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)