinely abducted children as young as seven, training them in southern Sudan and forcing them to fight on the front lines.
The LRA has targeted schools, churches and villages to abduct boys, whom it uses as soldiers, and girls, who are often used as sex slaves for LRA commanders. Over the years, as many as 25,000 northern Ugandan children are believed to have been abducted by the rebel group.
Abduction, torture, and murder
Some child abductees have managed to escape their captors and tell of the extreme hardships they endured in the bush. They tell horrendous tales of suffering and extreme cruelty at the hands of their abductors.
As part of initiation into the rebel movement, abducted children are forced into committing inhuman acts, including ritual killings and mutilations. They tell of how they were forced to club to death other children who were not 'properly cooperating' with the orders of rebel commanders.
Stella, a 10-year-old girl currently under rehabilitation and treatment at the Gulu Support the Children Organisation (GUSCO), is one example. After being abducted, she was forced to walk to the LRA rear base in southern Sudan. However, after falling behind the main group of abductees, part of her foot was cut off by a rebel commander to "teach her to walk properly." Luckily, she was found and rescued by the army.
"Some of the worst atrocities being committed against children are taking place in Uganda, and the international community is nowhere to be seen," a frustrated Baker Ochola, retired Bishop of Kitgum, told IRIN.
Abducted children also speak of a harsh and exhausting journey to Sudan, during which many die from hunger and exhaustion. Those who survive face even more inhuman conditions in training camps in Sudan, where many more die from starvation, disease, or injuries suffered in battle.
Thirteen-year-old Alfred Onen says he decided to escape after his two sisters and one brother, who were abducted with him on the same day, were killed in a heavy battle with Uganda People's Defence Force (UPDF) soldiers. "I have gone to battle many times. Initially, they put me on one of the lower brigades and then transferred me to 'control' - the same command where Kony is," Onen says.
"There was a time when the government was organising peace talks. So we organised, me and 11 others, to surrender. I had thought about leaving earlier, but Sudan was too far. When we came back to Uganda, we managed to escape," he explains.
Although some children like Onen have returned, many are still missing, feared dead. Gladys Acan, who was abducted in 2000 when she was only 11, tells of how she watched many children abducted with her die on the way to Sudan.
"On the way, some people were stabbed, others shot, but most were clubbed to death. They beat me constantly even without reason," she says. "One day there was a fierce fight between us and the UPDF. Only 15 of us were not injured. About 150 were injured and the rest were killed," Acan, who is currently under rehabilitation at GUSCO told IRIN.
Acan escaped after spending close to three years in captivity. She has no idea where her parents are or whether they are still alive, but hopes to find them and go back to school.
The string of LRA atrocities in northern Uganda does not, however, end with the children. Their parents, other relatives and the whole community are equally affected.
As recently as May 2001, there were reports of the LRA attacking homes and mutilating people, cutting off their fingers, lips, and ears as "punishment" for cooperating with the government.
Geoffrey, a 17-year-old secondary school student who had joined the Local Defence Unit (LDU), a pro-government militia group recruited to fight the LRA, is one example. His ears were cut off and wrapped in a letter found in his pocket as a warning to others. It read: "We shall do to you what we have done to him."
Due to fear of abductions, parents in affected areas are forced to send their children to the relative safety of the towns, where they stay overnight in hospitals, church compounds and even on shop verandahs.
But there is a price to pay for this. Parents are often beaten cruelly, and in some cases brutally murdered, when rebels fail to find children in their homes.
Northern Uganda's children live under constant threat of abduction by the LRA.
Credit: Sven Torfinn (2002)
It is in centres such as GUSCO and World Vision, both in Gulu, and KICHWA in Kitgum, that escaped abductees are rehabilitated.
But the rehabilitation of returning abductees is no easy task. As the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) organisation has pointed out, those who manage to escape the LRA are "scarred for life", forever re-living their brutal treatment, with girls facing the additional burden of often being infected with sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.
Unhygienic conditions in the bush and lack of food mean many children arrive at the rehabilitation centres with severe skin infections, such as scabies, and suffering from malnutrition. "What we see initially is their bad eating habits. They feel the food is not enough even after three plate-fulls, a sign of deprivation in the bush. We also see restlessness at night. They can hardly sleep, and they wake up very early. Restlessness is a sign of their alertness and militaristic behaviour," Dora says.
"We had a group of child mothers who had very weak children. By 0300 hrs, they started to talk. They told us that in the bush, they had to wake up early and start walking.
For Dora, what is more worrying is that abductees are not returning as had been expected when the UPDF launched its offensive against the LRA in Sudan in March 2002. "Where is the big group that was in Sudan when Operation Iron Fist was starting? The majority of children in rehabilitation are those who were abducted less than a year ago," she says. "We still believe there are still many children in captivity."
From 0700 hrs, anxious parents, seeking their abducted children, visit the rehabilitation centres. Joe Lakony, a trainee social worker at GUSCO explains, "There are so many children who are abducted daily. Their parents are desperate, so they come to find out."
Goreti Oyiela, an acting manager of the World Vision rehabilitation centre, says former abductees receive treatment and are taken through steps aimed at helping them talk about their suffering.
"We try to develop rapport with them because the children don't trust anybody after what happens to them. Even at the centre they don't feel secure for the fist few days," she explains. "There are some things that children are unable to talk about initially. They need closer attention and individual counselling before they can open up and talk about being raped or being forced to kill," she adds.
Those who are too traumatised to talk are encouraged to draw pictures about the extent of the atrocities they were forced to commit while in the bush. "Pictures also help us to find out exactly what happened," Oyiela says.
After months of rehabilitation, the former child abductees are ready to return to their homes, but this can only happen after their communities and families are ready to forgive them and accept them back into the community. "Some parents refuse to take back their children because they fear revenge from community members because of the atrocities they may have been forced to commit against their own family members," Oyiela says.
However, what most of the children fear most when returning home is not rejection by their family, but the ever-present threat of re-abduction.
Some civil society groups have called into question the counter-insurgency tactics employed by the UPDF, saying children are being caught in the crossfire. The use of helicopter gunships, for example, has been criticised for being too blunt a tool against such an elusive enemy.
"Gunships have no eyes to differentiate between a rebel and an abducted child. So killing is indiscriminate," one social worker told IRIN.
"If the government pursues rebels and the rebels decide to kill the children what is the purpose? Each time you go to rescue abducted children, you don't know if you are going to be part of the killing."
UPDF spokesman Shaban Bantariza says the army is faced with a dilemma when it comes to protecting children from the LRA, who often use them as 'human shields' when being pursued. "This is part of our dilemma. We try to rescue the children. But we end up killing some of them," Bantariza says.
"When you are fighting a rebel group that degenerates into a terrorist group, you are not fighting an army. You are forced to take the war to the people. Our intention is to, as much as possible, rescue those who have been abducted. You can't fight a frontal combat," Bantariza said.
Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict
Coalition to stop the use of child soldiers
Protection of civilians in armed conflict - children in war