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A war on children: rebels with no agenda terrorize Uganda's north.

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. He dreamed his sister needed him to harvest a field of sesame, and he made surreptitious contact through intermediaries. Eventually, Otim was received back into the community in the tribal "Jolo" or "welcoming back" ceremony, administered by the KerKwaro, or chiefs' council, representing 50 Acholi clans.

In it, Otim and other returnees stood outside a settlement. With the right foot he stepped on an egg, symbolizing reborn innocence and community acceptance. Otim then walked over a pobo tree branch, indicating that the rough will become smooth, and a forked branch of the type used to open a village's granary. "This means the children will be fed by their parents," said Justo Obita, a council member.

Jolo is an ancient Acholi ritual revived to meet the new and vast need for reconciliation. That welcome distinguishes the Acholi, described by all as a forgiving people. It gives hope in a land of misery.

Almost monthly, thousands of people watch groups of 40 to 60 or more returnees step on the egg and over the branches and into a village, followed by talks and a feast. "Jolo allows them to feel free, like children who were never abducted," said John Samuel Okello, a youth leader.

Otim agreed. "Before the ceremony, I was not settled. I had flashbacks. After, no more." HIS former neighbors and onetime victims have accepted him unevenly. "Some have, fully, some have not," said Otim, who lives with his brother and is studying to be a mechanic.

Nighty Aceng, 24, went through Jolo after eight years with the Lord's Resistance Army. During that time she was beaten, saw friends killed for escape attempts, given to a man as his 23rd "wife" or sex slave, and had a child. One day she tied the baby on her back and escaped with five other teenage mothers from a rebel camp in Sudan. They crept back to Kitgum. In her village she was cleansed and feted in the ceremony. Only a brother attended; her parents had been killed in rebel attacks. She now makes public presentations encouraging fellow Acholi to welcome former abductees.

Uganda suffers from its location amid lands of conflict: Rebels, gangs and military forces cross back and forth from Burundi, Rwanda and Congo. For years Sudan supported the Lord's Resistance Army while Uganda aided rebels in southern Sudan. In 2002 both agreed to cut off these proxy baffles, though Kony is rumored to still hide in the mountains of southern Sudan.

Who is paying attention? In March, a Reuters poll of international experts rated Uganda as the world's second biggest forgotten emergency. Congo was first, Sudan third. All contrast with the deluge of donations for victims of the Indonesian tsunami. "Sudan at least fits into the lens of the war on terror," said Ben Phillips, the country representative for Catholic Relief Services. "Uganda doesn't. It's not one ethnic group fighting another, not one religious group fighting another. There's just these crazy men running around up there, killing people, kidnapping children and burning villages. People don't get it."

Women and children suffer most, said Jotham Musinguiza, director of Uganda's population secretariat. "They are the ones who are killed; they are the ones who are kidnapped; they are the ones who are raped." Women found in the fields routinely have their lips, breasts, ears and often limbs sliced off, causing widespread panic. Kony has cited the Biblical "eye-for-an-eye" passage and says his cause justifies bloodshed against his fellow Acholi for their lack of support. Unnervingly, Kony issues random commands--don't cross the Nile, don't bicycle or drive, don't farm on Friday--enforced with random brutality.

Having been scared off their land, most Acholi live in huge, squalid camps without land to till for food. Here alcoholism, fighting, wife-beating and prostitution flourish. "The men spend most of their time drinking because there is nothing to do," said Gilbert Komakech, a displaced farmer now living with his wife and six children in a camp north of Gulu.

Hardest hit are children kidnapped from their homes and forced to fight and often to kill their neighbors, relatives or parents. Most were beaten at some time and forced into baffle barehanded. Horrors were psychological as well. "You can't show you are sad because then they will beat or kill you since they think you're going to escape," said " Aceng. Of the 20,000 abducted, half were killed or became dedicated, if brainwashed, Lord's Resistance Army members. These amount to 80 percent of the rebel force. Half of the abductees have escaped. Many are welcomed back but others confront fearful families, hostile neighbors and bad memories.

Alice Atoo's daughter and 15 other children were kidnapped from her village of Lagwimg. Five were killed, the rest returned over time. The villagers fled to a sprawling camp near Gulu.

"These children, now, are not easy," said Atoo, sitting outside her hut on a low wooden bench. "They find it difficult to live with the rest of the children." Most bear wounds and chest or stomach ailments. Her daughter was beaten, her head injured, and dumped. "She was just left there, in the bush, so she crawled home. After, she had terrible fears that those people would follow her here to the camp. So we sent her to town, a government shelter in Gulu. She feels a little better there."

Luckier than most, Atoo can walk the two to three kilometers to her family's fields in Lagwimg where they grow cassava, peanuts, sorghum, beans and sweet potatoes. They till for a short spell before hurrying home before dusk. "We're scared of the rebels."

So are the night commuters. In Gulu, about 10,000 children and some parents troop into town nightly carrying bedrolls and homework. Most of those sleep at Lacor Hospital, a sprawling complex that converts daily from a bulwark against disease--a doctor and 12 nurses died fighting the Ebola virus in 2000--to an open-air motel. Adults settle in on verandas and in courtyards; children retreat behind a gate to several long buildings and walled tents. They sleep in groups based on age and sex.

"Last year the LRA came through my village," said Johnson Olom, 13. "They wanted to abduct me; they wanted to get our chickens. They took some of my friends. They killed them." He sees his parents only on weekends. Jennifer Ayoo, who is 12 and lost a sister to the Lord's Resistance Army, said she did not know when she would return to her village. "Most of the village children are here," she said, sweeping her eyes over the crowds around her.

Desperate for peace, religious leaders have ventured into the bush to meet rebel representatives several times since 2003. They face danger on both sides.

"It's hard to be neutral after you've seen people killed in the worst way," said Fr. Carlos Rodriguez Soto, executive secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission for the Gulu archdiocese. "But if you speak up, the LRA negotiators say we're against them." Similarly, he added, "the government says they are behind us, then they say we are collaborators." In August 2002, the army attacked a clandestine session it had earlier approved, wounding Rodriguez and taking him and others captive. He's seen one payoff: Many of the LRA who attend these meetings later escape, including Sam Kolo, the former rebel spokesman.

The overtures also led to an official Ugandan delegation, which met rebel leaders Dec. 28, 2004. The group included Betty Bigombe. Former minister for northern Uganda, now with the World Bank, Bigombe almost made peace in 1993-94 before being undercut by Museveni.

Rodriguez said the rebels have promised peace in 2005. Another meeting took place Jan. 17. Many hope Bigombe can champion these negotiations at home and abroad. At least, said Rodriguez, "we've broken the myth that you can't talk to the LRA." Other factors have pushed peace forward. A government amnesty instituted in January 2000 attracted 5,000 returnees and the rebels lost their Sudanese sponsor. Still, internal politics intrude.

Opposition politicians charge that Museveni's government has used the conflict as an excuse to persecute critics and increase military spending. Jemera Rone, a Uganda expert at Human Rights Watch, said that opponents take up arms since they are frozen out of politics. Further, the donor nations that provide half of Uganda's budget have not pushed Museveni to make peace, said Phillips of Catholic Relief Services. Others claim the Ugandan army commits atrocities it then blames on the rebels--which the government denies.

Today only about 400 Lord's Resistance Army fighters remain, based on the estimates of returnees. But guerilla armies are difficult to defeat. "Why should they stop?" asked Komakech, the farmer who was kidnapped twice and made to haul loads for 14-hour days. "In the bush they have free food, they don't have to work, they just loot and take women when they want. They don't have to buy anything."

Citing rebel arms caches, Rodriguez said, "This can go on for a long time." Museveni's government may be ready for peace talks, he added. "With the presidential elections coming up and other pressures, the time may be right."

To make peace nationally, Museveni should legalize opposition parties and share power, said Rone. Northern Uganda needs serious peace talks and comprehensive reconstruction.

But the violence goes on like a low-grade fever. In the last few days I was there, the kids of the Lord's Resistance Army struck over and over: Wednesday, kidnapping 26 children and adults from Kamdini; Thursday, 50 children on the highway to Kampala; Saturday, mutilating three women and taking several others in Kitgum. "Kony says he will fight until he overthrows the government," said Otim, the former abductee. "It won't end until there are peace talks." On the ground, the Acholi are ready to hope or to wait.

"Even tomorrow I would be pleased to go home," said farmer Komakech, standing under the canopy of a jacaranda tree near his borrowed field. "It is difficult to predict when we will come back home."


Uganda should be coasting in a league with Ghana, Tanzania and a handful of other African countries with democratic aspects, good resources and functional economies. But rebellions fester here, the longest and deadliest being the Lord's Resistance Army in the north. Negotiations have been hard since the Lord's Resistance Army has no political agenda. "Some commanders say they are fighting to overthrow the government," said Dennis Okello, 17, who was abducted at age 10 and forced to fight for the rebel group. "Others say they are just fighting." Without its magnetic, dreadful leader, Joseph Kony, the boys of the Lord's Resistance Army would likely drop their guns and go home. Meanwhile, church, civic and tribal leaders keep extending a hand to the rebels and to returnees like Okello, while working to restore homes and lives.

RELATED ARTICLE: Development program moves ahead despite violence.

Catholic Relief Services began its work in Uganda in 1996 and now has 76 employees, most of them Ugandan, four offices and an $8.5 million budget. The agency works on HIV/AIDS, small-scale development, community resilience, youth programs, and emergency housing, water and sanitation. In the north, Catholic Relief Services also helps shelter "night commuters," the 40,000 children who sleep in towns to avoid kidnapping by rebels, and promotes peace through training in reconciliation and domestic violence prevention.

One thing they don't like to do is hand out food, a mainstay of most relief work. In an innovative and trademark program, Catholic Relief Services operates seed fairs here and around the world. Typically, technicians develop improved versions of local crops and train farmers who raise and sell these seeds at fairs to other farmers, who are given CRS vouchers. The seed fairs promote self-reliance, disperse cash in small amounts and encourage local crops and practices. In contrast, the United Nations. has a complex of warehouses and airfields in Gulu and a fleet of cargo planes and trucks that dump foodstuffs grown in the United States and Europe. While that may feed people today, it undercuts local farmers and worsens dependence.

Ben Phillips, the country representative for Catholic Relief Services, recalled a U.N. official who "said that seed fairs were a good idea but wouldn't work until there's peace and stability in a country." He shrugged. "When's that going to happen?" An estimated 10,000 farmers have participated in the seed fairs near Gulu. At one in the Teetogu camp, home to 17,000 displaced Acholi, Jimmy Nyeko, the community leader, said the system encouraged camp residents to use the small plots available. "Last year we did very well," he said. "We've had enough food to survive till now."

One of those was Millie Akello, a farmer smiling at her tarps now emptied of the small mountains of seeds. "It's all sold, they bought it all," she said. After being chased from her village and fields and losing her two brothers to the Lord's Resistance Army, the sales offer some hope for a new life.

RELATED ARTICLE: The danger of good intentions.

It's so easy to help from far away. Up close, it's complicated. Take Uganda. Like any developing country, it needs help with debt, hunger, conflict and poverty. How about a handout? Or let's forgive some of that foreign debt.

Bad idea, say many Ugandans, who worry that debt forgiveness--advocated by many in the rich world, from Irish rocker Bono to the late Pope John Paul II--absolves rulers of their misdeeds. That misguided generosity, said Charles Onyango-Obbo, a columnist for The Monitor in Kampala, allows bad politicians to borrow more and misspend while citizens suffer--just as if you ran up your credit card and Visa let you off.

Direct aid can also have the perverse effect of maintaining incompetence or oppression. "In our politics," Obbo continued, "when the ruler's cronies have pocketed the health funds and the people are dying of malaria, it's the business of the world to raise money to buy them mosquito nets and chloroquine."

And whose fault are these problems? Many blame outside forces such slavery and colonialism--only that robs Africans of any role. "At the end of the day we all have to share the blame," wrote Fr. J. Wynand Katende in a Palm Sunday column on social sin in The Monitor. After all, he notes, once-poor Asia and Latin America have moved ahead while much of Africa is "lagging 150 years behind." Katende charged many African rulers with using "abundant" resources to create dynasties rather than help their people.

So outside donors, who provide 52 percent of Uganda's budget, should insist on fair elections and other reforms, right? To an African, outside intervention is rarely benign. President Yoweri Museveni, who has a good record but faces pressure to step down next year, complained recently about Europeans and Americans who poke into Uganda. He recalled how foreign forces --most blame the CIA--"intervened" in the Congo in 1961 by assassinating the democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. Successive interventions have not helped, and 44 years later Congo is still racked by unrest and violence.

When it comes to Uganda's 19-year insurrection in the north, reality can also trump or complicate good retentions.

The government invited in the International Criminal Court to investigate leaders of the Lord's Resistance Army, known for kidnapping children and mutilating women. Not helpful, say frontline religious and civic leaders who periodically negotiate with the killers. "We told the [court] that by issuing arrest warrants, you give them a reason to keep fighting," said Fr. Carlos Rodriguez Soto, a Spanish missionary in Gulu who has risked his neck meeting rebel leaders in the bush several times.

In a hopeful development, many Lord's Resistance Army members--the majority of whom were kidnapped as children--defect under the government's amnesty program. Often, they receive financial and resettlement support. That lures many back, but can encourage others to take up arms and then cash in. "Why not?" said one relief official. "They rebel, and then they can surrender and get government support." Which is not to say that amnesty, or any other measure to bring peace and prosperity is a bad idea; only that it is more complicated than one might think.

RELATED ARTICLE: Uganda conflict.

The United Nations is urging an end to the war in northern Uganda, where thousands of children are caught up in the fighting.

18 years of civil war

* 100,000 deaths

* 20,000 children abducted, used as fighters and sex slaves

* 1.6 million displaced people

* 40,000 night-commuters; people who flee their by night to avoid raids

REBELS: Lord's Resistance Army (LRA)

* Have fought government forces, civil militia since 1986

* Current leader: Joseph Kony

* 80 percent of LRA fighters are children

[C] 2004 KRT Source: United Nations, Amnesty International, Relief Web Graphic: Jutta Scheibe, Eeli Polli

RELATED ARTICLE: Peace teams aim to foster forgiveness.

Sara Ayero spent eight years as a captive, slave and fighter for the Lord's Resistance Army, the killers who have bedeviled northern Uganda for 19 years. Escaping was hard, so was finding a welcome in the community victimized by the rebel group. Now she spends her spare time teaching her fellow Acholi, the predominant tribe here in Gulu, to take back their sons and daughters.

"We are working to have them accept their children and accept what's happened in the past," said Ayero, 22, as she calmed her infant, one of two she bore to a rebel commander. She and other members of People's Voice for Peace, based in Gulu and supported by Catholic Relief Services, stage dramas, role-playing exercises and classes at the resettlement camps where most of the Acholi have moved to avoid attack. "We show them what life was like before a child's abduction, after, during the return, and what a welcome should be like," said Sr. Pauline Acayo, a CRS staff member. Some lessons sink in. Nighty Aceng, another returnee on the peace team, said her grandparents learned to accept, after first rejecting, her daughter who was born during her eight-year captivity by the Lord's Resistance Army.

"Before the people were pointing fingers," said Terence Okot, a People's Voice for Peace staffer. "Now they see that the youths were forced to kill or beat by the LRA because if they didn't, they would be beaten or killed." The peace teams have also persuaded Ugandan solders to treat youths they find with the Lord's Resistance Army "as children and not as prisoners of war," he added.

The work has amplified women's role in Acholi society "Now many Acholi see women can do more for peace because they have that conciliatory heart," said Ayero. This development has great potential since women suffered the most injuries in this conflict: from mutilations and sex slavery by the rebels to domestic violence and an inability to feed their children in the camps where many Acholi, a hardworking and soft-spoken people, have become idle and self-destructive.

"Our peace teams demonstrate conflict management, reconciliation and domestic violence prevention," said Acayo. In particular, drinking has exacerbated spousal abuse. Audiences participate in skits to experience both sides of a conflict and learn peaceful alternatives. The teams also work in schools, where students can be cruel to classmates who were once with the Lord's Resistance Army. Now more abductees are escaping, said Okot, "because they hear that they shall not be mistreated when they return."

Forgiveness characterizes the Acholi, and the peace teams' work mirrors that of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, whose dangerous liaisons with the rebels led to its first meeting with a government delegation. Such talks, not force, will bring peace, said Dennis Okello, who lost a leg during his six years with the rebels. "For either side to use guns, it will not stop."

The changes of heart seen in camp audiences by Raup Francis Omuk, another peace team member, offer a simple hope for the Acholi. "Some resist the idea of reconciliation, but some say, 'Oh, we can do better.'"

[Christopher D. Ringwald is a journalist in Albany, N.Y., and a visiting scholar at The Sage Colleges. His e-mail address is].
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Title Annotation:UGANDA
Author:Ringwald, Christopher D.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:6UGAN
Date:May 13, 2005
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