Uganda losing battle against children's army

THEY are the victims of a crazed and mysterious leader who has inflicted misery on millions of Ugandans with his army of brainwashed victims.

For 18 years Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army have stolen into villages in northern Uganda, snatching children from their homes and frog marching them to training camps where they are beaten, indoctrinated and handed a gun before being sent out to fight their own people.

Now the International Criminal Court is to investigate what is one of Africa’s most bizarre yet tragic wars, headed by a man who appears to have no other motivation than to see Uganda ruled by the Ten Commandments and extreme violence.

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The LRA has rendered northern Uganda a wasteland, with more than 80% of the five million population in three districts - Gulu, Kitgum and Pader - left displaced by conflict.

But the most sinister aspect of Kony’s activities is represented by the columns of young children, known as the "night commuters" who make their way every night into the towns to sleep in shelters away from his snatch squads who think nothing of butchering the children’s parents before spiriting them away.

As dusk fell Martha Fambi, 15, pressed towards Gulu town centre, her two-year-old sister asleep on her back. "We are afraid to sleep at home," she said, pausing under a line of mahogany trees. "The rebels come at night looking for children. They want to abduct us."

Another 1,500 boys and girls, as young as three, crammed into barn-like shelters built by Rural Focus Uganda, a local charity, sleeping on the hard concrete floor like sardines, head to toe.

Some had walked 15 kilometres, and would rise at dawn to walk home again. But the alternative - to stay at home and risk abduction - was far worse.

Kenneth Ouma, a 12-year-old boy queuing for a blanket, said his sister Susan had been abducted 18 months earlier. Since then the family had been worried sick, imagining that she was being used as a sex slave, a soldier, or worse. "We pray for her every day, morning and evening," he said in a quiet voice.

Vicky Adoch, 18, fell victim to a surge in abductions two years ago. In mid-2002 she was snatched from her home and brought to a training camp in Sudan. During her forced training in the dusty camp, she made an amazing discovery - her sister, Sunday.

The 23-year-old woman had been abducted seven years earlier. Now she had become an LRA lieutenant and was married to another officer, with whom she had a child. "She told me there was no way of escape," said Vicky. She was wrong.

After a few months Vicky was caught in an army ambush and shot in the head. She lost an eye but miraculously survived. She recovered and, while out on patrol, managed to escape. "I wanted my sister to come. But she couldn’t leave the child behind," she said.

There is little sign of this extraordinary crisis in the capital, Kampala, 200 kilometres to the south, where mobile phone billboards and fast food joints line the streets, and street vendors sell racy magazines packed with gossip. Here, the government of President Yoweri Museveni - a major recipient of British aid - insists it is close to defeating the LRA. But there are no obvious signs of this.

In 2001, the Ugandan army launched a drive, dubbed "Operation Iron Fist", to rout the LRA from its bases in neighbouring Sudan, where the fundamentalist regime of President Omar al Bashir has supplied weapons and logistical support. But the offensive only drove the LRA back into Uganda, where attacks on children dramatically increased.

Father Carlos Rodriguez Soto, a local Spanish missionary who has been highlighting the children’s plight, said: "It was dubbed a rescue operation but 10,000 children have been abducted since then. So obviously it’s a huge failure."

But army spokesman Lt Paddy Ankunda described Iron Fist as a "strategic success".

He said: "We dislodged the LRA and captured over $3m worth of equipment. When you are fighting terrorism, you must do more than just kill rebels."

The thorny reality of the counter-insurgency for the Ugandan army is that it involves attacking an enemy force composed of 80% children. Army helicopter gunships and MiG fighter planes lead the attacks but cannot distinguish between hardened officers and fresh abductees.

According to a private survey by a local charity, the Ugandan army claimed to have killed 966 rebels in 2003. The majority were probably recent abductees.

"The army uses a policy of minimum force," said Lt Ankunda. "You have to rescue those you can, and those who resist you let go."

But the difference between killer and victim is often blurred. Robert Ojok, a muscular 15-year-old with cold, hard eyes, sat ramrod straight at a children’s centre in Gulu. Having been snatched from his parents at the age of eight, Robert spent his formative years as an LRA killer.

"There was a lot of bloodshed. We would run over the dead bodies like stepping stones," he said in a deadpan voice, recalling his battles.

Robert is preparing to return to his family, but at night he wrestles with terrible nightmares. "He thinks he can see the spirits of his victims, coming to take revenge," said a social worker.

Locating and arresting Kony and the LRA leadership is now a priority for the International Criminal Court, according to chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo. "The court could help stop these kinds of crimes," he said.

Amnesty International has hailed the move by the Hague-based court, but local religious leaders such as Soto fear the manhunt could prolong this exceptionally brutal conflict.

"[It] would practically close once and for all the path to peaceful negotiation as a means to end this long war," he said. Only negotiation - not military might - will end Uganda’s tragic rebellion, he added. "We need to get the international community involved - now."

Back at the "night commuter" shelter, aid worker Jessica Ochirowijok could see no end in sight. "We are just crossing the river, but we don’t know if the bridge is broken or not," she said.

Then Ochirowijok took off on her rounds, checking on the small army of frightened lodgers bedding down for the night.