Tuesday, March 8, 2005

An often forgotten war in Africa rages on against innocent civilians in northern Uganda. Bordering Sudan, who just recently signed a Final Comprehensive Peace Agreement to end Africa’s longest-running civil war, Uganda sees its children abducted, exploited and traumatized while its own 18-year war has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

Since 1987, a band of rebels known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has fought the Ugandan government for power. Led by Joseph Kony, the LRA has become known for its practice of abducting children from civilian villages and forcing them to serve as soldiers and sex slaves within its ranks.

Currently, experts estimate that LRA soldiers have kidnapped between 20,000 and more than 30,000 children who now comprise more than 80 percent of their forces. The LRA is recognized by the State Department as a terrorist organization.

According to reports from former captives, the LRA maintains training camps, reserve personnel and weapons caches in southern Sudan. The LRA reportedly has served alongside the Sudanese military in its war inside southern Sudan. In fact, the Sudanese government no longer even denies its support for the LRA.

The United Nations recently released a report on the use of child soldiers around the world. Regrettably, “monitoring” was the most common course of action mentioned in the 38-page document. Worse, despite Sudan’s tight connection to its conflict, Uganda was low on the report’s priority list.

We have visited Uganda and met children and families devastated by the war.

We’ve heard their stories of displacement, hunger, abduction and fear.

Grace is just one of thousands of children trapped in the crossfire of this war. She was 15 when she was kidnapped by the LRA. For three years, she went with little food and water, marching behind her captors, forced to do whatever they demanded — or be killed. Three days after her abduction, she was given to a rebel commander as a sex slave. After nearly a year of repeated rape, she became pregnant. Even with her infant daughter strapped to her back, the rebels gave Grace a machine gun and forced her into battle. She and countless others have endured beatings, starvation, forced marches, bloody initiation rites and psychological manipulation. Those who manage to escape captivity bear deep emotional and psychological scars.

Parents, desperate to protect their children from Grace’s fate, have nowhere to go. The new phenomenon of “night commuters” leaves thousands of parents sending their children on several mile-long walks each night to find safe havens that will protect them from abduction. Nearly 80 percent of the northern region’s population has been displaced from homes and villages and forced into squalid displacement camps. More than 1.6 million people — refugees in their own country — are unable to farm and must rely almost exclusively on international aid. Lack of clean water and sanitation has led to lethal outbreaks of cholera, dysentery and respiratory infections, killing the most vulnerable first.

We are pleased to see increased attention paid to African conflicts and issues. But we cannot congratulate ourselves on success with Sudan until the conflicts it influences have ended as well.

The U.N. Security Council has included the use of child soldiers in Sudan on its agenda. It must also include in that agenda Sudan’s harboring of LRA leadership, weapons and training grounds where officers take their young captives.

The United States should put forward a Security Council resolution condemning the LRA and calling for greater international pressure and a rapid and organized international response to the humanitarian disaster that is facing the 1.6 million internally displaced persons.

Working within and outside of the Security Council, the Bush administration must press Sudan to expel Kony and bring an end to LRA activities within Sudan’s borders. As long as LRA terrorists can sneak back and forth over the Sudanese border to hide, regroup and organize, their use of innocent children to fight their war will continue unabated.

In addition, the Bush administration should partner with the government of Uganda to resolve this conflict once and for all. Concurrent with that effort, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni must prioritize protecting all Ugandan civilians, especially children, in order to deprive the LRA of the supply of enslaved soldiers it needs to continue its brutal campaign.

As with Sudan, ending Uganda’s war must become a priority. This is not an intractable conflict; with sufficient attention and pressure, peace can be achieved and now is the time to achieve it. We cannot rest until all of Uganda knows security and freedom from the LRA’s terror. We must work to end the degradation that has become common in Uganda for the past 18 years.

The people of Uganda have the same dignity inherent to all people and deserve nothing less.

Sen. Sam Brownback is a Kansas Republican. Richard E. Stearns is the president of the U.S. offices of World Vision, an international humanitarian organization.

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