Uganda’s lost innocents

BBC, July 5, 2003
By Hilary Andersson, BBC correspondent in northern Uganda

It’s night time in Gulu, northern Uganda, and the sounds of young children float into my hotel room. But the innocent murmurings and chatter of youth disguise their terrible reality.

Gulu is a place where you have to be cursed to spend your childhood, because this is a place where children’s nightmares come true.

The children start arriving at dusk, a trickle at first as one or two walk down the road and into the town.

Eventually they come in droves, carrying nothing – wandering in, in a matter of fact sort of way. They are coming to town to sleep on the streets because in their villages they know they could be kidnapped by the rebels.

Their greatest fear is that if they are kidnapped their noses and ears will be hacked off.

In some parts of town the little bodies are so closely huddled together that you tiptoe and balance your way through them, hard pressed to pick a place to put your foot.

‘Insane’ leader

The rebel group more accurately described as a cult – kidnapping children in this part of Uganda in their thousands – is called the Lord’s Resistance Army.

It is led by a man called Joseph Kony, once an altar boy and now reputed to have 60 wives, to wear women’s dresses and occasionally dreadlocks.

He is a man who believes he has a direct link with the angels – they speak to him, he tells the captured children, and tell him what to eat and what not to eat, when to eat it and when ambushes are coming his way.

He believes he has been handpicked by God to overthrow Uganda’s government and introduce the Bible’s Ten Commandments as law.

Anecdotal evidence by the few who have met him indicate that Joseph Kony might be insane.

Still, for 17 years, Uganda’s army has failed to defeat him. So the mass kidnapping of little children in northern Uganda goes on.

‘Made to kill my friend’

In the hospitals near Gulu, children who have escaped their captors come in everyday.

They have terrible wounds from being beaten with sticks and machetes – for being bad in the eyes of the rebels.

Kidnapped children are seen as bad if they walk too slowly under the heavy loads they are made to carry, if they disobey instructions or if they lose their way.

The frail bodies of those who have escaped lie limp, beaten through to the flesh. There is a steel pin through one girl’s broken leg, and spinal damage to the girl in the bed next to her who may not walk again. These are visions of sheer and savage brutality.

At a centre for children who have escaped I met a boy called Dennis. He is 14 now but was kidnapped when he was 11 and spent three years in captivity.

He had a chubby, friendly face, and was disarmingly open.

Like everyone else the night he was kidnapped, he was tied by ropes to other children and marched off to the bush with a heavy load on his head.

One day, he told me, the rebel leader gave a random order that no one should eat at four o’clock – a message from the angels.

One of the kidnapped boys with Dennis disobeyed and so the rebels selected seven boys, including Dennis, and ordered them to kill the offender.

Dennis, fearing for his life, said he picked up a heavy stick and beat him on the head until his skull cracked open and he died.

His hands started fidgeting as he told me the story. The boy he had been made to kill was his friend.

Forced to eat flesh

The girls who are kidnapped are given to rebel commanders when they are 12 years old for rape.

The rape can go on for years and many give birth. But it gets worse.

A woman called Laweel was told that she and 10 others were to be made an example of as a way of warning the community not to fight the rebels. They were to be mutilated, and sent home alive.

So they were lined up in front of their captors. Kidnapped children were told to sharpen the knives and machetes laid there, and one by one the women had their noses, lips and ears cut off. Then they were made to eat their own flesh.

I tried to keep looking at Laweel as I spoke to her, so as not to offend her, but it was really hard.

Her disfigurement is so appalling that your mind instantly conjures up images of the event. It must be the worst part of it all that now, as she goes through her life, people look they other way.

What is happening in northern Uganda could surely be stopped or tempered if the rebel leader was caught.

And how hard can it be? The LRA is only made up of a few thousand fighters at the most – and the majority are kidnapped children.

Send in a mercenary crack squad, get foreign help – do whatever it takes. But Uganda’s government won’t because they want to do it themselves and 17 years later they won’t admit that they failed.

And so again tonight, thousands of Ugandan children will flood into the towns, and probably somewhere, not far off, more will be kidnapped.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday July 7, 2003.
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