A War on Children: Rebels with No Agenda Terrorize Uganda's North

By Ringwald, Christopher D. | National Catholic Reporter, May 13, 2005 | Go to article overview

A War on Children: Rebels with No Agenda Terrorize Uganda's North


Ringwald, Christopher D., National Catholic Reporter


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. …

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