- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 10, 2003

LIRA, Uganda — Robert was 16 when guerrillas of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) carrying axes, machetes and assault rifles slipped into his village and took him away during a chaotic night attack.

At gunpoint and barefoot, he carried burlap sacks filled with food through the Uganda bush for six months until LRA commanders gave him a grim choice.

“They said I had to club two people to death during the next raid or I would be killed,” Robert said softly through an interpreter, while staring at the ground. “They gave me an AK-47 after the attack.”

The LRA has abducted up to 30,000 children during its 17-year insurrection in northern and eastern Uganda, according the Concerned Parents Association (CPA), a national human rights group based in Lira.

The rebel group — designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government after September 11, 2001 — is led by Joseph Kony, a self-proclaimed mystic who wants to rule Uganda according to the biblical Ten Commandments.

United Nations envoy Jan Egeland visited northern Uganda this month and said it is the most neglected humanitarian crisis in the world.

“It is war directed against the civilian population and children,” Mr. Egeland said.

But the conflict in Uganda, an East African county of 24 million people, continues amid little international reaction.

In March last year, the Ugandan military sent more than 10,000 soldiers to northern Uganda and southern Sudan to crush the LRA in Operation Iron Fist, but this merely provoked more LRA attacks.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, estimates that up to 8,000 Ugandan children were abducted this year and that 20 to 30 are kidnapped every day.

The LRA is infamous for bludgeoning its victims to death during night attacks in the countryside and for abducting boys, who must become killers or die, and girls, who are used as sex slaves.

The Ugandan army says it has rescued more than 3,000 children from the LRA, but Samuel B. Tindifa , human rights director at Makerere University in Kampala, accuses the armed forces of carrying out atrocities in the conflict rather than protecting the people.

“Not only has the Ugandan government failed to protect its citizens, they have also actively violated their rights” Mr. Tindifa told Human Rights Watch.

Robert, now 18, escaped from the LRA after two years and has found a temporary haven at the Rachele Child Rehabilitation Center in Lira, a four-hour drive north of Kampala.

The center, which opened last month with assistance from the Belgium government, provides food, shelter, medical care and psychological counseling to 204 children 7 to 18 years old who had been held by the LRA.

Director Evelyn Anena said the center already is overwhelmed with children returning from captivity. “We’re dealing with two lost generations because of this war,” she said.

Children who gain their freedom often are severely traumatized and find it difficult to return to society.

The transit house at Lira operated by the CPA has placed 1,019 formerly captive in communities throughout northern and eastern Uganda since May.

Godfrey Okello, a coordinator at the transit house, said many children return to the facility because they are stigmatized in their communities or because conditions in the households where they were placed are dire.

Patrick, 14, was held nearly three months by the LRA before he escaped and entered the transit house in September, but his adjustment back into society has been rocky.

“My classmates call me ‘rebel’ and ‘killer,’ but I never killed anybody,” said Patrick, who returned to the CPA house the same week he was discharged.

“My family has no food, no clothing, no soap,” Patrick said in a slow, cracking voice, while staring at his bare feet and rubbing his hands together.

The problems the children face are compounded by the difficulty of locating their families. The United Nations says more than 1.2 million Ugandans currently are displaced by the civil war.

Mrs. Anena, the director of the Rachele Child Rehabilitation Center, said the years of fighting has scattered people in northeastern Uganda so much that she often sends children to displacement camps near their former homes when their families can’t be located.

Grace, 18, who currently is housed at the Rachele center, was captured by the LRA at 12 and held six years. She was forced to marry an LRA commander whose child she recently bore. She is not certain where she and the baby can go if they leave the center.

“I would like to go back to my mother’s farm and continue my life,” Grace said through an interpreter. “She is not even aware I am here. I am not certain where she is.”

Some of those who escaped the LRA had been treated brutally. The hospital at Lira, which currently has more than 500 patients but only 250 beds, is crammed with injured young people, many of whom sleep on straw mats on the floors.

Eunice, 18, said she was forced to lay face down on the ground with her chin on a log and was given eight blows with a wooden pestle to the back of the head before she was left for dead.

“I was helpless,” said Eunice, her head bandage oozing pus and her lower lip bruised.

The U.N. humanitarian-affairs office says increased LRA kidnapping raids throughout northern Uganda in the past year has prompted up to 25,000 children of rural families to sleep in towns every night to avoid capture.

“The problem is that it has almost become normal,” said Uganda field officer Gerald Owachi.

In Lira — population about 90,000 — thousands of these “night commuters” enter the town throughout the evening, in some instances carrying nothing more than a thin blanket and sleep in crowds under the porches of low-slung shops along the dusty streets.

James Okao, 16, said that the conflict led his family to abandon their village 20 miles north of Lira, and that he walks two miles into town every night from the camp for displaced people that the family temporarily inhabits.

“I hope that people pray for us so that someone will come to our rescue and make this a better place,” he said through an interpreter as he tried to write a school report on West African history under the dim light of a hardware-store veranda.

Josephine Akoli, 31, said she treks more than four miles from her family’s farm into Lira with her seven children, who range in age from 1 year and 10 months to 16, the youngest strapped to her back in a sheet.

“Our suffering will not end until this war is over,” Mrs. Akoli said through an interpreter after settling her family in for the night under the awning of an appliance shop.

But no end to the fighting appears in sight.

Uganda’s parliament shut down early this month after 34 lawmakers from the northern and eastern parts of the country walked out to protest President Yoweri Museveni’s handling of the civil war.

Daniel Omara Atubo, a legislator representing Lira who joined the walkout, said he thinks that the desperate situation in his district will deteriorate further if the government fails to end the conflict.

“There will be total despondency if there is no improvement in the next 30 days,” said Mr. Atubo, who also has served Mr. Museveni as foreign and defense minister.

Meanwhile, for parents of children kidnapped by the LRA, life is filled with a troubling mix of regret, uncertainty and hope.

Francis Onjwan, 42, said the LRA took two of his five children in August 2002 during an attack on his village, 30 miles north of Lira. Mr. Onjwan, a cassava and peanut farmer, who currently is displaced in Lira, said he ran away from the fighting and returned later to find that two of his boys, ages 10 and 8, were missing.

“I am thankful to be alive, but my mind is distressed,” Mr. Onjwan said through an interpreter. “If I could go back, I would try to save them”

Olyet Ayo-Ogang, a retired veterinarian who helped found the CPA seven years ago after his 16-year-old daughter was abducted, said he believes the government should do everything within its means to halt the war.

“Children are rescued, but how many are killed?” he asked. “As parents, we have nothing to gain from this fighting.”

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