Focus: Uganda — ‘A War Against Children’

Jodi Wynn,

Since the Lord’s Resistance Army was formed in 1987, approximately 20,000 children in Acholiland, a region in northern Uganda, have been abducted and 1.6 million people displaced.

“I feel frightened, I feel very afraid, I have returned only once to my real home,” Charles Ojok, who was abducted at age 14 on his way to school, told the BBC.

Jan Egeland, a Humanitarian Affairs official for the United Nations, visited Northern Uganda in 2003 and was “shocked” by what he found.

“This is above all a war against children. They are abducted, abused and violated,” he said in a press release. “Northern Uganda is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.”

Post-colonial Ugandan history has been turbulent, including a string of military coups and violent dictators, such as Idi Amin.

Nicknamed the “Butcher of Uganda,” Amin was reported to be a cannibal. Approximately 500,000 people were killed during his rule from 1971-1979.

Civil war has persisted in Uganda for over 18 years since President Yoweri Museveni ousted General Tito Okwello Lutwa from government in 1986.

The Acholi population of northern Uganda feared being marginalized by Museveni’s regime and formed the Uganda People’s Democratic Army in support of Okwello and on behalf of the Acholi people.

Joseph Kony, a former commander of the UPDA, founded the Lord’s Resistance Army in 1987.

His organization is descended from the Holy Spirit Movement, the first, and now defunct, Ugandan millennarian organization fighting Museveni.

Kony’s political agenda is unclear, as the LRA’s violence is primarily aimed at the Acholi people, whom he initially was fighting to protect.

“You can’t tell whether they want political power. Its only aim is to terrorize and brutalize the civilian population and to loot their homes,” a spokesman for the Uganda army told the U.N.’s Integrated Regional Information Networks.

Kony once declared his goal was to remove the Museveni regime and establish a government ruled by the Bible’s Ten Commandments.

According to a report by the Refugee Law Project, Kony’s organization operates similar to a cult in that he employs fear and spiritual visions as a means of control.

“God said in the Bible, ‘I will unleash my wrath upon you and you will suffer pain … Your children will be taken into captivity and will be burnt to death’,” he reportedly told LRA members (PDF).

According to a 2001 Amnesty International report (PDF), approximately 80 percent of LRA combatants are abducted children.

A Catholic priest in Northern Uganda said that children are ideal recruits, as they are easily indoctrinated and trained to be dangerous combatants.

“Kony is interested in children,” he told IRIN News. “If you tell a child who is terrorized and traumatized to commit an atrocity, the child will do it. This is not the same with adults.”

To avoid being killed, children abducted by rebel forces are required to maim and murder their own communities, sometimes even their own parents.

Abducted girls are frequently raped and forced to marry rebel leaders.

Children who escape the LRA are taken to the Uganda military’s child protection units, then referred to rehabilitation centers.

Children often are haunted by their experiences and arrive fearful, aggressive and distrusting.

“The moment of their arrival is the most painful. They look so frail and malnourished with ugly wounds all over their bodies,” said Michael Oruni, a coordinator of World Vision Children of War rehabilitation Center in Gulu, Uganda.

In one of the most significant initiatives to end the violent conflict, the Amnesty Act of 2000 (PDF) granted amnesty to all combatants who surrendered themselves and their weapons.

Last week 29 LRA members, including some high ranking officials, surrendered to the Ugandan army. Sixteen rebels were killed.

Meanwhile, opposition to Museveni seems to be diversifying.

A newly formed group called Force for Change staged an “unruly” demonstration on March 31 in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala, protesting Museveni’s move to amend the constitution and extend his presidential term.

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Lord’s Resistance Army

“Uganda’s haunted former child rebels”
BBC, January 5, 2004

“Head of UN Humanitarian Affairs office visits Northern Uganda, says ‘deeply shocked’ by ‘war against children'”
UN OCHA Press Release, November 10, 2003

“Uganda history”
Lonely Planet

“Idi Amin: ‘Butcher of Uganda'”, August 16, 2003

Uganda People’s Democratic Army

“Holy Spirit Movement”

“Millennarian Religions”
U.S. Library of Congress

Nature, structure and ideology of the LRA
IRIN Web Special, 2003

“Working Paper #11: The Conflict in Northern Uganda” (PDF)
Refugee Law Project, February 2004

“Uganda” (PDF)
Amnesty International, 2001

“IRIN web special on life in northern Uganda: ‘When the sun sets, we start to worry …'”, January 2004

“World vision marks ten years working with formerly abducted children in Uganda”
World Vision Uganda Communications, March 11, 2005

“Working Paper #15: Whose Justice? Perceptions of Uganda’s Amnesty Act of 2000” (PDF)
Refugee Law Project, February 2005

“Statement of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Pursuant to Resolution 2000/60, on the Abduction of children from northern Uganda”
Commission on Human Rights, April 19, 2001

“16 Rebels killed, 29 surrender”
The Monitor (Kampala), March 30, 2005

“Uganda police fire tear gas to disperse unruly anti-government protestors”
Agence France-Press, March 31, 2005

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