The children come at dusk. Some of them have walked for hours. They arrive barefoot, in clothes dusty and torn. At first there are only a few of them gathered in the field, waiting to be dispatched to giant tents where they will spend the night. But as the sky grows darker, the trickle of children entering through the gate becomes a torrent. Soon there are hundreds. By nightfall the crowd has swelled to more than five thousand. The children, called night commuters, sleep on the ground, huddled side by side. For now, this field in the town center of Gulu, a district in northern Uganda, is the safest place for them to be. To remain in their villages is to risk being stolen in the night.
In northern Uganda, tens of thousands of children have lived their entire lives under the threat of being abducted by a violent band of warriors who attack their villages and terrorize their communities. The rebels, who call themselves the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), have kidnapped an estimated 30,000 children, systematically brutalizing and brainwashing them, then using them as soldiers, laborers or sex slaves. The threat of abduction is so much a part of daily life for children of this region that each night some 50,000 of them leave their homes in remote villages and walk to town centers in Pader, Kitgum and Gulu districts. Before the tents were erected two and a half years ago, the children slept in bus terminals and on porches. Anywhere was safer than home.
“The scope of this is unbelievable,” says Rebecca Symington, the UNICEF child-protection project officer for the region. “The fear is that the situation is causing the disintegration of the entire culture. That time around dinner, when families would tell stories and pass on traditions and values to the children, is lost. Now children leave school, go home very briefly, then walk for two or three hours to the shelter. So the family no longer has authority over the children.” But as difficult as it is for them to send their children away, parents know that the alternative is worse. To understand the terror these families face, you must hear the story of a child who was taken.
The Abduction of Agnes
Agnes Abalo’s parents, both schoolteachers, sent their daughter to a mission boarding school, where they thought she would get a good education. Agnes enjoyed the boarding school, which was not far from her home in Pajule. “I especially liked singing,” she says, “and playing netball and talking with my friends.” But then her father developed ulcers and needed to be hospitalized, and Agnes came home to be with the family.
October 9, 2003, was Independence Day. Agnes, 14, had visited her father at the hospital, then went with friends to church. She remembers that she wore her favorite blue dress with white flowers and returned late to a neighbor’s house, where she was to spend the night. She was so tired that she fell asleep still wearing her good dress.
At six the next morning, she awoke to gunshots and men yelling outside the window. She knew right away what was happening. Like all children in northern Uganda, she had grown up in constant fear of LRA attacks. She knew that if children were taken, they rarely escaped. She knew that the rebels did unspeakable things to girls. She knew that she should run.
But the men were already banging on the door and threatening to kill whoever was inside. Agnes ran to the door and pushed her weight against it as her neighbor scrambled to hide the family’s food—beans, millet and oil, provisions that the rebels were sure to steal. The neighbor’s two small children, ages 2 and 9, crouched against a wall, crying and holding each other. The rebels kicked and hollered, then rammed an axe through the door. Agnes backed away and half a dozen men rushed in.
Shirtless, their torsos gleaming with shea oil, which they believed would repel bullets, the rebels wore army-fatigue pants and black rubber boots and brandished submachine guns. They ransacked the house, grabbing sacks of food, clothes and tools. They barked at the children to lie on the floor as they dragged Agnes and her neighbor outside. Almost 300 villagers had already been forced from their homes and herded in the semidarkness. Among them were Agnes’s brothers, 8 and 19, both of whom had been sleeping that night at other huts in the village. (Agnes’s parents and her sister escaped capture.) The soldiers, about 200 in all, quickly distributed the loot they had pillaged among the captives, then ordered them at gunpoint to march into the bush.
Agnes, now 15, tells me the story of her abduction while sitting in the front office of the Uganda Children of War Rehabilitation Project in Gulu, one of the districts hardest hit by LRA attacks. It has been only a few weeks since she escaped from the rebels. She is one of 300 children at the rehabilitation center, brought here for intensive counseling before returning home. With us in the small office are Michael Oruni, coordinator of the center, and Florence Lakor, whose own daughter was abducted from a boarding school in 1996 and held captive for eight years. Now a counselor at the center, Lakor helps Oruni translate for Agnes, gently prodding the child to confront the details of her experience. As Agnes haltingly recalls her abduction and the months spent in the bush with the rebels, she sinks deep into her chair. Her voice falls almost to a whisper as she clasps her hands in her lap, below a belly swollen by five months of pregnancy.
For most of us, children like Agnes are among the most shocking victims of war. We see them on the news, their faces pinched, their eyes hollow. Compared with our own young ones, so boisterous and loud, demanding our attention, these quiet, traumatized children seem barely real, their circumstances too complicated to grasp, their plight too overwhelming to address. But our apathy and sense of helplessness only compound the problem.
“The global community has allowed this crisis to continue,” says Rory Anderson, Africa policy adviser for World Vision, a Christian relief and development organization that serves children in the area. “There has been no sustained international interest in ending the conflict in northern Uganda. Most people don’t even know what’s going on.”
Child-Wives of the Commander
Agnes and the other villagers were forced to march from daybreak until afternoon, never resting, never slowing down. “We walked at a terrible speed,” she recalls of that first day. “It was more like running.” She remembers an old man with heavy bags: “The soldiers said he was wasting everyone’s time, so they beat him to death. They told us this is what will happen if you don’t walk fast.” Agnes, struggling under the weight of the cooking oil and beans she was carrying, pushed through the tall grass, her chest heaving, her feet swollen and bloody. “Once a child is abducted, everything about their survival is bound by the rules of the LRA,” says Michael Wessells, Ph.D., a senior child-protection specialist with the Christian Children’s Fund. “You don’t falter. You don’t disobey. Any show of weakness and you’re killed.” The children also know that death at the hands of the LRA will be slow and brutal. “The soldiers don’t waste bullets on civilians,” explains Rory Anderson. “They’re more inclined to hack people to death.”
With the midday sun beating down, the villagers marched until they came to a clearing where senior commanders waited. The villagers were instructed to unload their bags, then the men and women were ordered to find their way home. More than 100 children, including Agnes and her two brothers, were told to stay. None of the adults made eye contact with the children. No one said a word. “The psychology of the situation is horrifically straightforward,” says Michael Wessells to explain the silent retreat of the adults. “The parents have lived with the threat of the LRA for nearly two decades, and they have played out these scenarios in their minds. They know if they start to cry, their child might start to cry and then the child will be killed. So they harden themselves and do what they can to increase the children’s chance to live.”
Of all those captured, girls like Agnes are most prized by the rebels; they can read and write and are old enough to bear children. The rebels ordered all the schoolgirls to stand apart as, one by one, the commanders selected “wives” from among them. Jimmy, a 45-year-old with long dreadlocks and a deep scowl, pointed to Agnes. “You will be my second wife,” he said. He chose Grace, another girl from Agnes’s village, to be his third. “I didn’t want to go with him,” Agnes says softly. “He was so old.”
As Jimmy’s wife, Agnes was to carry his bedding from camp to camp and cook his food. But there was never enough time. She would scramble to find firewood, strike a fire, grind and cook the millet, clean the utensils, and then pack the bags, all in less than half an hour. If she took too long, she was beaten; if the dishes weren’t clean enough, she was beaten. Every day the first wife or the commander’s guards would have a new reason to pummel her with rocks and sticks. Agnes dared not cry. She worried endlessly about her brothers, whom she had not seen since the day of their abduction. She longed to go home.
Rebels With No Cause
Northern Uganda, home of the Acholi tribe, features some of the most fertile land in the country. “Before the war, this was a peaceful area,” says Michael Oruni, who has lived in
the region all his life. “The people here were farmers, producing food not only for themselves, but also for the whole country.” At the hands of the LRA, though, peace has given way to chaos. Open a Ugandan newspaper on almost any day of the week, and you’ll find an account of the latest carnage committed by the LRA: villages burned to the ground, children kidnapped, civilians murdered or mutilated. But while the LRA continues its reign of terror in northern Uganda, it is distinguished from other insurgent groups in that it has no clear political agenda. While the rebels claim they want to rule Uganda according to the Bible’s Ten Commandments, their espoused beliefs are a cocktail of fundamentalism, spiritualism and blood lust.
Their leader, Joseph Kony, a former altar boy and a self-proclaimed prophet who is believed to be about 40, founded the LRA in the tumultuous years after the coup that brought current Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni to power in 1986. Kony believed that Museveni, who was from southern Uganda, was hostile to northerners, and Kony intended for the LRA to overthrow the government and take over leadership of the country. But the movement eventually lost steam, and Kony became enraged at his own people for abandoning the cause. “Instead of fighting Museveni, which was the original mission, Kony began to see himself as a divine tool of correction against his own people,” explains Rory Anderson. “He felt the people of the north had turned their back on his movement, and now he was going to punish them.”
Kony’s rebels have received much of their support from the government of neighboring Sudan, which in 1994 began supplying them with weapons, training, military uniforms and a safe haven across the border from Uganda. In return, the LRA has frequently attacked insurgent groups who oppose the Sudanese government. But by far the greater destruction has been inflicted on Kony’s own people. LRA forces have created such turmoil in northern Uganda that 70 percent of schools in Pader district have been shut down, and 80 percent of the region’s inhabitants have fled their homes and relocated to displaced persons’ camps. Most of these camps have sprung up on the periphery of Ugandan military barracks in Pader, Kitgum and Gulu. But the military provides them with no real protection. In fact, the camps are routinely attacked and set on fire by the rebels, who then flee to safety in the bush.
When I ask him about the possibility of ending the conflict with the LRA, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni expresses nothing but optimism: “We had a problem in the past in that Sudan was supporting the LRA, and my government was spending too little on defense,” he says. “So northern Uganda was quite wild. Now the situation is that many of the bandits have been killed or have surrendered. We are getting them one by one.”
But Adotei Akwei, Africa advocacy director at Amnesty International, USA, sees the situation differently. “Our analysis is that the Ugandan government has not been fully committed to putting down the LRA, in part due to corruption in its own military,” he says. While the U.S. Congress last summer passed the Northern Uganda Crisis Response Act, putting Museveni on notice that the conflict was of concern to U.S. policy makers, Akwei and others believe that such symbolic gestures are not enough. “Congress needs to exert pressure on Museveni to end this crisis,” says Anderson. “Without the leadership of the United States, no one will care.”
For more information on the crisis in northern Uganda and to find out how you can help, contact any of these relief organizations: World Vision, (202) 572-6499, worldvision.org; Amnesty International, (800) AMNESTY, amnestyusa.org; Christian Children’s Fund, (800) 776-6767, christianchildrensfund.org; unicef, (800) 4UNICEF, unicefusa.org.
To read the entire article, "Abduction of Innocents," pick up the December issue of ESSENCE.