Innocent targets: The children of northern Uganda

Painting representing children who managed to escape from the Lord's Resistance Army
Painting representing children who managed to escape from the Lord’s Resistance Army  (© Eric Beauchemin)

In 2004, children in northern Uganda were living in fear. A rebel movement called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) had abducted over 20,000 children since it began fighting the Ugandan government 17 years ago. Half of the children had been captured in the past 18 months alone.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: April 7, 2004


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Innocent targets: The children of Northern Uganda”. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

We would like to advise listeners that the following program contains graphic descriptions of the personal experience of the victims of violence and war. Listeners may find them disturbing.

The conflict in northern Uganda is unique in the sense that the children are not just the main victims but they are the main targets.

The children did something they never chose to. Not by choice that they are doing all these atrocities.

We as parents are saying, the children need to be forgiven because we failed to protect them.

For the past 17 years, Uganda has been at war. The authorities have been fighting a rebel group – called the Lord’s Resistance Army or LRA – which claims it wants to establish a government based on the Ten Commandments. It’s a particularly vicious war: the LRA are infamous for cutting off the lips, ears and noses of civilians. But their main victims are children. The rebels have abducted over 20-thousand children, nearly half of them in the past 18 months alone. They force the children to fight on the frontlines or serve as porters or sex slaves. In northern Uganda today, children live in fear.

Every afternoon, 50-thousand children set off from their villages towards the main towns and cities in northern Uganda.

They walk up to 15 kilometres every afternoon to take refuge in camps and shelters. In the morning, they head back home again. They and their parents know that if they were to stay in their villages, they’d run the risk of being abducted by the rebels. In Uganda, these children are known as night commuters.

Foneyin Hussein
Foneyin Hussein  (© Eric Beauchemin)

My name is Foneyin Hussein. EB: And how old are you? I’m 14 years old. Do you come here every night? Yeah, I always come here every night at around 7 p.m. EB: And why do you come here? Because I don’t want to be abducted and start fighting against the government of Uganda. EB: How many kilometres do you have to walk to get here? I have to walk four miles far from our home to arrive here on foot. I don’t have anything like means of transport. EB: How long does it take you? Three hours and thirty minutes. EB: Three hours and thirty minutes to walk 4 miles? Because I always walk barefooted. So we delay on the way very much. EB: Why do you delay? Because you know, the behaviours of the children is to first play. EB: Ah, you’re playing along the way. Yeah. EB: OK, so what time do you leave your home? From our home, I leave at around 4. EB: How long have you been coming here? To this centre, for about 8 months. EB: Do your brothers and sisters come with you to? Yeah, we come with our brothers and sisters.

Hussein and his siblings are among the 35-hundred children who come every evening to this centre in Gulu in northern Uganda. It was set up over a year ago by the Noah’s Ark Children’s Ministry. The centre is not much more than several huge tents surrounded by a high metal fence. The centre’s director is Dickens Oyet Omonyokol.

Noah's Ark Children's Ministry
Noah’s Ark Children’s Ministry  (© Eric Beauchemin)

When they come, we don’t take them immediately to go and sleep. We have some activities within the organisation here, at our centre. We have social workers which normally direct the activities like Bible studies, Bible stories, drama, guide and counselling, health education, proverbs, even singing and prayer, always, we do. EB: How old are these children? The oldest we have here are 17 years old and some are even 2 years. But in most cases, quite a number range from 4 years to 17 years and we categorise them. 6, 4, 7, they have different classes and even their room. And then 8, 9 different room. Then 10, 11 different place. Then 12, 13, different place. Then 14 and above, different places. That’s how we categorise them. EB: You call it a room but it’s actually a big tent provided by UNICEF. I think this is a good names I can give the tents but that’s their room because that’s where they spend the night and that’s what we call a room. EB: These children go home to see their parents obviously but also to eat. That’s the main reason that they’re going home. In most cases during school days, they first go home or some go straight to school. But in some cases, they go home and then straight to school. But they have very limited time to stay with their parents especially during school period. Because if the child leaves here in the morning around 7 a.m., goes home, spends something like 30 minutes preparing himself or herself. Then he goes to school and comes back in the evening by 5. Then spends something like 1 hour. By 6, 6:30 you have to begin reporting at the centre. So you find this child have very little time to stay with their parents. Something like one and a half hours or two hours only. EB: What a life! Yeah, of course, it’s not best because the children are lacking parental love. It’s not there. They feel like really to be with their parents. Even the parents. But the situation cannot allow them, so it’s just a pity to everyone. It’s a pity.

The conflict in northern Uganda is unique in the sense that the children are not just the main victims which you find in many conflicts but they are the main targets which I don’t think you find in so many other places.

Mads Oyen is the child protection officer of UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund.

The levels of child abductions have never been this high in the history of this insurgency over 17 years. We have seen about 10,000 abductions over the last 18 months. But it isn’t just the abductions. It’s also the incredible fear it creates among all other children for being abducted. And we’re seeing large numbers of children who are coming into urban and semi-urban areas at night in order to seek protection. And that places the family structure under tremendous stress. So I think conditions have never been so difficult, especially for children in northern Uganda.

The upsurge in child abductions is directly linked to developments in Sudan, Uganda’s neighbour to the north, where the Lord’s Resistance Army used to have its bases. In mid-2002, the rebels were forced out of southern Sudan and into Uganda. But their tactics have not changed: they continue to ambush government forces, attack civilians and especially abduct children. Dennis was 9 when he and his older sister were kidnapped by the LRA.

Dennis  (© Eric Beauchemin)

They were given very heavy loads to carry and they walked very long distances. EB: For how many days did you have to walk? They would walk right from 6 o’clock in the morning till 1 o’clock. Then they would rest a bit and continue till nightfall, and then they would rest. And the next day they would just carry on like that. They took 1 week and 3 days walking to Sudan. EB: What happened once you arrived in Sudan? When they arrived there, some people began to die of cholera because of the problems with sanitation. He says some of the abductees were killed on the way and even when they arrived in the camps, some of them were always killed because of several reasons. EB: Which ones? Some of the abductees would try to escape and when they were caught, they would be killed immediately. EB: Who killed them? Some of the children were always given to fellow children to kill. EB: When the children had to kill other children, what did they use? Sticks? At times, they are given to trample the child to death or they would use a log to beat the child to death. EB: A log or a stick? A log. A club, I mean.

The brutality and violence Dennis and the other abductees were subjected to is common, says Michael Uruni of the Christian charity World Vision. He co-ordinates the Uganda Children of War Rehabilitation Programme, which has helped reunite over 8000 former child soldiers with their families.

Michael Uruni
Michael Uruni  (© Eric Beauchemin)

The LRA, after abducting the children, they want to maintain their army. They don’t want anybody to try to escape. So what they use is to instil fear of death into you so that you don’t make an attempt because if somebody tries to escape, he’s brought back and killed like that. Who are you to try and escape again? So that’s how they keep the children to be in their ranks by showing them the violence that they have against anybody who shows signs of cowardice, against anybody who becomes a betrayer, against anybody who tries to give out a wrong signal. They want to kill you summarily so that the others are strengthened. And there are times when they even ask the children to lick the blood. And another tool that they use, when they abduct you, a child, they want to know your home. And usually they take you there to burn the homes, to kill the relatives, so that you feel so guilty, you don’t want to go back again. If you have killed your own brother, whose brother will you not kill? If you have killed your own mother and father, whose father will you not kill?

The ongoing abductions and the LRA’s sheer cruelty make the rebels deeply unpopular, says Barney Afako, a Ugandan lawyer and human rights worker, even though the Ugandan army or UPDF is also guilty of recruiting child soldiers and committing gross human rights violations.

Barney Afaku
Barney Afaku  (© Eric Beauchemin)

I have to make that very clear, that civilians, if given the choice, will run for shelter towards the UPDF and always have done. No one has ever fled from the UPDF to cross over into LRA lines. I would suggest that a very small percentage – perhaps less than 5% of the LRA – are there willingly. So the original people who decided as adults to make a decision to go and fight against the government are very few. It’s probably only a handful. Everybody else there has been abducted. Everybody else there is somebody’s daughter who’s been turned into a monster.

Once the children reach the rebels’ camps, they receive military training. Dennis and his group spent three months in Sudan learning, for example, how to dismantle rifles, lay ambushes and carry out attacks at night. Dennis’s first battle against Sudanese rebels, belonging to the SPLA, took place when he was still only 9 years old.

He said the first time when he went for battle, he became so frightened and afraid when many children died during the battle. He became so frightened. EB: And what did you do in that battle? They went to attack the SPLA. He said during the offensive, they began to retreat because they had lost a lot of their soldiers. And they became so weak and tired. So the commander said they should begin to retreat, and he was very frightened during the whole process of the retreat because he thought he would die at that moment. EB: Did the rebels say anything to you to comfort you, to make you feel less scared? During that time, the rebel commander talked to them and said, if you are brave, then you will not get injured. But if you become afraid, then you can be easily injured. So during any operation they should always be brave and active so that they won’t get injured.

After nearly 2 years, at the age of 11, Dennis was considered experienced enough to return to Uganda and fight. He and his group mainly laid ambushes and attacked civilians. He killed many people, he recalls, and his unit captured many, many children. Horrified by what he was being forced to do, Dennis started planning his escape.

He decided that when they were going for a battle, so he decided as they were fighting, he would make his escape in the battle. So it happened during the battle, he was shot. So he was seriously injured. EB: Where were you shot? He was shot in the leg. EB: And what happened when you were shot? Were you taken for treatment? He says during the battle, they were attacked by an armoured car, and a rocket fell on his leg. So he was injured badly on the leg. So he moved with his gun and went and hid in a thicket. EB: But if you were so badly injured, how could you move by yourself? He was crawling, crawling. EB: You hid there, and then what happened? So after a while, the soldiers came to charge the area, and then they came and got him. And then they shot him 3 bullets. Two shots got him, but one shot did not get him. So they took his shirt. They pulled also his belt and smaller things and then they went away and left him for dead. EB: But if you were already injured, why did they shoot you? He says when they got him, he was in his army uniform so they just shot him and they left him for dead.

Dennis doesn’t remember what happened after that. 3 days later, he says, he regained consciousness.

Dennis  (© Eric Beauchemin)

He suffered so much. There was no water. There was no food. And then, a priest came along with some soldiers and natives to bury the dead who were scattered around. Then he began to shout and to call to them, that he was also abducted and they should help him. So the priest came and carried him away. So the priest took him to Lira Hospital. And then after 3 days, they amputated his leg. Because it couldn’t be salvaged. During the three days he stayed without getting treatment, worms began to develop in his leg and they travel up his leg, and the doctor found that there was no other option other than to amputate his leg. So he also felt it right that his leg should be amputated above the knee because it was badly affected.

Dennis is now in a centre in the city of Gulu. The camp was set up in 1995 as a result of the growing numbers of children who were being freed by government troops or who were managing to escape the LRA. The camp has dormitories for boys and girls.

There’s also a special dormitory for the girls and young women who return from the bush with babies. Most of the children, says Michael Oruni of World Vision, spend 2 to 4 weeks at the centre.

When we receive the children, the first thing that we do is to document them: write their details, the names and where they come from. And usually the children don’t tell you the truth because they don’t trust you, they don’t know you. After documenting them, we pay attention to their physical needs. Mostly they come in clothes that are not fit for a human being to put on. Some of them have big body injuries. They’re hungry. Then after paying attention to their physical needs, we take them through a counselling session. And this counselling is to help them come out with the suffering they have undergone and also get ways of coping.

The counselling is both on an individual and a group basis, and can include very simple things like singing songs. As the children develop more confidence in the counsellors, they reveal their true identity. With help from the government, World Vision then tries to find the children’s family…no easy task in a country where over 1½ million people have been forced to flee and now live in camps for displaced persons. Many of the children who pass through the World Vision camp have committed atrocities against their own families and communities, but Michael Oruni says when parents hear that their children are in the centre, they come immediately.

You send information, by evening, the mother is here, the father is here. Everybody is running and crying and tears and hugging and caring. So that indicates for us that the family still accepts the child. During the time when the villages are accessible, we allow the child to go for a home visit before final reunion, so that our vehicle, our staff on a motorcycle would carry the child up to the home to see from home, are you still receiving this child well? How about the neighbours? And the child is allowed 2, 3, 4 days. Now this period of time helps us to know how much the family can accept back the child, how much the community around is comfortable with the child back. And this has been possible because we have done a lot of sensitisation in the community. But in the beginning, it was difficult because a child would escape. Even the community would run him down, would kill him, because they said, he’s LRA.

Today should be a happy day for 16-year-old Anna. She’s being reunited with her mother after nearly a year in the bush with the rebels. But the reunion is bittersweet. Anna’s mother prays for her daughter, but her prayers can’t erase the stark reality of life in this tiny village on the outskirts of Gulu.

Anna and her mother
Anna and her mother  (© Eric Beauchemin)

Except for a few rags on the mud floor, the mother’s hut is barren. World Vision, which is accompanying Anna home, is also bringing along some food. But the family knows it won’t last for long. The mother is desperately sick and has no idea how she’ll provide for Anna and her brother.

Anna doesn’t want her mother or anyone else to know what happened to her while she was with the LRA. She asks her mother and brother to leave the hut, and we have to check outside to make sure there are no children listening. In a whisper, she begins to tell how she was abducted early last year, along her sister and 26 other children. They were all tied together with a rope and the rebels rubbed oil on them to make them feel part of this rebel group purporting to want rule Uganda according to the 10 Commandments. For one week, they were forced to walk until they reached a rebel base.

They gave her to a man and she didn’t want. She ran away and hid herself. Then they caught her and said why did she refuse. They gave her 120 strokes on her…beating her on her back. EB: So then you had to go sleep with a man? So, they threatened to kill her and she accepted. EB: Did that mean you had to have sex with him every night? I was not alone. We were 7 wives of that man. So he calls whoever he wants to sleep with. EB: Was that also the first time that you had had sex? I had never been with a man before.

Two other girls were given to the same commander, but they refused to sleep with him.

One girl escaped. They caught her and they told her, Anna, to kill the girl, and lick the blood, so she did. Another girl escaped again and they told her and other captives to kill the girl. When she resisted, they said, let the girl kill you, if you don’t want to beat. So I beat the girl again. There was another girl who tried to escape because many children always tried to escape but unfortunately she was caught. So they told us to bite her until death. And we did. All our mouth was blood.

It’s not only the girl they had to eat alive who haunts Anna. She and her group were forced to bludgeon and trample others to death too. They killed at least 9 children, says Anna, and at night, they all come back to haunt her.

Anna  (© Eric Beauchemin)

In the dream, I see those ones we were told to kill. And one time, when I told them to pray for me, so I entered into a fasting without eating two days because it was disturbing me too much. And those ones who were killed by bullets in fighting, and there was especially the other one we were biting with our teeth, and even those ones we were hitting their heads. They were all saying, you have already escaped and left us. Now we are suffering and you are already at home. You have to come back and we stay together.

Even though Anna’s ordeal is over, says World Vision counsellor, Florence Lakor, she still lives in fear of the rebels.

It’s a terrible situation actually. Because these people walk…at night, they go anywhere and they keep on entering into houses where they get these girls, especially those who have been abducted already. If they find them, it means death. The rebels will kill her. Yes. The rebels would kill her. They would say, why did you leave us? Why did you escape? So, it means, if you hate us, we are going to kill you now. And it is also scaring for her. It brings back all the trauma.

Florence is going to try to find a place for Anna in one of the centres for night commuters, so that she can at least sleep in peace. But Florence fears that Anna may have something else to worry about: HIV. So far, over 20 of the girls and young women who’ve passed through the World Vision centre have tested positive, says Michael Oruni.

Right now in Uganda, Gulu is emerging as the leading district in HIV/AIDS prevalence. Now these children who have been subjected to rape and abuse all the time, again somehow, they got used to it. Now when they come here, they go home in the community, they’ll be meeting the young ones. We get reports that they are getting pregnant again in the community, the girls who had passed through this centre. That means they want to marry, they want to kind of settle, and that’s also another problem: the spreading of HIV/AIDS which is a big phenomenon in Gulu, besides the war which has taken more than 18 years now. The HIV/AIDS is coming as the last bomb that will destroy our community.

Pascale and her son
Pascale and her son  (© Eric Beauchemin)

20-year-old Pascale is one of the former child soldiers who’s settled in Gulu. She received tailoring classes from the Christian charity. It also provided her with a sewing machine. Pascal is now married and has a baby daughter. She works in one of the stalls in Gulu’s main market, but she admits, in the beginning, it wasn’t easy.

It was difficult because she had just started because the training they are given is only 6 months. So it was difficult because she could not do much and people also didn’t know that she is a tailor. So it was a bit hard. EB: But now do you have a number of regular customers? She has a few customers because it needs a bit of money to buy materials and begin to sew or the kind of skills she got is not enough to bring people who have high class to make their clothes, so still she doesn’t get very many customers. EB: How much do you earn more or less doing this? Sometimes, she only gets 1000 shillings a day. EB: Which is 50 cents. Yeah. That’s obviously not enough to survive on. And out of this money, she keeps it and she uses it for medicine for when the children are sick and buy some items like fruit, food and other things she can do with the money. EB: Does your husband also work? He goes sometimes in the village and digs, but he doesn’t do anything really much. So now that they are in the camp, it’s difficult, it’s risky to go, but sometimes he has to sneak and go to the farm. EB: So she’s the only one who is earning money on a regular basis. Yes she’s the only who gets money.

Angelina Atyam
Angelina Atyam  (© Eric Beauchemin)

Even though Pascale is barely eking out an existence, she knows at least that she’s safe from the LRA. The rebels don’t attack cities, and besides, as an adult, she doesn’t have to fear being abducted again. But thousands of parents across northern Uganda live in constant apprehension about the fate of their children. Angelina Atyam’s daughter was among 139 girls who were abducted from a school in 1996. An Italian nun managed to obtain the release of 109 of the girls, but Angelina’s daughter remained behind. Together with other parents, she set up the Concerned Parents Association, which is trying to secure the freedom of all of Uganda’s abducted children. The only news Angelina has heard about her daughter came from another child who managed to escape the LRA. She told Angelina that her daughter and a group of rebels had passed through her district only a month ago.

I get so angry when I think that she was just a few kilometres from us here and I couldn’t even speak to her. But you see, we have become a group like one body. Every child that is out there is my child. My child is somebody else’s child. That is the parents’ children or the parents’ child. I personally prefer calling them the 20,000 child because in each of them, I see my own child. And every child is my child. It is unfortunate, I personally have not been able to get one child out of captivity on my own. That is very, that is disheartening. This is the 7th year of talking about the same thing, the same thing. The abductors, the rebels, don’t respond, and the children have not been brought back.

“Innocent targets” was produced by Eric Beauchemin. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.