Child Soldiers Fight Forgotten War in Uganda

A report by Save the Children singles out northern Uganda as a center of childhood conscription by the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group there. Eighteen years of civil war in the region have displaced approximately 2 million people. David McGuffin reports from Gulu in northern Uganda.

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In northern Uganda, nearly two decades of civil war have displaced two million people. Even though tens of thousands of people have been killed during that war, it's failed to garner much international attention. Recently a recent report by Save the Children sounded the alarm over the increased use of child soldiers by a cultlike rebel group the Lord's Resistance Army. David McGuffin reports from Gulu in northern Uganda.

DAVID McGUFFIN reporting:

Under the low dark clouds of northern Uganda's rainy season, the leaders of the al-Wahl(ph) refugee camp meet to plead their case to a delegation of UN and US officials. The camp is home to 29,000 people fleeing northern Uganda's 18-year civil war. 1.4 million refugees are crammed into muddy, squalid camps like this one across the region. Disease and malnutrition are the main killers here, but the rebel Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA, is also a constant threat. Despite a recent US donation of $26 million for food aid, only 75 percent of the camp's food needs are being met. Locals have to go into the bush to farm small plots of land, a dangerous necessity, explains camp leader Tomo Kello(ph).

Mr. TOMO KELLO (Camp Leader): (Through Translator) The rebel activity in this area, still they are rampant, but people are not allowed to move very far from their camps. When you move away, you are abducted. You are killed. Their hands are shot. They'll do whatever they want on you. So people are not safe to go outside.

McGUFFIN: The Lord's Resistance Army is a vicious, cultlike organization led by Joseph Kony, a man who believes he is host to the Holy Spirit. Ken Davies, Uganda's country director for the UN's World Food Program, explains.

Mr. KEN DAVIS (Director, World Food Program, Uganda): He purports to believe in the Ten Commandments and to want to institute them as the rule of law in all of Uganda, and yet his movement is responsible for the most horrific crimes against humanity. They've killed thousands and thousands of people in the most brutal ways, I mean, the sorts of things you can't even dream up in a horror movie.

McGUFFIN: The LRA also kidnaps children to fight and serve as sex slaves. Some are as young as eight years old. Estimates to the number of children kidnapped ranges as high as 30,000, almost half of them in the past three years alone.

Several efforts to negotiate peace have failed with the LRA always walking away. The government of President Yoweri Museveni has now asked the international criminal court to prosecute LRA leaders for crimes against humanity. Major Shaban Bantariza is spokesman for the Ugandan army. He says negotiating peace with the LRA is almost impossible.

Major SHABAN BANTERIZA (Spokesman, Ugandan Army): They have (unintelligible) serious agenda we ought to use to negotiate. They are being led by Joseph Kony, who is an enigma. If he wants to fight the government and establish rule of Ten Commandments, of Jesus Christ, of God and you are killing Christ's people, chopping off their limbs? It makes no sense.

McGUFFIN: A large reason for the LRA's longevity is that it was armed and housed by the government of neighboring Sudan. This was revenge for Ugandan support for southern Sudanese rebels. But after September 11th, the US government declared the LRA a terrorist organization and Sudan, eager to keep Washington happy, kicked the rebels out.

It's now believed there are fewer than 500 rebels hiding in small groups around northern Uganda. The army believes its 20,000 troops in the region have them cornered. But do they? Father Carlos Rodriguez has been a Catholic priest in northern Uganda almost since the rebellion began.

Father CARLOS RODRIGUEZ: The last two years, I mean, every time I hear the figure 400--there are 400 rebels left two years ago. One year later, they killed 1,000, but there are still 400 left. Let them prove that they can handle the situation, that they can protect people adequately so that people can have a normal life.

McGUFFIN: The army admits to complications. Fighting a force compromised of abducted children means they have to focusing on rescuing young rebels rather than wiping out the enemy. But the army has also been accused of abuses. At Gulu hospital, malnourished babies wait down the hall from amputees, all victims of the war, all waiting for treatment. Charles is 25. He's waiting to be fitted for prosthetic limbs.

CHARLES: (Foreign language spoken)

McGUFFIN: `I was tied up with my arms behind my back for three days by government soldiers,' he said. `I was a school cook. They thought I was a rebel soldier.' Gangrene set in. His arms had to be amputated.

Numerous incidents like this recorded by human rights groups have left the locals unwilling to help the army, just one more obstacle that makes peace in this once rich farmland seem as far away as ever. Again, the World Food Program's Ken Davies.

Mr. DAVIES: When I arrived, there were less than 500,000 people displaced, which is still a huge number. Now we have 1.4 million in the camps, but hundreds of thousands others have just run away. So it's much, much worse now than it was four years ago.

(Soundbite of children)

McGUFFIN: The UN describes northern Uganda as one of the world's most neglected crises. Back at the refugee camp, the locals say they are grateful for the humanitarian aid the world has given. It's keeping children like these alive. But the feeling is more has to be done if the children of northern Uganda are going to have any sort of future at all. For NPR News, I'm David McGuffin in Gulu, northern Uganda.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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