Uganda's Children of the Night Sucked Into an Orgy of Violence


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Peter Kimani

A shimmer of light gleams in the horizon, as if someone is dangling a giant torch, before the glow dims into nothingness.

Shrills from crickets filter to the fore, as children walk noiselessly across the grassfield, their bare feet avoiding puddles of freshly-formed water.

Darkness in Gulu, some 400 kilometres north east of Uganda's capital, Kampala, lures crickets out of their holes and children out of their homes.

It's been raining, and the smell of fresh earth burns in the nostrils, but it elicits no excitement in the children.

They file past in muted grief, into a windowless classroom where white ants are doing their death-dance round a naked light-bulb, frail arms clutching plastic bags containing blankets and sacks to sleep in.

These are children of the night, sucked into a whirlpool of violence that has disrupted and destroyed their childhood. They are caught up in the vortex of armed conflict that pits the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels and the government forces, the Ugandan People's Defence Force.

People displaced

An estimated 1.6 million people have been displaced since the conflict began in August 1986.

Under the harsh glare of the car's headlights, 10-year-old Achier Kevin blinks fearfully, clearly burdened by the angular load on her head.

"I fear the night," she says in a steady voice, balancing the bedding on her head.

Achier walks for four kilometres to reach Gulu Primary School, where she and other children have made their home for the past three years, escaping their terror-ridden homes.

Many others walk from as far as 14 kilometres to make it to the school.

Every night, about 20,000 children make such trips to about 15 schools and other shelters in Gulu municipality to escape abduction and possible death in the hands of the LRA.

Although the programme now dubbed "night commuter" is a recent phenomenon, having started in 2002 when LRA rebels stepped up their attacks in response to the American-funded Operation Iron Fist, in which Uganda and Sudan joined hands to flush out the LRA, the end is not in sight.

Children everywhere treasure memories of their growing; their first step in life, days of laughter and endless play. But the children of Gulu have been dispossessed of all these.

"It was in January, 1998," says Florence Adong, 19, "Six am."

Another dimension

For 26-year-old Jane Oyella, the hour of reckoning was 2 am, one chilly July morning in 1996.

Both Adong and Oyella have another dimension added to their travails: they are raising children fathered by Kony himself and a rebel commander, not to mention the associated stigma.

The Save the Children Uganda issued a report in April condemning stigmatising of girls returning to the villages after stints in LRA camps, especially when they have children sired by rebels.

For Oyella, tides of time have swept off the painful memories, having been back for seven years; but Adong's hurt is still raw and smarting, having been rescued in March this year after eight years in captivity.

Rocking her six-month-old baby, Adong's well-modulated voice rises and falls, recalling how she was plucked from her home in Padere.

"I was given a load to carry, which I threw down in anger. For this, I got a severe beating from one female rebel. We walked for days and nights till we got to the Uganda-Sudan border."

The method of capture may sound simplistic, but experts say it involves sophisticated psychological manipulation that comes in handy in the subsequent indoctrination process.

"The children are captured before their parents to show how helpless they are, and are persuaded to believe they did not love them enough," says Michael Oruni, who coordinates the World Vision Uganda Children of War Rehabilitation project in Gulu. "Their first assignment is usually to return to the villages to kill their parents."

The United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) estimates that 12,000 children had been kidnapped by June 2002, most of who are still unaccounted for.

About 85 per cent of Kony's force is believed to consist of children, while hundreds have to raise children sired by Kony and his commanders, even when the mothers are only children, barely old enough to take care of themselves.

But even child rearing is not as haphazard; it is rigorously planned.

Adong was 12 when she was abducted, and "seconded" to live among the Kony household, taking care of his many children with other women.

After two years, her status was changed and she was taken to live in a different hut, where Kony's brides without children were housed.

"He (Kony) started saying that he loved me. When he chooses you, he is a good normal man. He does not quarrel with you."

At that point, Adong says, Kony had 50 wives and 22 children.

By the time she was rescued, following a night of fighting between the government UPDF soldiers and LRA rebels in Southern Sudan, Adong was clutching a 3-month baby, Kony's son who she named Akonyo Sande. The name means perseverance.

Little Akonyo grabs at the mother's breast and suckles determinedly, and Adong appears safe from the world's worst fears. But there is turmoil inside her, a bitterness that rarely finds _expression_.

"I was never happy. I may never be happy," she says of her experience in the bush.

"At no point did I ever love him," she says, then a hint of smile brightens her face.

Like all men, Kony played divisive politics with his wives, and he would say, 'I will chase them away and be left with you and two others.' But I never believed him."

For Oyella, by the time she walked to freedom after two years in captivity, legs swollen with guinea worms, she literally saw a miracle that she had been able to escape with her life, and that of the child in her belly.

"I named the boy Innocent Lubangakene," she smiles, looking up the photocopier machine at Gulu University where she works as a secretary. "Labangakene means 'only God knows.'"

The father of Oyella's child was a commander in Kony's rag-tag army, to whom she was given when she was abducted from Sacred Heart School in Lacor.

"We were sleeping when the rebels struck," Oyella recalls, "There was pandemonium before we realised they were rebels. In all, 18 girls were taken away, and we walked up to Chwero, five kilometres away where we slept on the floor, continuing with the journey in the evening for Pokonyo, where we arrived at 3 am the following day.

"We met Kony and he welcomed us. He told us he would take over government. We were then paraded and commanders picked the women of their choice."

Oyella's travails did not end with her escape; she found things had fallen apart at home, with her mother, a policewoman, committing suicide when she heard of her daughter's abduction.

Her relatives also took time to accept her, as they had been told she was dead, although they accepted her son.

"I did not feel any sense of rejection on account of my son. They were only surprised to see me back."

Since 1986, when Kony took arms and declared his intention to depose the Yoweri Museveni regime and install a theocracy based on the Ten Commandments, people in Gulu have been caught in the crossfire, with children bearing the brunt of the violence.

"Kony considers the Acholi to be treacherous because they did not support him, hence his vision of creating a 'New Acholi generation'" says Defence and UPDF spokesman, Maj Shaban Bantariza.

"And he has taken it upon himself to raise that New Generation by getting so many children with different women."

The number of Kony's children differs according to his military position; when he is besieged and everyone is on the run, many of his wives and children run to safety. At his peak, he is estimated to have about 60 wives.

Some of the children born in the bush have become fighters, in spite of their age. To drill the fighting spirit in them, some are asked to kill their colleagues, using vestigial weapons like stone and sticks.

Oyella says three women were battered as they trekked to the bush after capture, just to prove to them that severe action awaited those who dithered.

"These children are broken when they arrive here," says World Vision's Oruni. "There was a boy who had been shot through the right eye and the bullet lodged in the nose bridge. The other eye was blinded. Another had been left in the open and his rotting wounds attacked by ants."

But the psychological scars are worse, Oruni adds, "Kony has turned these children into war machines."

The World Vision has rehabilitated 10,700 children since its Children of War project was inaugurated a decade ago, but the process of assimilating them back to society remains torturous.

In a controversial programme that the Uganda government is trying out, the children are engaged as farm-hands - without pay - under the command of a former rebel commander, Brig Kenneth Banya. The prospect of working under Banya in the bush, and later in civilian life can be traumatising.

Worse still, the Ugandan government has conceded using former child rebels in the national army to fight LRA.

Those who seek shelter in schools and other places are not any safe; Chompe camp, in Gulu municipality was razed down last year and 52 killed.

Earlier in June 2005, Pabbo camp, located 40 kilometres from Gulu and hosting 50,000 people was attacked six times, resulting in 20 deaths and abduction of 15 people.

To make the children forget their worries, however temporarily, they sing and dance of their hopes for peace and a possible return to regular life. Of weddings and harvests.

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A drum echoes, and tongs of wire hit against a calabash. It makes a rhythmic groove to which the children dance. The trickle of sweat and the flash of a smile are the signs that they have enjoyed themselves.

They then retreat to Gulu Primary classrooms that have become their homes and the crickets' shrill come to the fore once again.

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