Lost Generation Grows in Uganda

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Commentator Leroy Sievers talks about what he saw when he documented the effect of Uganda's civil war on children in the northern part of the country. The documentary is part of a project for Human Rights Watch.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

When world leaders discuss debt cancellation for African countries, Uganda is often held up as a good example. It's a country whose economic and social reforms have already helped its citizens benefit from limited debt relief, but Uganda has been at civil war for decades. In the north, the war has displaced two million people. It has failed to attract much international attention, even as tens of thousands of people have been killed, many of them children. Aid groups estimate as many as 20,000 Ugandan boys and girls have been kidnapped during the conflict. Commentator Leroy Sievers recently returned from Uganda, where he documented for Human Rights Watch children's efforts to escape the war.

LEROY SIEVERS:

Northern Uganda doesn't feel like a war zone. You don't hear gunfire. The buildings aren't pockmarked with bullet holes. People don't jump at loud noises. Maybe after almost 19 years, the war has just become a way of life. The enemy is a rebel group called the Lord's Resistance Army. Once they wanted to create a country that would be guided by the Ten Commandments; now they spend their time attacking civilians and abducting children. The children are forced to become porters, if they're lucky, carrying supplies when the guerrillas are on the move. If they're unlucky, they're made into soldiers, forced to kill or mutilate civilians and other children. The girls are often made sex slaves or given as wives to members of the LRA. The few who escape are traumatized.

The LRA operates in the countryside. Each night, thousands of children, some only four or five years old, leave their villages and walk for miles to the safety of Gulu, the biggest town in northern Uganda. You can see them at dusk, usually in groups of two or three, heading into town. No matter what color clothes they're wearing, they end up brown from the dust they pick up on that long commute each day. The clothes they're wearing are often rags, more holes than material. They carry bags, maybe a little food for the night or a mat to sleep on.

When the so-called night commuting started, the children just slept wherever they could in town--on the streets, at the bus station, on the steps in front of buildings. Now relief organizations have set up tents and dorms for them. They're usually not fed. The organizations don't want their camps to become substitute homes. All they offer is a floor to sleep on and shelter from the rains that pound Uganda this time of year. Each morning as the sun comes up, the gates are opened and the children flood out literally by the thousands to begin that long walk home. Now being children, they find fun where they can. Their smiles just light up their faces and their voices can light up the night.

(Soundbite of children singing)

SIEVERS: But it's tearing their families apart and it's tearing their culture apart. The knowledge, customs, the way of life that's been passed on from generation to generation are all being lost. There's no time to learn. There's only time to walk.

The solution to the crisis is peace. After 19 years of war, the prospect of a military solution seems unlikely at best, cynical at worst. The government and the rebels are going to have to be brought to the negotiating table. Pressure--diplomatic, financial or any other kind--needs to be put on both sides to settle this once and for all. Whether it's the UN or the US or any other country, someone has to step forward.

Ending the war in Uganda may not be strategically important, but it is morally imperative. To do nothing is to condemn countless children to death. In the meantime, those children walking barefoot down the road have come to be called the lost generation. They're not wounded by bullets or bombs, but they're the victims of this war nevertheless. While most of the world just stands by, they're the ones paying the price.

(Soundbite of children singing)

MONTAGNE: The comments of Leroy Sievers, who just returned from Uganda on a trip with the organization Human Rights Watch.

(Soundbite of children singing)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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