GULU, Uganda (Reuters) – When a wooden club was flung to the ground beside his already beaten body, 15-year-old Kenneth Banya knew it was his turn to be bludgeoned to death by fellow children abducted by rebels in northern Uganda.
“I started crying because I knew I was going to die,” said Kenneth, a slender boy with a shy smile and dimples that belie the gravity of his words.
A dozen children swiftly kicked and beat him unconscious. He was spared death only when a commander intervened in a rare show of mercy among the Lord’s Resistance Army, Uganda’s shadowy rebel movement notorious for its acts of extreme brutality.
The LRA has been waging a slow but devastating civil war against the government for 17 years, snatching tens of thousands of children from rural villages and forcing them to work as soldiers and sex slaves in the bush.
A flare-up in LRA activity since June has alarmed observers, with Human Rights Watch reporting this month that 800,000 people — 70 percent of northern Uganda’s population — have fled their homes, many living in refugee-style camps and towns loosely protected by government troops.
Some 8,400 children have also been abducted by the LRA during the past year, according to the report, bringing the estimated number of abducted children to about 20,000.
Those who try to escape are tortured and killed by peers ordered to carry out grisly mutilations and ritualistic murders.
“They wanted to make me like them, but I am not like them,” said Ismael Odong, a 16-year-old former captive forced by rebel leaders to kill another teen-ager who tried to escape.
“I was very afraid because it was the first time for me to kill someone. They made me use a big stick. If you refuse, they just kill you too,” added Ismael, who was himself abducted.
Like many who escape, both Kenneth and Ismael fled the LRA during the confusion of Ugandan army ambushes. Kenneth was shot twice as he ran away.
Pulling back his clothing, he revealed bright pink bullet wounds on his arm and hip. He explained how he dragged himself bleeding through the bush for two days, licking dew from the grass to quench his thirst and pulling up a stem of cassava with his one good arm to feed himself.
He eventually crawled to safety and was brought to one of the rehabilitation centers in Gulu, where hundreds of former abductees live communally in guarded, military-style barracks, receiving food, shelter, medical treatment and job training.
Some children, including Kenneth and Ismael, have regained the spark of youth, but many still have the blank, glassy-eyed stares of those who have spent months or years in rebel captivity.
The LRA is an almost mystical force, haunting northern Uganda’s wilds mostly by night and striking fear into villagers anxiously awaiting the dawn. Its leader Joseph Kony is a reclusive, enigmatic figure who claims supernatural powers.
Peace has proved as elusive as Kony in a country that is otherwise a rare success story on a troubled continent. The roots of Uganda’s war lie in bloody post-independence power struggles that alienated the Acholi people of the north, which maintains mutually suspicious relations with the south.
The irony is the LRA is Acholi and is killing its own tribe.
A preoccupied international community has done little to quell the violence. Most foreign aid agencies are too afraid to operate in northern Uganda. The World Food Program is the only United Nations agency with a permanent office in the area.
“There is no situation in the world right now where there is such a gross violation of children’s and human rights,” said Father Carlos Rodriguez, a Spanish priest in Gulu who heads the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative.
The organization has reached some rebel leaders who it says want peace, but there has been a backlash, with LRA attacks against churches and a Kony radio broadcast ordering followers to “destroy Catholic missions, kill priests and missionaries in cold blood and beat nuns black and blue.”
Uganda’s government has failed to crush the LRA despite massive spending and many Ugandans complain of military officials profiting from the war — a charge the army denies.
At dusk each night, dusty roads leading to Gulu are crammed with thousands of children flocking from nearby villages to the relative safety of town. They camp out on verandas, in the bus station, school playgrounds and hospitals, and go home at daybreak.
“It is an illogical war in which we have reached the point where rebels are rebels because they don’t know what else to do,” said Rodriguez, noting that unlike in other African wars over diamonds or oil, there are no great spoils to be won here.