Child fighters face deadly last stand in Sudan
UP TO 5,000 child fighters have been encircled by Sudanese and Ugandan troops in southern Sudan, in readiness for an all-out assault on their cult-driven rebel army.
With the abducted and brainwashed children so far violently resisting efforts to negotiate, the United Nations Children’s agency is warning of a possible child massacre.
"These are indoctrinated children who believe they have to fight to the death - and neither Ugandan nor Sudanese soldiers are likely to feel too sorry for them," said Nils Kastburg, UNICEF’s director of emergency programmes, yesterday. "It is proving impossible to reach them, and we’re getting pretty desperate."
The joint offensive against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a brutal Ugandan rebel group, led by a self-declared spirit medium with supernatural powers, and largely composed of stolen children, began two weeks ago. After fleeing its four main camps along the eastern bank of the White Nile in southern Sudan, the estimated 7,000 rebel fighters have dispersed into several pockets.
Ugandan sources say three main groups are besieged south-east of the town of Juba, by the Sudanese army, and further east, near Mogiri and Magwe by the Ugandan Popular Defence Force. The second group, thought to number several thousand fighters and their families, includes the rebel leader, Joseph Kony.
Ugandan and Sudanese efforts to contact the rebels have been met with bullets. UNICEF and the Red Cross have been barred by their safety regulations from trying to offer the children safe passage.
"We’ve got desperate parents in Uganda wanting their children back, and meanwhile they're fighting to the death in Sudan," Mr Kastburg said. "We are extremely frustrated not to be making more headway."
Although resolved to end the LRA’s 16-year reign of terror, Uganda says the children and civilians among them will be protected where possible.
"It’s a war, so people will be killed and wounded on both sides," said David Pulkol, Uganda’s chief of external security, from Kampala yesterday. "But we are trying to limit collateral damage. For the abducted children, it’s search and rescue. For Kony and the others, it's search and destroy."
Mr Pulkol said a safe corridor into Uganda had been opened to LRA women and children before the camps were destroyed, but they had chosen to remain with the rebels. "It’s extremely puzzling. The people who we thought would be surrendering are not surrendering. They must either be expecting outside help, or to be extremely loyal."
Mr Kony, a former altar boy who wears dreadlocks and women’s dresses, claims to have been called by God to topple the "Satanic" Ugandan government of Yoweri Museveni and institute the Ten Commandments as the country’s constitution. Fusing elements of Christianity, traditional spirit worship and the occult, he claims to be possessed by the Holy Spirit, and the spirits of a Chinese general and an Italian missionary.
Crossing back and forth from their former refuge in Sudan, the rebels have displaced more than half a million people in northern Uganda and abducted around 15,000 children to be fighters and sex slaves.
Children as young as six years old are typically bound to the LRA by being forced to kill those who try to escape. Thousands of northern Ugandan villagers have been punished for breaking Kony’s laws - including a ban on bicycles - with amputations and horrific facial disfigurement.
"Kony’s a maniac, who specialises in torturing children," said Robby Muhumuza, an expert on the movement. "He tells them he can see them wherever they are. Then he sprinkles them with magic water and uses them as cannon fodder. Please God, this is the end of him."
Until an accord in March, Khartoum was backing the LRA, while Kampala was behind Sudan’s rebels. The change of tack was partly because the LRA was placed on a UN list of terrorist groups late last year.
"September 11 may have spelled the end of the LRA," Mr Muhumuza said. "Sudan has been trying to convince America that it doesn’t support terrorists ever since, and it looks like Kony’s paying for it."
Still, Mr Pulkol was cautious about the outcome: "If we succeed, it will be the end of the road for the LRA and no more children will have their innocence shattered. But you can’t say that yet."
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