Children Targeted in Uganda's Horrific, Overlooked War
Every day at dusk, thousands of terrified northern Ugandans, the majority of them children, travel to the relative safety of Kitgum town to spend the night. Some carry thin blankets and a bit of food, but most have nothing.
Young girls acknowledge to IRC counselors that they have been sexually assaulted on the way, or during the night as they huddle on street corners and shop verandas.
But in the eyes of desperate parents, the alternative is far worse. Staying at home puts the children at risk of kidnap, torture or murder by the Lord's Resistance Army—a brutal rebel force that has ravaged the countryside and abducted more than 14,000 children to serve as soldiers and slaves in its 18-year war against the Ugandan government.
Once in captivity, boys are ruthlessly indoctrinated; forced to loot and burn villages and torture and kill neighbors. Abducted girls are routinely raped and become sex slaves or “wives” of rebel commanders. All witness unimaginable atrocities and many do not survive.
“Walter” came to us severely traumatized, but grateful to be alive. He was 13 years old when rebels attacked his village near Lira, beat him until he could hardly walk, killed his father, and then sent him to a training camp in southern Sudan . For the next five years, the boy was forced to fight on behalf of the LRA, battling Ugandan soldiers, pillaging villages and killing the innocent. Time and time again, he was forced to watch and sometimes participate in the mutilation of children who tried to escape or showed signs of weakness.
One day in December 2002, “Walter” saw an opportunity to flee, and took the risk. Several weeks later, he was delivered to an IRC-supported reception center in Kitgum.
“They arrive so abused and broken that they think life has become meaningless,” says Betty Lamunu, who oversees IRC programs for former child soldiers and other vulnerable and displaced children in Kitgum District. “So we care for them the way a mother would, to help them heal and recover.”
At the reception centers, the IRC and its local partners provide counseling, emotional support, medical care, food and other emergency services. Meanwhile, tracing teams work with community leaders to locate parents and arrange family reunions.
“With so much internal displacement and killing, finding relatives has become very hard,” Lamunu says, “But once we do, we identify needs and provide ongoing assistance.” This includes additional counseling, supplies for home and school, and arranging apprenticeships and vocational training. “We also help communities carry out reconciliation activities and traditional healing rituals,” adds Lamunu.
In the year 2003, her team was able to reunite more than 1,500 separated children with their families.
But Lamunu, who currently has nine young relatives in LRA captivity, says the situation is worsening. “Every day villages are attacked and people are burned alive in their huts. And with every attack more children are abducted or reabducted. You cannot imagine the level of terror and suffering here.”
In 2002, the Ugandan government launched Operation Iron Fist in a bid to stamp out the LRA. Rather than stemming the slaughter, the offensive drove the rebels out of the bush, triggering an explosion of attacks against northern districts and a dramatic escalation of abductions. More than 1.3 million people are now displaced and in desperate need of services. And the deteriorating security situation prevents critical aid from reaching the most needy.
“Those who live here are witness to a slow genocide, a holocaust of children,” says Lamunu. “And we wonder when the world will start paying attention.”