Uganda Civil War Ensnares Its Children

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Her name is Innocent, but her doleful brown eyes already bespeak a life of misery.

Her parents were captured and killed three years ago.

She was enslaved in this nation's remote northern regions, where she was beaten with sticks and a bicycle chain until the flesh fell from her body.

She was raped by several soldiers and forced into a life as a commander's concubine.

And when her freedom finally came, she paid a bitter price: As she was being rescued from her captors, who were caught in an ambush, she took a bullet in her upper right thigh. It left a gaping wound that required a metal rod to close.

She is now crippled for life.

Innocent, who tells her story through tears, is all of 15.

She is, groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say, just one of the 8,000 or so Ugandan children--some as young as 11--seized by the notorious rebel group that brazenly calls itself the Lord's Resistance Army.

Its members, employing an unspeakable brutality, have turned the youngsters into servants and soldiers.

A large percentage of them die of disease or starvation after enduring months, sometimes years, in captivity. Some are murdered. Many, besides being victimized themselves, are also forced to inflict horrors on others: There are reports of youngsters beating or hacking to death their peers who had tried to escape or who had displeased their captors.

Aid groups estimate that 3,000 to 5,000 children have escaped rebel captivity. Hundreds have shared details of their terrifying ordeal with aid workers who have set up live-in trauma counseling centers for the youngsters.

The revelations of the abducted, tortured young in this nation's north come at time when Uganda is also winning praise for its commitment to bold economic reform, skilled diplomacy and political stability--qualities lacking in neighboring countries like Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Kenya.

The government of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has made progress in forging strong relations with the West. Last month, Ugandan troops were the first to complete a U.S.-sponsored training program for a prospective all-African peacekeeping force.

But analysts say large-scale human rights abuses--like the rebels' treatment of kidnapped children--threaten to badly damage Uganda.

"The abduction and brutalization of thousands of northern Ugandan children is a recipe for future catastrophe for Uganda and the rest of the region," said Rosa Ehrenreich, the New York-based author of the Human Rights Watch report. "If we have learned a single thing from our experience in Africa over the last few decades, it's that human rights abuses that are ignored do not disappear, they fester and ultimately blow up into something worse."

In Uganda's northernmost districts of Gulu and Kitgum--which are about half the size of the state of West Virginia--this nation's 11-year civil war, in which an estimated 100,000 have been killed, has hit the Acholi people hardest.

They appear to have been targeted by rebels, the vast majority of whom are Acholi and who are led by Joseph Kony, a militant who human rights advocates say claims to be acting under divine instruction.

Museveni's government is also battling Western-based rebels of the Allied Democratic Force, a group said to be made up of remnants of the now-defunct National Army for the Liberation of Uganda, soldiers of the ousted governments of Rwanda and Congo, and Islamic extremists.

Though analysts agree that neither rebel faction poses a real threat to Museveni's regime, they have harmed this nation's people and its prospects.

"Development in the north has been seriously retarded by rebel groups . . . and the government is losing the benefits that could be brought to its side with greater security in the West," said one Western diplomat in the Ugandan capital of Kampala.

Though the war's exact financial toll in the north is unknown, Ugandan officials say the region's infrastructure has collapsed. More than 200,000 people have fled their rural homes for temporary camps, which are near Ugandan army outposts and are devoid of food and proper sanitation.

Human Rights Watch reports that, in the last year alone, at least 75 schools have been burned down in Gulu; 60,000 school-age children have been displaced; 215 teachers have been killed.

Agriculture in the region has come to a standstill. Fertile acres where rice and millet once grew have been turned into killing fields ridden with land mines. The region's cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and horses are, by and large, dead and gone.

Many Ugandans blame the neighboring Sudanese government for arming the rebels and even offering sanctuary for Lord's Resistance Army in exchange for that force's assistance in battling a Sudanese insurgency that many believe is receiving aid from Uganda.

Officials in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, deny the charges.

But many of the children who have escaped captivity have come from Ugandan rebel camps in Sudan, whose border lies about 100 miles from Gulu. Many of the youngsters have told aid workers how they were fed and armed by Arabs in Sudanese army uniform.

James Alfred Obita, a spokesman for the Lord's Resistance Army in Nairobi, Kenya, said his group's mission is to force Museveni to accept multi-party democracy or oust him to ensure equality for the Acholi people and economic prosperity for all. He insisted that the rebels were fighting in self-defense and denied claims that the group brutalizes its own people, especially children.

Many youngsters are voluntarily recruited by local coordinators, Obita said, and "most of the kids taken are orphans, who have nowhere else to go."

He also faulted Ugandan army soldiers, repeating the accusations that they have committed atrocities against civilians.

Meantime, many Acholi question the Ugandan government's commitment to ending the conflict in the north. They insist that they are being punished for their opposition to Museveni and for earlier atrocities blamed on them and committed when they dominated the ranks of the military in former regimes.

"The government has put the collective guilt of the past problems on the north," said Norbert Mao, a member of parliament from Gulu.

Other Ugandans, though, believe that the government may be prolonging the northern strife to partly justify its costly purchases of weapons that have also been used to help crush insurgencies in neighboring Rwanda and what was then Zaire--strong allies of Uganda.

Since 1994, the Ugandan government has refused to negotiate with the rebels, frustrated by past failures. Officials have branded rebel leader Kony a bandit for whom amnesty or political office would be impossible.

"The government believes you cannot sit down with a highway robber to discuss the governance of the state," said Alfonse Owiny-Dollo, Uganda's minister of state for the north. Muruli Mukasa, minister of state security, was equally adamant that "the only option left is a military one."

But the prospect of further bloodshed and violence will only compound the misery of the Ugandan young.

Bosco, a tall, slim 16-year-old, for one, knows too much already about pain. His limbs are engraved with a maze of welts and bruises from the beatings with rifle butts, sticks and bicycle locks that were inflicted on him for random, petty reasons during a year in captivity in rebel camps, primarily in Sudan.

He also acknowledged that he was forced to beat other children for minuscule infractions.

"I don't remember killing any kids, but I saw so many dead people," he said, adding that he was given basic military training and sent to fight Dinka herdsmen in southern Sudan.

While he was away, "I was afraid to think about my family," Bosco said. "If you were caught in a depressed mood you were killed."

For youngsters who survive their ordeals in rebel captivity, though, the future does not suddenly fill with miracles.

The Museveni government is under fire for failing to do enough to help young victims. Uganda Child Rights NGO Network says there are no government-sponsored programs or resources to aid children abducted by the rebels.

Most of the young escapees are brought to one of the two trauma centers run by World Vision Uganda and Gulu Support for Children Organization.

The teenagers usually are sick, malnourished and often carry sexually transmitted diseases. They receive counseling and therapy and at the Gulu site are offered tuition and vocational training.

"The war has been targeting the foundation of children's lives," said George Omona, program coordinator for the Gulu group. "We have a generation that is bound to have some grudge against society if we don't do anything."

As for Innocent, the young woman recalled that she initially was assigned to work with the sick in a rebel camp, then was given more domestic chores. She was also trained to use a gun.

But her most dreaded duty came at night, when she and two other teenage girls--one already pregnant with the child of her captor--were forced into the camp commander's bed. They were also raped by his men.

"We were told that it was an order by the Holy Spirit that every girl should be wife to the soldiers," she said, eyes glistening with tears. "I was so afraid, I didn't refuse."

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