Hard return for Uganda's lost children

Rebels have abducted an estimated 15,000 children to serve as soldiers and slaves.

The tot rushes around the campsite, getting in everyone's way. He wants to be picked up and twirled around like an airplane. He was found last month during a battle between the Ugandan Army forces and the rebels and brought to this center for ex-combatants. Nameless, and presumed to be an orphan, he was christened "Innocent" by the troops who found him.

There are hundreds like him: children born in captivity to young abducted girls and their "husbands" – commanders of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). It is estimated that some 15,000 boys and girls have been abducted by the LRA during the 16 years of on again-off again civil war here.

They are hauled off from classrooms, pounced upon at a drinking well, even dragged out of bed at night – then forced to carry the rebels' equipment, prepare food, serve as concubines, and, eventually, carry guns, abduct others, and fight for the rebel cause. Many have been released or escaped over the years, but thousands remain with the rebels and more are kidnapped every day. They are at once both the children and the enemies of this community.

Uganda's operation "Iron Fist," launched five months ago, was intended to flush the rebels out of their southern Sudanese bases once and for all – and allow safe passage back home to the abducted child troops. It has not worked out that way.

"Yesterday's abductees are today's brainwashed fighters," says Geoffrey Kalebbo of World Vision, a Christian aid organization which runs the ex-combatant rehabilitation camp in Gulu. "Perhaps they are unable to escape. But maybe they don't want to leave anymore. They feel they belong there."

Holy water and hand grenades

These abducted children are part of a bizarre guerrilla outfit led by a former altar boy turned self-proclaimed prophet named Joseph Kony. Their mission is to overthrow the government of President Yoweri Museveni, install a new leadership which will rule by the Ten Commandments, and restore honor to the marginalized Acholi people of the north – the very same group they come from, and now prey upon.

Splashing themselves with "holy water" before battle in order to become invisible to the enemy, and armed for years – by the Sudanese government in Khartoum – with the most modern equipment, these youngsters have wreaked havoc on northern Uganda, burning homes, looting, and hacking off lips and ears of suspected government collaborators. Close to half a million people have been displaced during this long war and the economy here is paralyzed.

"Sometimes three people could rape one little girl," says a former LRA fighter with wild eyes. "Sometimes we could burn down a whole village, and sometimes we could stomp on someone to death."

Abducted at age nine, this teenager fought with the LRA for two years before he ran away. At home he found his family had been killed, and then, en route to look for his uncles in another district, he was re-abducted and kept for another two years before escaping again. He does not know his real name and has called himself "Bush," after the US president. He is waiting at the World Vision camp for word of family. "But I know already," he says. "There is nowhere for me."

Bush limps and walks with his legs slightly apart. He has a bullet wound in one leg and a rash up his other and has wrapped toilet paper around both. Most of the children have spend months, even years, living in abysmal conditions – eating leaves, drinking dirty water, sleeping outside, carrying loads too heavy for them, and never changing clothes. They often arrive with serious health problems and terrible trauma.

The road to recovery

One young boy here, Patrick, had his whole jaw blown off and can smile only with his eyes. A teenage girl, Betty, still wearing the torn flowery dress her "husband" looted for her on her last outing with the rebels, tells of how her baby – strapped to her back during battle – was shot. "I did not even hear the cry," she recalls. Most here don't know their last names. A tiny girl, in a stained red silky shirt, sits by the camp's social worker's desk with tears trickling down her cheeks. She answers no questions.

At the camp, the children are cared for, protected, and given basic psychological counseling as volunteers search for their families. Not an easy task with communities on the run, and the roads to the villages dangerous to pass. Patrick Okot's parents have been traced, and they are at the camp to pick him up – wearing their best, albeit rumpled, clothes and looking shocked to see their son, lost over a year ago. "He is the same to me. He is my boy," says mother Lillian, looking uncertain.

Even with 10,000 troops devoted to routing Kony's fighters, and much blustery rhetoric, it seems the UPDF has not only been unable to significantly harm the LRA, but has, instead, brought them right to the doorstep of the population and created further panic. With the LRA now hiding out in the forests and mountains of northern Uganda itself, people here are terrified. All attempts at peace talks, meanwhile, have so far come to naught.

A ceasefire offer by the Ugandan government was accepted by the LRA yesterday, but the government accused the rebels of immediately violating the offer by killing two people in a roadside attack, according to wire reports. The rebels are to gather at collection points in northern Uganda and southern Sudan.

Starting last week, a group of religious leaders agitating for a negotiated end to the conflict began getting five minutes of free daily airtime from the local radio station. At 6:30 each morning one of the leaders, fiddling in confusion with the technical equipment, sends out a peace "pep talk" from the station's downtown office to the community waking up around him. "We want the first word that is heard in Acholi every morning to be about peace," explains one of the leaders, Catholic Archbishop John Baptist Odama.

Voices for peace

At the walled compound of St. Mary's Lacor hospital, on the outskirts of Gulu, it's a rainy dawn and some 20,000 people are huddled together for security under the verandas of the various wards. All have homes in the villages but are afraid to spend the nights there and come here for protection. From a transistor radio comes the voice of Archbishop Odama, welcoming the day with the promised word of peace.

As he speaks, thousands quietly gather up their sleeping mats and small suitcases, smooth down their clothes and hair and begin trudging back home.

"I have no control over peace and war," says Kasimo Odoch, counting the members of his family around him with his fingers and shaking her shoulders. "All I can do is collect my children around me. I so much fear they will be stolen away and become my enemy."

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