Cover story -- Uganda
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Issue Date:  May 13, 2005

A war on children

Rebels with no agenda terrorize Uganda's north

Gulu, Uganda

In a field covered with high grass in northern Uganda, a teenage boy half mad with hunger and exposure and the experience of forced service to a band of killers removes his camouflage uniform and gum boots and drops his rifle. He crawls until he passes out.

At dawn, he awakens but cannot move. His sister appears, having heard of his escape to this spot. She builds a fire, then washes him, cooks porridge and spoons it into his mouth. Then, inexplicably, he prepares to return to his former captors in the Lord’s Resistance Army. “I got my gun and my shoes,” said John Otim, soft-spoken and 6 feet 2 inches with dead eyes set in a gentle face. “I was ready to go back. But my sister fell on me crying. She said, ‘You’re not going back, you’re not going back.’ ” For years, his captors had told him that the Ugandan army would kill any who escaped back home. Now, in this clearing in the bush, he chose to believe his sister -- “that those coming back, nothing happened to them.”

If and when peace comes to northern Uganda after 19 years of insurrection by a gang that mutilates women, kidnaps children and has no clear purpose, it may come in such small steps as a sister hugging her long-lost brother. And not letting go.

The insurrection has ruined lives, families and villages. In the three districts of Gulu, Kitgum and Pader, more than 1.6 million people have left their fields and villages to avoid violence and the killings that have left 100,000 dead. At least 20,000 children have been kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army, which brutalizes them into becoming little fighters. Their leader, the charismatic if deranged Joseph Kony, says he wants to cleanse northern Uganda of sin and restore the Ten Commandments.

The fighting is by, with and against children. Thus the region’s “night commuters” -- 40,000 children and mothers -- leave their homes each evening and walk miles to towns where they hope to sleep safely. Among northern Uganda’s Acholi people, who often name a child for the circumstances of its birth, many are now tagged “Watum,” which means, “We are finished.”

Now there is hope: Rebels are surrendering under an amnesty, negotiations have picked up, and church and civic groups are rebuilding civil society and helping former abductees regain their childhood.

Uganda, in east central Africa, has 26 million residents. The size of Oregon, it is surrounded by Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Congo. After independence from Britain in 1962, Uganda suffered through two dictatorships, including Idi Amin, before Yoweri Museveni seized power in 1986. He won an election in 1996 and is near the end of his second term, the constitutional limit. The nation is debating allowing him a third bid.

There is relative stability, a free press and a contentious opposition despite limits on political activity. A government campaign slashed the AIDS/HIV rate, though 1 million Ugandans still are infected. The country has good soil and rainfall. Literacy is high, and the people struck me as soft-spoken, gracious and thoughtful. In all, Uganda should prosper.

Instead, there’s John Otim. He was abducted twice. Like thousands of others, he was forced to fight, often barehanded. During his second captivity, he was marched to a Resistance Army camp near Juba in southern Sudan where “the Arabs” trained him to use an antitank gun and plant mines. He then trained others. All feared death if they resisted. “We planted mines in Sudan and Uganda, along roads and where people would be going for water,” Otim said quietly. “I saw many of my friends in the LRA lose their hands or eyes in mine accidents.” He also spent time near Kony, who entered trances and spoke in different voices. “When the spirits come, people fear and respect him,” Otim added.

Then he was assigned to guard duty when some Acholi chiefs and Gulu Archbishop John Baptist Odama met with Lord’s Resistance Army commanders. “I realized fighting was useless,” said Otim. He dreamed his sister needed him to harvest a field of sesame, and he made surreptitious contact through intermediaries. Eventually, Otim was received back into the community in the tribal “Jolo” or “welcoming back” ceremony, administered by the Ker-Kwaro, or chiefs’ council, representing 50 Acholi clans.

In it, Otim and other returnees stood outside a settlement. With the right foot he stepped on an egg, symbolizing reborn innocence and community acceptance. Otim then walked over a pobo tree branch, indicating that the rough will become smooth, and a forked branch of the type used to open a village’s granary. “This means the children will be fed by their parents,” said Justo Obita, a council member.

Jolo is an ancient Acholi ritual revived to meet the new and vast need for reconciliation. That welcome distinguishes the Acholi, described by all as a forgiving people. It gives hope in a land of misery.

Almost monthly, thousands of people watch groups of 40 to 60 or more returnees step on the egg and over the branches and into a village, followed by talks and a feast. “Jolo allows them to feel free, like children who were never abducted,” said John Samuel Okello, a youth leader.

Otim agreed. “Before the ceremony, I was not settled. I had flashbacks. After, no more.” His former neighbors and one-time victims have accepted him unevenly. “Some have, fully, some have not,” said Otim, who lives with his brother and is studying to be a mechanic.

Nighty Aceng, 24, went through Jolo after eight years with the Lord’s Resistance Army. During that time she was beaten, saw friends killed for escape attempts, given to a man as his 23rd “wife” or sex slave, and had a child. One day she tied the baby on her back and escaped with five other teenage mothers from a rebel camp in Sudan. They crept back to Kitgum. In her village she was cleansed and feted in the ceremony. Only a brother attended; her parents had been killed in rebel attacks. She now makes public presentations encouraging fellow Acholi to welcome former abductees.

Uganda suffers from its location amid lands of conflict: Rebels, gangs and military forces cross back and forth from Burundi, Rwanda and Congo. For years Sudan supported the Lord’s Resistance Army while Uganda aided rebels in southern Sudan. In 2002 both agreed to cut off these proxy battles, though Kony is rumored to still hide in the mountains of southern Sudan.

Who is paying attention? In March, a Reuters poll of international experts rated Uganda as the world’s second biggest forgotten emergency. Congo was first, Sudan third. All contrast with the deluge of donations for victims of the Indonesian tsunami. “Sudan at least fits into the lens of the war on terror,” said Ben Phillips, the country representative for Catholic Relief Services. “Uganda doesn’t. It’s not one ethnic group fighting another, not one religious group fighting another. There’s just these crazy men running around up there, killing people, kidnapping children and burning villages. People don’t get it.”

Women and children suffer most, said Jotham Musinguiza, director of Uganda’s population secretariat. “They are the ones who are killed; they are the ones who are kidnapped; they are the ones who are raped.” Women found in the fields routinely have their lips, breasts, ears and often limbs sliced off, causing widespread panic. Kony has cited the Biblical “eye-for-an-eye” passage and says his cause justifies bloodshed against his fellow Acholi for their lack of support. Unnervingly, Kony issues random commands -- don’t cross the Nile, don’t bicycle or drive, don’t farm on Fridays -- enforced with random brutality.

Having been scared off their land, most Acholi live in huge, squalid camps without land to till for food. Here alcoholism, fighting, wife-beating and prostitution flourish. “The men spend most of their time drinking because there is nothing to do,” said Gilbert Komakech, a displaced farmer now living with his wife and six children in a camp north of Gulu.

Hardest hit are children kidnapped from their homes and forced to fight and often to kill their neighbors, relatives or parents. Most were beaten at some time and forced into battle barehanded. Horrors were psychological as well. “You can’t show you are sad because then they will beat or kill you since they think you’re going to escape,” said Aceng. Of the 20,000 abducted, half were killed or became dedicated, if brainwashed, Lord’s Resistance Army members. These amount to 80 percent of the rebel force. Half of the abductees have escaped. Many are welcomed back but others confront fearful families, hostile neighbors and bad memories.

Alice Atoo’s daughter and 15 other children were kidnapped from her village of Lagwimg. Five were killed, the rest returned over time. The villagers fled to a sprawling camp near Gulu.

“These children, now, are not easy,” said Atoo, sitting outside her hut on a low wooden bench. “They find it difficult to live with the rest of the children.” Most bear wounds and chest or stomach ailments. Her daughter was beaten, her head injured, and dumped. “She was just left there, in the bush, so she crawled home. After, she had terrible fears that those people would follow her here to the camp. So we sent her to town, a government shelter in Gulu. She feels a little better there.”

Luckier than most, Atoo can walk the two to three kilometers to her family’s fields in Lagwimg where they grow cassava, peanuts, sorghum, beans and sweet potatoes. They till for a short spell before hurrying home before dusk. “We’re scared of the rebels.”

So are the night commuters. In Gulu, about 10,000 children and some parents troop into town nightly carrying bedrolls and homework. Most of those sleep at Lacor Hospital, a sprawling complex that converts daily from a bulwark against disease -- a doctor and 12 nurses died fighting the Ebola virus in 2000 -- to an open-air motel. Adults settle in on verandas and in courtyards; children retreat behind a gate to several long buildings and walled tents. They sleep in groups based on age and sex.

“Last year the LRA came through my village,” said Johnson Olom, 13. “They wanted to abduct me; they wanted to get our chickens. They took some of my friends. They killed them.” He sees his parents only on weekends. Jennifer Ayoo, who is 12 and lost a sister to the Lord’s Resistance Army, said she did not know when she would return to her village. “Most of the village children are here,” she said, sweeping her eyes over the crowds around her.

Desperate for peace, religious leaders have ventured into the bush to meet rebel representatives several times since 2003. They face danger on both sides.

“It’s hard to be neutral after you’ve seen people killed in the worst way,” said Fr. Carlos Rodriguez Soto, executive secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission for the Gulu archdiocese. “But if you speak up, the LRA negotiators say we’re against them.” Similarly, he added, “the government says they are behind us, then they say we are collaborators.” In August 2002, the army attacked a clandestine session it had earlier approved, wounding Rodriguez and taking him and others captive. He’s seen one payoff: Many of the LRA who attend these meetings later escape, including Sam Kolo, the former rebel spokesman.

The overtures also led to an official Ugandan delegation, which met rebel leaders Dec. 28, 2004. The group included Betty Bigombe. Former minister for northern Uganda, now with the World Bank, Bigombe almost made peace in 1993-94 before being undercut by Museveni.

Rodriguez said the rebels have promised peace in 2005. Another meeting took place Jan. 17. Many hope Bigombe can champion these negotiations at home and abroad. At least, said Rodriguez, “we’ve broken the myth that you can’t talk to the LRA.” Other factors have pushed peace forward. A government amnesty instituted in January 2000 attracted 5,000 returnees and the rebels lost their Sudanese sponsor. Still, internal politics intrude.

Opposition politicians charge that Museveni’s government has used the conflict as an excuse to persecute critics and increase military spending. Jemera Rone, a Uganda expert at Human Rights Watch, said that opponents take up arms since they are frozen out of politics. Further, the donor nations that provide half of Uganda’s budget have not pushed Museveni to make peace, said Phillips of Catholic Relief Services. Others claim the Ugandan army commits atrocities it then blames on the rebels -- which the government denies.

Today only about 400 Lord’s Resistance Army fighters remain, based on the estimates of returnees. But guerilla armies are difficult to defeat. “Why should they stop?” asked Komakech, the farmer who was kidnapped twice and made to haul loads for 14-hour days. “In the bush they have free food, they don’t have to work, they just loot and take women when they want. They don’t have to buy anything.”

Citing rebel arms caches, Rodriguez said, “This can go on for a long time.” Museveni’s government may be ready for peace talks, he added. “With the presidential elections coming up and other pressures, the time may be right.”

To make peace nationally, Museveni should legalize opposition parties and share power, said Rone. Northern Uganda needs serious peace talks and comprehensive reconstruction.

But the violence goes on like a low-grade fever. In the last few days I was there, the kids of the Lord’s Resistance Army struck over and over: Wednesday, kidnapping 26 children and adults from Kamdini; Thursday, 50 children on the highway to Kampala; Saturday, mutilating three women and taking several others in Kitgum. “Kony says he will fight until he overthrows the government,” said Otim, the former abductee. “It won’t end until there are peace talks.” On the ground, the Acholi are ready to hope or to wait.

“Even tomorrow I would be pleased to go home,” said farmer Komakech, standing under the canopy of a jacaranda tree near his borrowed field. “It is difficult to predict when we will come back home.”

Christopher D. Ringwald is a journalist in Albany, N.Y., and a visiting scholar at The Sage Colleges. His e-mail address is

At a glance
Uganda should be coasting in a league with Ghana, Tanzania and a handful of other African countries with democratic aspects, good resources and functional economies. But rebellions fester here, the longest and deadliest being the Lord’s Resistance Army in the north. Negotiations have been hard since the Lord’s Resistance Army has no political agenda. “Some commanders say they are fighting to overthrow the government,” said Dennis Okello, 17, who was abducted at age 10 and forced to fight for the rebel group. “Others say they are just fighting.” Without its magnetic, dreadful leader, Joseph Kony, the boys of the Lord’s Resistance Army would likely drop their guns and go home. Meanwhile, church, civic and tribal leaders keep extending a hand to the rebels and to returnees like Okello, while working to restore homes and lives.

National Catholic Reporter, May 13, 2005

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