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Youngsters have been abducted, killed, raped, mutilated and forced to fight in Uganda's civil war

By unknown | Dec 15, 2006 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

Tim Cocks

Tim Cocks

BARR REFUGEE CAMP, Uganda - Walter Emodo shudders as he recalls the day when Ugandan rebels attacked his village two years ago, killing his younger brother and changing his childhood forever.

"They came at night. They woke everyone up, then they just started shooting people," the 16-year-old refugee camp-dweller said.

"They set fire to huts with people inside and they were screaming."

For 20 years the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) - one of Africa's most feared rebel groups - has waged war in Uganda, killing and mutilating people and abducting thousands of children to swell their ranks, victims say.

In August the rebels and the government signed a landmark truce, raising hopes of ending a rebellion that has killed thousands and forced nearly two million into camps, but analysts say a final peace deal remains far off.

Walter comes from a region that had been rebel-free until early 2004, when the LRA carried out a series of massacres around the northern town of Lira.

After rampaging through his village, they abducted Walter to carry loot, taking him deep into the bush where he escaped after nearly a year in captivity. His 8-year-old brother was less fortunate.

"They killed him. They cut him up with a panga," he said. "He was too small to carry anything."

In July a Reuters poll of humanitarian experts listed the 10 worst places in the world in which to be a child. Northern Uganda came second, after Sudan's war-ravaged Darfur region.

The report said 935000 children in northern Uganda are living in refugee camps. About 25000 children have been abducted by the LRA since the rebellion began, it said.

"Northern Uganda is a very difficult place to be a child," Martin Mogwanja, a director of the UN children's fund said.

"Parents who are normally the first people to care for a child can't because of the life in the camps, which tears the social fabric apart," he said.

Many of the thousands of children abducted by rebels have been killed by the same rebels or in clashes with the Ugandan army, though some do get rescued.

The risk of abduction has forced thousands of children to sleep on the streets of the relatively secure town centres.

Aid workers say the recent calm in the north - as a truce holds - has slowed the daily flood of "night commuters" to a trickle. Now only about 5000 come into the town centres each night, compared with the 40000 during the peak of the conflict.

Though rebel abductions have stopped for now, the problem of reintegrating children who have been with the LRA back into their community remains.

At the Laroo boarding school for war-affected children outside the town of Gulu, once the epicentre of the conflict, children play football, sing or eat their lunch of millet and beans.

Many were abducted and some became child soldiers.

"We are traumatised by war," Doris Atiko, the school's secretary said.

"When we register these children, some have fresh bullet wounds from fighting," she said.

Richard Oweka, 15, was abducted by rebels as he walked home from his primary school. Three years after he escaped, he is back in school again.

After being forced to help carry looted food through the bush for hours, Richard was whisked away to a rebel base in southern Sudan where he was trained to be a killer.

"They taught us to shoot bullets and dive when fired at. They said we had to fight the government," he said.

Aid workers say the task of rehabilitating children such as Richard, many of whom have permanent psychological scars, will persist long after the signing of any peace deal.

Scovia Atim won't forget her 18 months with the LRA, when she was given as a "wife" to one of the rebel commanders.

"Being forced to beat the new abductees was the worst thing," the 17-year-old said.

"You had to hit them hard or the commanders [would] hit you."

Atim said she wanted to sew dresses now that she was out of the bush.

"I just need help to start again," she said. - Reuters


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