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Refugees Magazine Issue 111 (Universal Declaration of Human Rights 50th Anniversary) - Kidnapping the kids ...

Refugees Magazine, 1 March 1998

A rag-tag guerrilla army has pillaged and raped in northern Uganda for a decade and no end is in sight

The gunmen came silently out of the darkness. They surrounded the mud-baked compound, seized five teenagers and stole away into the surrounding bush. The youngsters, three boys and two girls, were bound with coarse rope and beaten with rifle butts. On the long march into captivity,one youth tried to escape, but was quickly recaptured and slashed to death with heavy axes and pangas (machetes). When they reached a base camp, the girls were handed out as 'wives' to senior guerrillas.

The so-called Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has terrorized north and central Uganda for a decade, attacking and pillaging schools, villages and refugee camps. They have seized as many as 10,000 young people, marching them into southern Sudan, where they become sex slaves, beasts of burden carrying weapons, heavy shells and food, and eventually child soldiers. Newly abducted children are daubed with shea nut oil which allegedly both purifies them and protects them from an enemy's bullets and often undergo brutal initiation ceremonies when they are forced to maim and kill fellow child soldiers.

The Lord's Army leader is a little known religious fanatic called Joseph Kony who has called for Uganda to be ruled by the biblical Ten Commandments. Several ragtag guerrilla forces including the LRA, as well as regular government armies, operate in the vast bushlands of central and eastern Africa, supporting and then fighting each other in an ever changing kaleidoscope of political and military alliances.

Angelina Atyam's 14-year-old daughter, Charlotte, was abducted along with 150 other girls from St. Mary's College in Lira, Central Uganda in 1996, and is still held captive. As a member of the Association of Parents Concerned for Children, she recently visited New York, Geneva and other centres, trying to focus world attention on the plight of the child army, asking organizations such as UNHCR for greater help.

Angelina, a nurse by training with five other children, speaks with a quiet dignity. In an interview with Refugees Magazine she allows that she is 'encouraged' by the international response to her crusade but the unsaid message is that the world could do much more than it is doing at the moment. Various emissaries have talked with the Lord's Resistance Army in the past and several thousand children have escaped; but the raping and pillaging are probably increasing, according to Angelina Atyam.

When the gunmen came for her own daughter "they tied them all together with ropes. About 20 escaped. One Italian sister, Sister Rachele, followed them for miles, pleading with the soldiers to release the girls. More than 100 were eventually set free, but Charlotte was among the 30 the soldiers took with them." She believes her daughter is still alive, but in the last sighting of her months ago she "looked sick and pregnant."

At one point, Angelina said, quoting a child who subsequently escaped, the Pope publicly asked for the girls, release. The guerrillas responded by "giving each child 50 strokes of the cane. They were then forced to lie down and rebels in heavy boots trampled on them."

Children who have escaped describe an almost unimaginable, dangerous and depraved lifestyle in the bush. Girls are exchanged between senior fighters. There is often little food and the children are reduced to eating roots. There is almost no medicine and many of the abducted youngsters are probably infected with the HIV virus and other sexual diseases. Ritual killings are routine and children, on occasion, have been forced to kill their own kin.

"The soldiers are abducting younger and younger children,"Angelina says. "And their attacks come closer and closer to towns.They seem to want to clear, to destroy an entire generation."

Parents like Angelina Atyam and children who do succeed in escaping find themselves caught in a dangerous limbo. The teenagers are often traumatized, malnourished and disease ridden. There are some facilities to help them, but not enough, especially specialized services. Parents are often shunned by both sides. "The rebels take our children and if we complain too loudly, they come back and wipe out entire families. That is why most people don't report their children missing," says Angelina. "But the government soldiers might say 'You are a rebel supporter. You gave them your son or daughter'. Many soldiers accuse us of that.

"What can we do? The war must stop. We must speak to each other. Only then will we get our children back. Only then will they be safe."

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 111 (1998)




UNHCR country pages

A Time Between: Moving on from Internal Displacement in Uganda

This document examines the situation of IDPs in Acholiland in northern Uganda, through the stories of individuals who have lived through conflict and displacement.


Almost half the people of concern to UNHCR are children. They need special care.

Refworld – Children

Refworld – Children

This Special Feature on Child Protection is a comprehensive source of relevant legal and policy documents, practical tools and links to related websites.

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

UNHCR aims to help 25,000 refugee children go to school in Syria by providing financial assistance to families and donating school uniforms and supplies.

There are some 1.4 million Iraqi refugees living in Syria, most having fled the extreme sectarian violence sparked by the bombing of the Golden Mosque of Samarra in 2006.

Many Iraqi refugee parents regard education as a top priority, equal in importance to security. While in Iraq, violence and displacement made it difficult for refugee children to attend school with any regularity and many fell behind. Although education is free in Syria, fees associated with uniforms, supplies and transportation make attending school impossible. And far too many refugee children have to work to support their families instead of attending school.

To encourage poor Iraqi families to register their children, UNHCR plans to provide financial assistance to at least 25,000 school-age children, and to provide uniforms, books and school supplies to Iraqi refugees registered with UNHCR. The agency will also advise refugees of their right to send their children to school, and will support NGO programmes for working children.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

The Children of Harmanli Face a Bleak Winter

Since the Syrian crisis began in March 2011, more than 2 million people have fled the violence. Many have made their way to European Union countries, finding sanctuary in places like Germany and Sweden. Others are venturing into Europe by way of Bulgaria, where the authorities struggle to accommodate and care for some 8,000 asylum-seekers, many of whom are Syrian. More than 1,000 of these desperate people, including 300 children, languish in an overcrowded camp in the town of Harmanli, 50 kilometres from the Turkish-Bulgarian border. These people crossed the border in the hope of starting a new life in Europe. Some have travelled in family groups; many have come alone with dreams of reuniting in Europe with loved ones; and still others are unaccompanied children. The sheer number of people in Harmanli is taxing the ability of officials to process them, let alone shelter and feed them. This photo essay explores the daily challenges of life in Harmanli.

The Children of Harmanli Face a Bleak Winter

Erbil's Children: Syrian Refugees in Urban Iraq

Some of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees are children who have sought shelter in urban areas with their families. Unlike those in camps, refugees living in towns and cities in countries like Iraq, Turkey and Jordan often find it difficult to gain access to aid and protection. In a refugee camp, it is easier for humanitarian aid organizations such as UNHCR to provide shelter and regular assistance, including food, health care and education. Finding refugees in urban areas, let alone helping them, is no easy task.

In Iraq, about 100,000 of the 143,000 Syrian refugees are believed to be living in urban areas - some 40 per cent of them are children aged under 18 years. The following photographs, taken in the northern city of Erbil by Brian Sokol, give a glimpse into the lives of some of these young urban refugees. They show the harshness of daily life as well as the resilience, adaptability and spirit of young people whose lives have been overturned in the past two years.

Life is difficult in Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The cost of living is high and it is difficult to find work. The refugees must also spend a large part of their limited resources on rent. UNHCR and its partners, including the Kurdish Regional Government, struggle to help the needy.

Erbil's Children: Syrian Refugees in Urban Iraq

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Za'atari oldest man

At 113, Yousef is a very old man. Until conflict forced him to flee Syria two years ago, his life was spent peacefully with his farm, his shop, his three children and 160 descendants nearby. Now, he is perhaps the oldest resident of Za'aatri refugee camp in Jordan. "He was sad when we told him we wanted to leave," says his daughter Nejmeh. "He tells me he wants to go back to Syria…He made me promise, if he dies, to bury him in Syria."
South Sudan: A Long Walk in Search of Safety Play video

South Sudan: A Long Walk in Search of Safety

Years of fighting between Sudan and rebel forces have sent more than 240,000 people fleeing to neighbouring South Sudan, a country embroiled in its own conflict. After weeks on foot, Amal Bakith and her five children are settling in at Ajoung Thok refugee camp where they receive food, shelter, access to education and land.
Christmas tree a gift of love for refugees in GreecePlay video

Christmas tree a gift of love for refugees in Greece

For children spending Christmas at the Idomeni refugee reception centre in northern Greece, Congolese asylum seeker Michel Kamusha has "a gift of love." Drawing on his skills as an artist he decorates a Christmas with tree with socks, toys, shoes and clothes to give the youngsters "hope for Christmas."