Uganda: Former child soldiers excluded in adulthood
Uganda: Former child soldiers excluded in adulthood
By independent journalist Euan Denholm
"I did not kill anyone for the first four days of my captivity and then, on the fifth day, they said I had to prove I wasn't scared, they took me back to my village and ordered me to kill my father. At first, I said no, I can't kill my father, but then they said they'd kill us all and started beating me with a panga [machete]. I took the panga and cut him up. I then saw them do it to my mother. The first night, I was haunted by visions of my father as I tried to sleep. I could only cry silent tears as the rebels could not know that I regretted what I had done. They do it so that you can't go back home."
"Okello John's" brutal initiation into the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) at the age of fourteen served its purpose; it was two years before he tried to escape, bound to his new "family" through fear and complicity. By abducting their soldiers young, LRA commanders ensure that they have pliant, easily malleable underlings. The LRA leader, a self-styled soothsayer named Joseph Kony, reaps the harvest of those he orphans. During 19 years of struggle, it is estimated that between 20,000 and 25,000 children have been abducted -- 12,000 since 2002.
"A child loses his own identity and sense of values fighting in the bush," says Michael Oruni, who picks up the pieces of the LRA's systematic abuse of children as Project Co-ordinator for World Vision's children and war rehabilitation project.
After several days as a captive, carrying heavy loads, receiving beatings and being forced to kill fellow abductees, a child will begin training. The initiation into the new order will involve a baptism with shea butter oil, which the children are told will allow them to be traced if they try to escape. "In the rebel camp there is a new order, a new system created," says Oruni. There is little in the way of talking, whistles and handclaps form the vocabulary of the bush.
For boys, life will be a soldier's life -- fighting for the next plate of food, for promotion and for survival itself. For girls, it means domestic slavery or ting-ting in their younger years; once they reach puberty or catch a commander's eye, it means fighting and abuse as a sexual "prize".
Oruni believes that child abductees have got younger as the rebels have become increasingly desperate. The conflict intensified in March 2002 when the Ugandan government launched "Operation Iron Fist", driving rebels from training camps in southern Sudan. This resulted in a spate of attacks on the civilian populations of northern Uganda, 1.8 million of whom live in villages that function as Internally-Displaced Persons Camps, nominally protected by government militias.
However, as they are afforded little protection in the camps, thousands of children flock to the hospital corridors and NGO tents of Gulu and other northern towns each evening seeking sanctuary.
Child abuse isn't an unhappy consequence of LRA activity; it is the very driver of its existence. With eight out of ten fighters estimated to be under eighteen, every military blow struck against the organization means more dead abducted children, providing a horrific moral choice for those fighting Uganda's northern war.
The government introduced an Amnesty Act in 2000 offering immunity from prosecution to rebels. It was designed to encourage the return of both abductees and commanders, which proponents say is necessary to end the conflict and which critics attack for failing to bring murderous child abusers to account.
Escape from the LRA doesn't always mean a return to civilian life. For a young boy schooled in the bush, the prospect of life subsisting on World Food Programme rations in a camp is not necessarily enticing. Many prefer taking their chance, and a paycheck, with the Ugandan People's Defence Force (UPDF).
The Ugandan government is committed to ending the recruitment of children under 18 into the army, having signed the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and enshrined the ban in the UPDF statute. The question is how widely this is being enforced.
In November 2003, UNICEF found that 120 out of 1200 recruits at the Lugore training centre were likely to be under the age of 18. Save the Children UK secured the release of 29 soldiers in Uganda's Democratic Republic of Congo intervention force in April 2003.
Whilst the army insists they are now taking their responsibilities seriously, the UN-OCHR's regional director Andrew Timpson is less certain, saying UN agencies and NGOs were "well aware that kids are being recruited for the militia and the UPDF who are clearly underage." Like others, he believes the problem is centered in the ranks of the Local Defence Units (LDUs), the government militias that guard the camps, rather than the formalized UPDF.
UNICEF is starting to develop a programme with the army to ensure enforcement of children's rights is more effective. "There have got to be mechanisms within the UPDF to identify children," says UNICEF's Gulu coordinator Michael Copland. "That's the only way we can genuinely deal with the issue of child soldiers here in Uganda. We need to have training linked to internal systems and then external monitoring of those systems."
Yet there is a large group of child abductees who aren't covered -- those who have grown into young adults whilst in captivity. "Theirs is a lost childhood," says Save the Children's Geoffrey Oyat, arguing that the returnees should be forced to break from their abusers, rather than be drafted directly into the UPDF's Unit 105 where they fight in the same conditions, using similar tactics, under ex-LRA commanders. UN-OCHR's Andrew Timpson agrees, saying: "I cannot accept that ex-LRA boys should be going back into a fighting environment. I just think this is wrong... we are failing them."
They both want to see ex-LRA child soldiers properly deprogrammed in rehabilitation centers and returned to their communities, where they can reconnect with their families and a more balanced sense of self.
Twenty-year-old Odong Dennish says that he was on the verge of switching uniforms when he received a letter from his mother. "The UPDF said you should join us because there is nothing to do at home and I was going to join them. Then my mother wrote to me saying I should come home. She said, 'Son, you are still young and you can still study. Why hurry?'", he says grinning. Now at World Vision's rehabilitation centre, Dennish says that he feels he is reconnecting with his mind after years of being denied his right to education.
There is no doubt that life for returning child soldiers can be hard. In addition to the normal hardships of camp life, such as disease, hunger and poverty, there is stigma. Labora farm near Gulu was supposed to be a co-operative farm providing employment to returnees to help them find their feet. Critics claim that children, many of them young mothers, have been coerced into working at Labora where they remain under the command of the returning LRA officers who once abused them.
"This is separation, not reintegration," says Michael Oruni. "These girls have been taken as children; they have been raped and have had children, so they shouldn't be isolated, least of all under coercion."
The fate of returning child mothers is particularly desperate. Rehabilitation specialist Elizabeth Jareg, writing for the Coalition to end the Use of Child Soldiers, says that their plight should not be ignored simply because they are not traditionally seen as "child soldiers". "They are children of the army", she says, "and if their needs aren't addressed further problems will be inflicted upon their children born in captivity."
For UNICEF's Michael Copland returning child mothers are Uganda's "single biggest issue concerning lack of rights."
"I can't think of a higher risk group of children anywhere," he says. "There's no forgiveness for them. There is no social fabric, no social protection."
His words ring true for "Can-Oroma Josephine", 20, who was abducted at the age of 12 and raped by a husband who left her nothing but panga scars and two seven-month-old mouths to feed. "I feel that I've lead a lost life in the LRA," she says. "Once my mum would have been here, but I see that no one can help me. I pray I could die tomorrow."
Note: "Okello John" and "Can-Oroma Josephine" are pseudonyms used to protect the identity of those interviewed.
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