Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Uganda: Waiting for the Children to Come Home

Despite a commitment to release its child conscripts, the Lord’s Resistance Army has yet to let them all come home.
By Alexis Okeowo
Florence Amito still remembers how to shoot to kill. With her one-year-old child in her arms, the Ugandan woman recalls the method for assembling and dissembling a gun, and the best way to pack ammunition.

Abducted from her home in the northern Ugandan town of Kitgum at the age of 15 by rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, Amito – now 21 – is attempting to pick up the pieces of her old life.

She is not alone. More than 20,000 northern Ugandan children have been abducted from homes and schools in the course of more than 20 years of rebellion waged by the LRA in this East African nation. Thousands of civilians, most belonging to the Acholi ethnic group, have died as a result of the conflict. Nearly two million still live in desolate camps for displaced persons.

"The way I look at the war, it is not to overthrow the government but to finish the Acholis," said Amito.

A landmark truce was signed last August between the LRA and the Ugandan government during peace talks in southern Sudan.

As part of the truce, the LRA was required to release all the child soldiers, porters and sex slaves in its ranks. So far, the rebels have not complied.

Late last year, the then United Nations Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Jan Egeland, travelled into Sudanese forests in an attempt to persuade LRA chief Joseph Kony to release the thousands of children his group has kidnapped, but to no avail.

LRA commanders say the children and women are now part of their families.

If and when the child combatants are released, the question will be whether they can reintegrate into society and resume their interrupted lives.

As an LRA captive, Amito became used to a daily routine of farming, child-rearing - and combat. Now, post-escape, her only worry is whether she can provide for her children's futures.

A bright-blue scarf wrapped around her, she tells her story in front of her modest hut, and a small crowd of captivated young children gathers around her. But she shoos them away - she does not want them to hear her story, although it is similar to the experiences related by young people all over the north.

"We were forced to join their troops," said Charles Okwero, 17, describing how he and his older brother were abducted seven years ago. He remembers the heavy labour and weapons training he endured until it became second nature to take part in raids.

After six years with the LRA, Okwero does not know – and does not want to know – whether the bullets he blindly fired ever killed anyone.

A spokesman for the international charity Save the Children, which works widely throughout northern Uganda, said that despite guidelines laid down in the Cape Town Principles of 1997, which established 18 as the minimum age for military recruitment, some 10,000 children abducted by the LRA are still unaccounted for.

UNICEF, the United Nations children's agency, is involved in international efforts to end the use of child soldiers, including in northern Uganda. Its spokesman in Uganda, Chulho Huyn, said the organisation was expecting to receive up to 2,000 children and women newly released by the LRA.

But the official deadline agreed for the release of child warriors and sex slaves has now passed. In addition, there is widespread fear among children in the north that they are still not safe from LRA raiding parties.

Former child soldier Charles Ojok is one of those who are doubtful that the LRA will leave the north's children in peace.

Ojok, 13, from Kitgum, squirms in a chair, chewing at a pencil at a pencil, causing yellow flakes to fall on his mouth and shirt, as he relates his own ordeals at the hands of the LRA.

"They came into the room and started telling me that we are going to war," said Ojok. He was abducted when he was nine, taken when he was asleep. Bullied and beaten by the armed LRA commanders, Ojok and other children crossed rivers and were shot at by Ugandan army soldiers before they even learned how to carry guns. Those who could not swim were left to drown.

"I could not even eat the food, I was just thinking of all that I left behind," Ojok said.

It was only after Ojok returned home that he learned that the LRA had killed his parents the night they abducted him.

Pitted against other children in training exercises that often resulted in death, he was eventually forced to kill civilians, usually through blows to the head with large rocks. He pulled up his shirt and then the legs of his trousers to show his multiple bullet and knife wounds. The scars, even after his escape two years ago, still have not healed.

Although initially reluctant to talk to counsellors, Ojok said he feels "good" when he is in school and that he likes to study.

Asked about the children he knows who are still in LRA brigades despite the truce, he says, "They are not OK."

Uganda is a signatory to the Optional Protocol that resulted from the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which seeks to prevent any child under 18 from being involved in armed conflict. The protocol calls for the rehabilitation and social reintegration of former child soldiers, and calls on donors to provide increased resources for the demobilisation and disarmament of children still being forced to fight in war.

Dr Ruhakana Rugunda, who is Ugandan interior minister and the lead government negotiator with the LRA, said the authorities are will help "reintegrate the children into society, either if they want to attend school or join the national army".

But David Orome, head of the child soldier rehabilitation centre run by the international humanitarian organisation World Vision in Gulu, northern Uganda, says re-integration could be difficult because of social attitudes.

World Vision is working with communities to increase sensitivity to the returnees. "In case the peace comes, we have a very big task of creating an environment where the children are accepted," said Orome.

According to UNICEF, anecdotal evidence suggests that the Ugandan armed forces, too, may also have enlisted under-18s in its ranks. Huyn said the group is working with the government to ensure that the Convention on the Rights of the Child is enforced.

As for the remaining lost children of northern Uganda, it still remains unclear when, and even whether, they will be allowed to return home.

Alexis Okeowo writes for IWPR Africa from Uganda.

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