KAMPALA, UGANDA — In a sad irony, what the United Nations calls "one of the most serious violations of children anywhere" is occurring in one of Africa's success stories.
The religious militia calling itself the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has abducted thousands of Ugandan children and turned them into killers, laborers, and sex slaves, according to a new report prepared by UNICEF and the Christian aid agency World Vision International, based in Washington.
World Vision's acting chief in Kampala, Charity Kivengere, says that since October 1995, more than 3,000 escaped children have passed through the agency's aid-and-counseling center set up in the northern town of Gulu.
Based on interviews with them, the UNICEF/World Vision report estimates that between 5,000 and 8,000 children have been abducted over the past two years and brought to LRA training camps in southern Sudan.
The most recent mass abduction took place three weeks ago and involved 30 refugee children from a camp near Moro in northeastern Uganda. All but six later managed to escape.
Last week, Ugandan officials confirmed that they had traveled to Sudan earlier this month to negotiate the return of 21 girls still missing from a mass abduction in October.
The plight of the girls, who were kidnapped from a Roman Catholic school, has come to symbolize Uganda's quest for the return of its children. Last Thursday, however, government officials said they turned down an LRA offer to free the children in return for a cease-fire and the resumption of diplomatic ties with Sudan.
Several freed girls told the UN researchers that they had been forced to act as "wives" for the guerrillas. Many children said they were forced to witness or participate in killings. One boy, David, told researchers how he helped kill another child who tried to escape. "Sometimes, even during the day, I hear him crying, begging ... me not to kill him," he said.
According to Ms. Kivengere, World Vision's operation is aimed at counseling and rehabilitating such children, who are often so traumatized that it is difficult for them to go home.
"One of the things they [the children] repeatedly said themselves is that having the center there has encouraged a great many children to escape from the rebels," she says. "Before, many thought that if they came back they would be taken to prison or harmed."
The LRA's war in the north comes at a time when much of Uganda is enjoying growing peace and prosperity.
Since seizing power in 1986, President Yoweri Museveni has ended the cycle of state brutality and ethnic slaughter that is estimated to have killed more than 500,000 people under former leaders Idi Amin and Milton Obote.
Led by the shadowy Joseph Lony, said to be a former Catholic priest and herbalist, the LRA says it wants to take control of Uganda and rule it according to the Ten Commandments.
Despite this Christian overlay, the LRA's crusade seems to owe much to local witchcraft cults. LRA members are given oil that they believe renders them bulletproof. Civilians who own white animals or bicycles face injury or death if captured by the rebels: The animals are regarded as unholy; the bicycles could be used to take word of the LRA's movements to the Ugandan Army.
LRA attacks on villages have destroyed many families and displaced 250,000 people in the region around the town of Gulu. So far, the Army has proved ineffective, even though the LRA is thought to be weak militarily and enjoys little popular support.
World Vision and UNICEF are urging foreign governments to pressure the LRA to release all abducted children.
But it is unclear how effective moral pressure can be. Western diplomats point out that the only outside support for the LRA probably comes from the radical Islamist regime in Sudan, which is itself considered to be a pariah state.