Ugandans Scarred by Experience as Child Soldiers
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We're going next to one of the many places in the world where armed groups rely on child soldiers. They're often stolen from their homes. They often witness the deaths of their family members as they're taken away, so they know there's no going back. They undergo swift and brutal indoctrination, which makes them terrified to escape. There's no getting out. And in the time that it would normally take for one child to be born and grow up to go to college, a rebel army operating in northern Uganda is believed to have stolen more than 20,000 children.
NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports.
GWEN THOMPKINS: There are children's stories, and then there are stories about children that they should almost never hear. In northern Uganda, a rebel group called the Lord's Resistance Army has been fighting the government since the late 1980s. Both sides have used dirty tricks in this war, but the rebels have been the cruelest of thieves. They have replenished their forces by stealing other people's sons and daughters, other people's brothers and sisters, schoolmates and best friends.
Meet Niati Ati(ph) and Samuel Amoin(ph). They're about the same age - late 20s, early 30s. They were both born and raised in northern Uganda. Niati Ati lives with a new husband, three children, and 17,000 others at a camp for displaced people outside the city of Kitgum. Samuel Amoin works in Kitgum as a security officer for an international aid organization. He is not married and he lives in a little village just outside town.
Ati and Amoin have never met, but they were both child soldiers in the Lord's Resistance Army. He volunteered. She did not. Amoin will go first. He's got more explaining to do.
Mr. SAMUEL AMOIN (Former Child Soldier, Uganda): Being a child who was very inquisitive, I just entered - I wanted to join the rebel movement at the age of nine. It was not so good, the experience. They train you on how to roll on the ground and many army tactics. And they teach you like songs, like (Singing) (Foreign language spoken).
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. AMOIN: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken). See?
THOMPKINS: It was the late 1980s, and for the most part, the rebels treated Amoin the way he should have been treated - like a child. But by the early 1990s, the rebels had hardened, and Niati Ati's experience could not have been more different. She was 12 years old when…
Ms. NIATI ATI (Former Child Soldier, Uganda): (Through translator) The LRA came at night and got me while I was sleeping. The same night, they killed 60 people in my village. When they came, my brothers kind of resisted the abduction. They killed two of them and they killed my uncle.
THOMPKINS: Amoin's grandmother put an end to his allegiance to the Lord's Resistance Army. She said he needed to spend more time on chores at home. But he apparently spent the rest of his youth running up trees and into tall grass when the rebels raided his village. Amoin managed to elude abduction, but many of his friends were caught in a terrible bind. That's because rebel training has a body count. Those who escaped the bush all tell the same story.
Mr. AMOIN: Once you are abducted you - 200 struck in the battles. Or sometimes after there's 250 struck, 200 struck, you kill someone. You refuse to kill, that one kills you.
Ms. ATI: (Through translator) I actually participated in killing one of the girls we were abducted with. She tried to escape, and we decided to shoot her. Afterwards, we were forced to hold the dead body and make it stand again. That was to strengthen our heart so we would never try to escape. That was the intention.
THOMPKINS: Plenty of children become accustomed to living in the bush. Some even like it. But Amoin says there's no room for mistakes or complaints.
Mr. AMOIN: You can move for two days without rest, without eating. Whatever you get on the way - there is wild food, and that is what you live on. And it is worse when you are just a new abductee. You don't have access to food. You are given once in awhile. It's really hard. It's really hard. And once you claim I'm tired, you know and you walk some distance and barefooted in the bush, you have thorns breaking your legs and you have wounds, (unintelligible), you begin limping.
They say, you are limping, so you cannot move. Put that one to rest. They will walk on you. They say it like in a funny way, they, oh, this one is dead. (unintelligible) and continue. And then what they mean by resting: kill you. So endure the pain, because once you show them that you have a wound or you are limping, you're finished.
THOMPKINS: The rebels marched Niati Ati from Uganda to southern Sudan and back for 13 years.
Ms. ATI: (Through translator) We were always on the run because the Ugandan People's Defense Forces kept on following us for attacks. So we kept on moving to various villages.
THOMPKINS: She also got married, sort of, to a rebel whom she still dislikes -a man with a temper and 25 other wives in the bush. They had three children. She tried to escape a couple of times, and was beaten so badly on the back with a machete that she still has the scars. But sometimes the best thing that can happen to a child soldier in an unhappy marriage is a firefight. And that's exactly what happened to Niati Ati.
Ms. ATI: (Through translator) I was on the eastern side of the Kitgum district when a helicopter gunship attacked us and six of us women escaped. It was the gunship that caused confusion. One of my children was on foot, one was on my back, and one I was carrying in my arms, and I managed to find my way out.
THOMPKINS: The Lord's Resistance Army and the Ugandan government signed a cease-fire agreement last August, and since then the north has been relatively quiet. But the cease fire ended this month, and both Ati and Amoin expect trouble.
Mr. AMOIN: First, they will move out to their former bases for (unintelligible). And normally, when they get food (unintelligible), they have to find somebody to carry this food out to their bases. They abduct. And when they will need merchandise, the ambushes (unintelligible).
THOMPKINS: Amoin trusts his gut on this - the same gut that has helped him elude capture over the years, despite several attempts. He makes it his business not to be taken by surprise. After all, in these parts, the name Amoin means born in the time of war.
Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Kitgum, Uganda.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The rebels in Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army say they're ready to return to peace talks, but they want the participation of the Sudanese government. They also want more international observers. The rebels have crossed the border into Sudan, and that country's government has recently threatened to evict them. The offer by the rebels came in a meeting with a United Nations envoy who went to meet the Lord's Resistance Army leader in his jungle hideout. The 20-year-long war in southern Uganda has killed tens of thousands, and forced about 2 million people to flee their homes.
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