March 29, 2003




That night, the LRA came abducting people in our village, and some neighbors led them to our house. They abducted all five of us boys at the same time.  I was the fifth one. . . . We were told by the LRA not to think about home, about our mother or father.  If we did, then they would kill us.  Better to think now that I am a soldier fighting to liberate the country.  There were twenty-eight abducted from our village that night. . . . We were all tied up and attached to one another in a row.  After we were tied up, they started to beat us randomly; they beat us up with sticks.

-Martin P., abducted in February 2002 at age twelve[3]

Since the beginning of the conflict in 1986, the LRA has abducted thousands of children from their homes and communities.[4] Conservative estimates place the total number of children abducted at more than 20,000.[5]  As a result of the UPDF's military offensive, "Operation Iron Fist," launched last year in southern Sudan, many of the LRA returned to Uganda.  Since their reentry, the rate of abductions has increased dramatically, with an estimated 5,000 children abducted since June 2002-more than in any previous year of the conflict and a sharp increase from the less than one hundred children abducted in 2001.[6]

UNICEF states that in 2002, 3,927 children between ages five and seventeen were registered as abducted in Pader district alone, one of three districts which comprise Acholi-land.  Based on reports from local volunteers, the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative calculates that children account for approximately three of every four abductions.[7]

Children are most vulnerable to abduction at night, when the LRA carries out raids on villages and camps, looting food and supplies, burning houses, and taking both children and adults captive.

Fearing abduction, each night thousands of children from surrounding areas travel into Gulu and Lacor hospital to sleep on verandas, in the bus park, on church grounds, and in local factories before returning home the next morning.  In early February 2003, more than 1,000 children were sleeping each night in Gulu town, and about 3,000 people, the vast majority unaccompanied children, sought safety at Lacor hospital.  These children are known locally as "night commuters."

Adults usually stay in their homes to protect their property.  Experience has shown that adults abducted by the LRA are generally kept for short periods to help carry looted goods, and then released.  For children who are abducted, captivity can last for years.

Fifteen-year-old Christopher W. was abducted in August, of 2002 from Omoro county in Gulu district.  His father had sent him out to get some cigarette papers.

When I was coming back, I was stopped.  The LRA told me not to run and they grabbed me and tied me up around the waist. . . . I had a school uniform in my pocket.  They told me to go ahead and drop the uniform, and to leave it for some others to go to school.  Now that I was working for them, I wouldn't need it anymore.

About twenty children were abducted that day.  Christopher W. said they were tied together and given loads to carry.  "That first day, they gave me some fresh cassava to carry on my head and a pail of cabbage that was very heavy.  I was not allowed to drop it."

Mark T., seventeen, from Pader district, has an older brother named Julius who had been abducted by the LRA several years ago.  After Julius escaped in 1997, the LRA went to his village to look for him.  Julius was being kept in the army barracks at the time; the LRA killed his parents instead. 

       Following his parents' death, Mark T. lived with his uncle in a different town.  Mark T. returned with a group of boys to his native village on August 5, 2002 where they were immediately ambushed and abducted by the LRA. They were forced to march towards Kalong.  The next day, "we passed another group.  There I met my other brother, Amos, nineteen, who told me that he and Julius were abducted from home the same day as me."

For Julius, this was the second time he was abducted by the LRA.  The World Vision rehabilitation center reports that since 2000, at least eighteen children who had passed through the center were reabducted and escaped for a second time.[8]  Gulu Save Our Children Organization (GUSCO), another rehabilitation center, reported that ten children from their program had been reabducted between September and December of 2002.[9]

Nongovernmental organizations also report that the average age of abductees appears to be getting younger. A representative of the World Vision rehabilitation center told Human Rights Watch that, "Now, children of nine or ten are being abducted.  It used to be thirteen, fourteen or fifteen.  Now, children of fifteen and sixteen are being released.  They're more interested in the younger ones."[10]  This may be because younger children are easier to control and younger girls are less likely to be infected with the HIV virus.

Susan A. was abducted from her village in Pader in October 2002 when she was twelve.  She was returning from her grandmother's house with her older sister at about four in the afternoon when they met a group of eight LRA.  "They beat my sister badly and left her on the roadside.  They wanted to know where the gumboots (rubber boots) were, but she wouldn't tell them." The LRA took Susan A.  As they moved through the bush, they abducted more children, including an eleven-year-old girl whom Susan A. knew. 

Janet M. was twelve when she was abducted in late November 2002 from Kilak county, in Gulu district.  She told us that two rebels came into her home where she was sleeping.  They woke her and her two sisters, looted their home and took the sisters.  She said that the LRA stopped at another house, abducted four boys around thirteen or fourteen years old, and then proceeded to the home of Janet M.'s uncle.  There, Janet M. and her sister found that their father had also been abducted.  The LRA first tied the abductees around the waist and then tied them to one another in a long chain.  They were also given loot to carry on their heads.

Janet M. said,  "Thirty-two were abducted from the village, both children and adults.  I was the youngest, at age twelve.  The next day they divided up the captives, and told the old people, including my father, to lie down on the ground.  They started beating them with a machete.  They cut him badly and left him there."  Later, she heard he reached home safely.  Of her two sisters, one was eventually released; the other is still in captivity.

Children are often taken in large numbers.  John W. reported that thirty-eight children, mostly boys and girls in primary school, were taken when he was abducted in July of 2002.  Martin P. was taken with twenty-eight boys from his village in February 2002.  Grace T. told Human Rights Watch that in July 2002 she was abducted with seven other children but soon joined a larger group of at least seventy new abductees.

       Many people in the north fault the UPDF for not offering the civilian population adequate protection from LRA attacks, including abduction.  The Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative reports that between June and December 2002, the LRA carried out at least 456 attacks in Kitgum and Pader districts, but that the UPDF intervened in only thirty-three of these instances.[11]

       Ruth K. was abducted in July of 2002 from Purongo, one of the "protected villages," or camps, where the UPDF maintains a detachment.  She reported that the LRA attacked the camp, shooting towards the detachment and burning houses, and then looting food items from shops nearby.  She said that when the UPDF did not respond, the LRA returned to the camp and abducted Ruth K. and at least eight other children.

Children are repeatedly told by the LRA they will be killed if they try to run away.  When Edward T. was abducted from his home in July of 2002, he was tied to other abductees and forced to carry posho (maize meal) on his head.  "I kept thinking that I would run away as soon as I could, but then I saw someone who tried to run was captured and killed.  He was shot.  After I saw that, I was afraid and realized I may never be able to run away."  Nevertheless, he took this chance later.

A day or two after their abduction, all children are initiated.  First they are beaten, purportedly to "harden" them to life as soldiers, and then smeared with shea nut oil.  Thirteen-year-old Martin P. told us that the LRA said that "they were beating us to give us strength, so not to fear what would lie in store for us in the future."

Seventeen-year-old Mark T. from Pader district described the beatings:

They gave us 150 strokes of the cane, and eight slaps with the machete on the back.  It was the soldiers who did the beating.  For the cane we were made to lie on our stomach and then the soldiers would beat us on the buttocks.  There were twenty-three of us.  For the machete, we were made to bend over at the waist, and then the soldiers would use the blunt end of it to beat us on the back.

Grace T. told Human Rights Watch that after she was abducted in July, of 2002 from Omoro county, Gulu district, the LRA told her and the other abductees, "Now we want to train you to be soldiers, but first we must harden you by beating you twenty strokes." She had been abducted with two of her sisters and a younger brother, who was fourteen.  She said they were all stripped naked and beaten on the back, first with a stick, and then with a machete.  When one of her sisters asked to put on her clothes before being beaten with the machete, the LRA threatened to kill her.  Grace T. said she and her other sister and brother pleaded for her life, saying that they were willing to be soldiers.  

According to John W., age sixteen, children were ordered not to cry during the beatings or they would be killed.  Fourteen others were beaten with him; one, a fifteen-year-old boy, cried out.  John W. said that he was clubbed on the back of the head and killed.

After the beatings, shea nut oil is placed on each child's forehead, chest, back, hands and feet in the sign of the cross.  Brenda O. explained that after being smeared with oil, "then you are no longer with your mother and father, but for the LRA.  If you leave, they will kill you."  Some childrenwere told or believed that the shea nut oil would make it easier for the LRA to locate them should they try to run away.  Samuel B. said that when he was anointed with shea nut oil, he was told "that it would make us not escape, for if we would try, this would help them track us down and find us."


I was with the LRA for six months and during this time many abductees escaped.  Not all were so lucky. One boy tried to escape and was caught, tied up, and marched back to camp.  All the recruits from the various companies were told that we were never going home, that we were fighting now with the LRA so as a symbol of our pledge to fight on, this boy would be killed and we would help.  Soldiers then laid the boy on the ground and stabbed him three times with a bayonet until the blood began seeping from the wounds.  Then the new recruits approached the boy and beat him on the chest.  Each one had a turn and could only stop once the blood from the body splashed up on to you.  This boy was sixteen years old.  We were beating him with sticks, each recruit was given a stick.

-Edward T., age eighteen

Children told us that in addition to a caning at the time of initiation, LRA commanders and soldiers beat the children, often severely, for minor infractions committed while under their orders.  The LRA also beat children to encourage them to march faster, including those wounded in the fighting, and sometimes kill those that can't keep up.  Child abductees are forced to beat and sometimes kill civilians in looting operations, participate in the abduction of new children, and steal from and burn houses in their home regions.  Children are forced to witness and to participate in the killings of other children, usually those who attempt to escape and are captured.  The practice of using the children to collectively kill fosters guilt and fear among them, and sends a powerful message to the children of their potential fate if they attempt to escape.  In addition, the brutal tactics used to control the children make their personal rehabilitation and reintegration into their home communities that much more difficult.

According to children interviewed for this report, the weapons used for the beatings include sticks made from branches of trees, the butt of weapons and other instruments.  Sixteen-year-old John W. explained that in addition to the cane, a piece of wire that is normally used for locking a bicycle was used for punishment during his time with the LRA.  Other times, the wooden end or the blunt side of a machete would be used to beat the buttocks of a child.  Soldiers beat John W. with both during his seven months with the LRA.


Ten-year-old Stephen A. spoke of his second beating with the LRA: "I was severely beaten for shooting my gun during an operation.  During a raid on a local village, I was sent into one of the houses to see what could be taken.  I found a man hiding inside.  I was confused.  I shot my gun in the air to warn the others.  The LRA fired back.  The soldiers were angry and beat me with a machete."

Children are often assigned as servants to individual commanders or soldiers and are charged with caring for their personal items.  Any lost or broken personal effect can mean a caning. 

Charles M., thirteen years old, described the punishment he received from his commander:  

I was nearly beaten to death by my commander, Bukot, because of another officer in the LRA.  While we were in the bush, commander Bukot had come across a Cwaa tree, this is a tough tree that has strong branches and it makes good poles for building houses.  Commander Bukot cut a branch from the tree and shaved it down to a smooth pole, about two feet long.  He then ordered me to keep it well for him to use.  Some days later, a soldier from a different company, came up to me and ordered me to hand over the stick.  I could not refuse an officer.  When Commander Bukot found out that I had given away his stick, he charged me with negligence and ordered 250 strokes of the cane.  About half way through the beating, the pain became so great, I thought I was going to die.  I lost count of the beatings and lost consciousness.  Following the caning, I was forced to my feet and had my arms tied behind my back, bound just above the elbows.  I was told that I was going to be taken and clubbed to death, but evidently, the commander felt that I had had enough and the clubbing never happened.

Thomas O., fourteen, said he was made to carry a crate of soda that belonged to the officer to whom he was assigned.  "I was tired from the long marches and the heavy crate of drinks on my head and at one point I slipped.  It was very hot, I was thirsty and we had marched for many kilometers.  I lost my balance and the crate fell to the ground.  One of the bottles broke.  The commander then forced me to lie down and caned me for the accident."

The children also spoke of the hardships of long marches.  Those who were unable to keep walking because of blisters or war wounds were sometimes killed.  John W. told Human Rights Watch that LRA soldiers would sometimes kill boys who got blisters and could no longer walk, but other times the leaders would make the new abductees come and help with the clubbing.  Those who refused risked death themselves. 

Christopher W. was one fifteen-year-old who suffered from injuries and beating:

As we continued on the endless marches, I got bad blisters on my bare feet.  Thorns embedded in the bottom of my feet became infected.  Eventually, I could no longer keep up and the commander who had initially abducted me told me I was useless as I could not walk.  He turned away and then two soldiers, in full uniform, approached and started beating me with the heavy ends of their RPG's (rocket propelled grenades).  I was repeatedly beaten on the head and body and left for dead.  Two days later, a local farmer found me.

Sondra O. told of the fate of children who could not continue to march.  "You were not allowed to rest, because the moment you tried they would kill you.  Three children with swollen legs had difficulty walking and tried to stop.  The LRA tied the children's hands behind their backs and ordered the others to beat them to death with sticks as big as my arm.  Later they removed the clothing from the children and threw their bodies into a swamp."

Many of the children interviewed for this report told us they were forced to participate in the beating or trampling of fellow abductees.  Some of the children, while fearing to refuse the orders of the LRA, nevertheless spoke with difficulty about performing these killings.  James K. told Human Rights Watch, "Just a few days before an air assault by UPDF helicopter gunship, there was a group of children who escaped.  Two girls, aged fourteen, were captured.  They were given to the group of child abductees and we were told that we must kill them with clubs.  Every one of the new recruits was made to participate.  We were warned that if we ever tried to escape, we would be killed in the same manner."


According to seventeen-year-old Samuel B., he was spared from killing personally, but had to mutilate the flesh of a corpse.  "During my time with the LRA, we looted houses and stores, abducted and even killed people.  I didn't participate in the killing, but one time I was ordered to cut up a dead body with a knife.  I was then forced to pick up the pieces of flesh and throw them down on the ground to show my loyalty.  This child was killed because he had tried to escape.  He was caught and then beaten to death by other children."

Mark T., also seventeen years old, spoke of the killings: 

One time when we were marching towards Pajule in Pader district, one eighteen-year-old male tried to escape but was soon captured.  Soldiers laid him on the ground and told us to step on him.  All the new recruits participated-we trampled him to death.  During my time with the LRA, there were other children who escaped and seven of these were caught.  Of them, two were hacked to death with machetes and five were clubbed or trampled.  We were either made to participate or watch the killings. The youngest recruit killed was maybe nine or ten years old.

Susan A., aged twelve said, "I saw many dead bodies in the bush.  One day, a man tried to escape.  After he was caught, four of us girls were forced to beat him to death.  When we started crying, the LRA told us that if we cried, we would also be killed.  The man pleaded with us, 'You forgive me, you sympathize with me, please let me live.' But the commander told him, 'If you speak again, we will cut you to pieces with a machete.'"

In addition to the killing of those who attempt escape, children are also made to kill and beat civilians in the villages and displaced persons camps which are raided.  Some of the boys expressed confusion as to why this was done and how some individuals were chosen.  James K. explained, "What did I do with the LRA during my time in captivity?  Killed people, beat up people and looted property.  This was under order from the commanders; when we approached a village, some persons would be singled out.  We were never told why these people and not others, we were simply told that this one had to be killed."

Christopher W., aged fifteen, told us, "At one time, we went to a displaced persons camp and immediately killed three people.  This was done to warn people not to stay in the camps but to move back to their villages.  I don't know why these three were selected.  We later abducted many children from that camp." 

Life in Captivity

As we moved from place to place, we would have to sleep on the grass, under trees, or in the sand.  I had to fetch water, wash clothes, and cook the meals.  The wives would sometimes beat me or make me carry heavy loads.  If I walked slowly, I was beaten.  I was beaten practically every day.

-Susan A., age twelve

Children's main duties during their time in captivity are to perform menial tasks, often acting as servants to the commanders, soldiers, and their wives.  Children who were taken across the border to Sudan typically spent many months in one place and were ordered to fetch water, plant and harvest, and especially for girls, perform domestic services to "wives" and their children.  More recent abductees who remain in Uganda lead a much more nomadic life than their age mates in Sudan.  These children are tasked with portering goods, cooking, looting fields and homes, and abducting other children. 

Christine A. from Odek subcounty, Gulu district, spent several years at Aru camp in Sudan, spending much of her time looking for water.  "There was a big water problem, more of a problem than food.  We would wake up around four in the morning and go out to search for water, sometimes returning home at mid-day.  Some children became so thirsty they would drink their own urine for relief.  Other times, we were unable to urinate our thirst was so great." 

Fifteen-year-old Josephine M. from Kilak county, Gulu, said, "In Sudan, we worked from six in the morning until sundown in the fields of the commanders.  We weren't given food from those fields, it went to the commanders and their wives."

Matthew A., with the LRA for four years, explained, "When we weren't fighting, we were digging and planting in the fields outside the camps.  This was hot work we performed in the morning.  In the afternoon hours, we would cut trees to make charcoal.  Some would be used in the camps, but much would be loaded onto trucks and sold in Juba. . . . At the commanders' houses, it was the new recruits who would do the cooking, fetching of water, and caring for children.  Often it was girls who performed these duties.  Boys and soldiers in the LRA would do the heavy, manual work.  There was never enough to eat and we often ate wild roots and leaves." 

       Many of the children, particularly those who spent time in Sudan, said they were frequently hungry. Josephine M. said, "Sometimes we would go on an empty stomach for days.  We had no food and were eating only wild leaves and wild fruit. . . . Sometimes we only had one handful of beans for ten people. . . . Hunger kills many children, including the children of the commanders."

With the launching of Operation Iron Fist and the return of the LRA to Uganda in mid-2002, abducted children's lives changed to reflect the much more mobile status of the LRA.  Often moving to a new spot each night, children described breaking into small groups during the day and often joining up with their larger units at night.  Those interviewed for this report expressed their worry about being detected and attacked by Uganda government troops and their exhausting, mobile lifestyle.

Thirteen-year-old Charles M. said, "I had to carry things in the LRA, but they were not too heavy, because I was assigned to a big important man, he was a top commander.  I carried his chair and his gun.  I would get very tired, not so much from the loads, but from walking the long distances.  Sometimes we would walk from dawn until late into the night." 

Sondra O. spent four months with the LRA in Uganda.  "I was given one and a half basins of beans to carry plus an empty water container, all on my head.  It was very heavy and my neck caused me great pain.  It still aches today.  We would march many kilometers each day.  I never carried weapons or ammunition, just these heavy loads."

Christopher W., aged fifteen, explained, "My main job with the LRA was cooking and watching the fires.  I had to beat the women, girls, and boys who let the fires grow too large.  The leaders would get very angry if too much smoke was coming from the fires as this could attract enemy aircraft.  If I didn't do my job well, I risked being beaten myself. . . . I also looted houses in the villages-whatever we could find-beans, supplies, and even livestock.  We would approach the villages in small groups.  The leader would instruct us to pillage certain houses and bypass others.  I never knew why some houses were chosen."           

       Edward T. told us he spent some of his time stealing from homes as well:

When we arrived at a village or camp, we would break into small groups.  The soldiers would stay outside and send the recruits into the houses to steal and bring the goods outside.  We would loot as much as we could carry and then move off together in a group. . . . Sometimes LRA soldiers would attack the army detachment and we the recruits would be ordered to wait.  If they were successful, when the shooting ended we would be given the all-clear sign and then break into the houses and shops.      


An additional responsibility for the children serving in Uganda is the abducting of new recruits, often while looting villages and camps.  Thomas O. explained, "I was with the LRA until December 2002.  I never went to Sudan but stayed in Uganda, mostly moving in Pader district.  During our time, we abducted more people, even girls were abducted in Lira district.  We abducted them during a looting raid on a village there.  A few days later, three of these girls were released."

Fifteen-year-old Matthew A., who spent four years with the LRA, said while in Uganda, "I didn't burn any houses or kill civilians, but had to loot and abduct children.  In four months, I abducted four girls and seven boys during raids.  When I was responsible for choosing new recruits, I would ask questions and one time released some children.  I didn't like to take two children from the same house, so one time, I took one sister and left the other."

Training and Battle

The air bombing happened a few weeks after I was abducted.  It was a UPDF helicopter gunship that shot at us.  I was wounded during the attack, but many abductees were killed as well as LRA soldiers.  We were a group of 500 before the attack, with 400 of those abducted children and adults.  Hours later only 200 had survived.

-James K., age seventeen

In addition to their other responsibilities, abducted children are given arms training, forced to carry weapons and ammunition and in some cases, fight alongside LRA soldiers.  And like their other responsibilities, the nature and duration of these tasks changed once the LRA moved back into Uganda.  Most children who were abducted before 2002 and spent time in Sudan were given a longer, more formalized training program and fought in the front lines, both against the Ugandan army and in earlier years against the SPLM/A, what the children refer to as "the Dinka," the largest ethnic group in southern Sudan, disproportionately represented in the SPLA.  Since 2002, training for new recruits has been more sporadic.  Some of the youngest are not trained at all; others are given minimal training but no weapons or uniform.  While only a few of those interviewed fought directly against the UPDF in attacks, the majority faced battle conditions and some were wounded due to their proximity to the fighting.

       Matthew A., aged fifteen, spent four years with the LRA, first in Sudan then in Uganda: 

During our military training, we were divided into groups of fifty children, the youngest in the group was age eight or nine, and they included boys and girls.  We learned to march in formation and parade. We were taught to shoot, clean, and assemble and disassemble sub machine guns.  These weapons held a magazine that can shoot thirty rounds.  They were large, heavy to carry and not easy to use at first.  The training lasted for several weeks.  During that time, if you made a mistake, you were severely beaten.

When we moved back into Uganda in 2002, we fought in many places in Pader district near Pajule. Later, we set an ambush near Aliwa in Lira district.  As the vehicles passed we opened fire and soldiers escorting the trucks shot back at us.  I was wounded in the leg and could not get up.


       James K. was abducted in May 2002 and like many of the boys interviewed, he said he received arms training but never a weapon itself:

I was taught to march, to shoot, and to assemble the guns.  All the abductees were trained, but not at the same time.  We moved around a lot, there wasn't much time for training.  Only a few of the older recruits received arms.  During the training, the soldiers were harsh, slapping us for not doing what was demanded.  I was never given a gun of my own, but had to carry the gun of the commander.  During the fighting, he would take the gun and leave me with no protection.

       Edward T. also received training but no weapon.  "The training I received was foot drill, assembling and disassembling the gun and how to fire, but I never shot a weapon in the training.  There was no time for formal training, we would get one lesson here and another at the next place we marched to.  We were drilled to work faster to load and dismantle the guns as quickly as possible, so that we would be good under fire."


Stephen A., aged ten: "I was shown how to load, assemble, and clean the gun.  It was a gun with a wooden handle that could shoot many bullets at a time, I don't know what kind of weapon it was.  I never used the gun in battle, but carried it for an adult soldier.  It felt nice to have the gun.  I felt safe."


In contrast to many children abducted in 2002, Martin P. from Kitgum district was trained and armed to fight:

The training lasted about one week, we were shown how to load, shoot, and fire.  Following the training I was given my own submachine gun and a pair of military trousers.  I fought twice with the LRA.  The first time we attacked a military detachment in Moyo district.  We suffered heavy losses, and many of the LRA soldiers were killed.  In the second battle, we laid a successful ambush on a passing UPDF convoy.


Although Sondra O. received neither a gun nor arms training, she was wounded in battle like so many abducted children.  "One morning in September 2002, there was fighting between the UPDF and the LRA which lasted for several hours.  I saw seven people killed and I was shot in the leg.  The fighting began while we were crossing the road, with the UPDF firing on us.  Many LRA soldiers and captives alike were killed."


Charlotte W., fourteen, told us, "The abductions should stop, because when people are abducted, the children suffer a lot.  When we enter ambushes, children die.  When there is bombing, children die because they don't know what to do."

Slaves, "Wives," and Mothers: The Experience of Girls

Angela P. was only ten when she was abducted by the LRA.  At age fifteen, she was forced to become a "wife" to an LRA commander.  She gave birth to two children in the bush.  The first, a boy, she named Komakech, which means "I am unfortunate."  The second, a girl, she named Can-Oroma, meaning "I have suffered a lot."

Although not as numerous as boys, girls are abducted in large numbers by the LRA.  Some are given military training and are forced to fight, carry out raids on villages, and help abduct other children.  Most are virtual slaves, forced to work long hours carrying heavy loads, walking long distances to fetch water and firewood, and performing other tasks, including cooking and field work.  At age fourteen or fifteen, many are sexually enslaved as "wives" of commanders and subjected to rape, unwanted pregnancies, and the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. 

After abduction, younger girls are assigned to commanders as ting ting (servants).  They often begin work before dawn and continue until evening.  Janet M. explained,  "You must work all of the time.  The moment you refuse to work, they will kill you or beat you to death."  She, like other girls, was forced to carry heavy loads, fetch water and firewood, cook, wash, "dig" (farm), and tend the commanders' children.

Brenda O. was assigned to Commander Ochang, and said:

He didn't treat me very well.  He would order young soldiers to beat me and two of the other ting ting. The commander would call to us to come and lie down.  He would say, "Do you know why I am beating you?"  We didn't know, so the soldiers caned us, fifty strokes.  This happened every day.  They beat us on the buttocks, but if you cry, they will beat every part of your body and not count the strokes.

Other girls described being mistreated by the commander's "wives," who are often abductees who had been similarly brutalized when they were ting ting.  Charlotte W. told us that Commander Okeny did not mistreat her, but that his wives "would beat me every day for small mistakes, or for no reason."  Ruth K. said two of her commander's six wives beat her repeatedly.  "Not a single day passed when I wasn't beaten."

After reaching puberty, girls are forced to become "wives" to commanders.  Angela P. said, "when I became a wife I was smeared with shea nut butter and told my loyalty was to Commander Okello." Forced into sexual relationships, many girls become pregnant and give birth in the bush, with only other young girls to assist them. According to one girl, by the late 1990's, over 800 children had been born to LRA wives and were concentrated at Jabelein camp in southern Sudan.

Many "wives" contract sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).  A nurse at World Vision reports that of the children currently coming to the center, about fifty percent have STDs, including syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia.  Two years ago, when returnees were more likely to have been in captivity for longer periods, the rate was much higher – nearly eighty-five percent.[12]

The rate of HIV infection among abductees is unknown.  World Vision and GUSCO, two rehabilitation centers for former LRA abductees based in Gulu, have been offering HIV/AIDS testing to children in their centers in recent years.  Former abductees are given HIV/AIDS education and counseling and then may choose whether or not to be tested.  At World Vision, eighty-three children have been tested, and thirteen-seven boys and six girls-were HIV positive.  The youngest was thirteen.  Three of the girls had children of their own.  At least one has since died of AIDS.[13] At GUSCO, of eleven children tested between June and December of 2002, two were HIV positive.[14]

For many girls, becoming a "wife" brings some privileges.  Wives often work fewer hours and receive better food.  Once they have children, they no longer participate in raids or fighting.  Christine A. was given as a wife to Commander Okello[15] when she was sixteen.  She said that when she became pregnant, he was "very happy" and took good care of her.  After he was killed in battle, life became more difficult.  She said, "they start to treat you like a girl again and beat you.  I was beaten severely and given less food.  Sometimes I didn't have food for my baby.  I had to work in the garden like a slave, beginning at 5 a.m. and coming back late in the evening.  Unless you get another man, you suffer."

For Angela P., life was better as a ting ting.  She said, "as a wife, I was beaten and sexually abused.  As a ting ting, I was beaten twice; as a wife I was beaten so many times I couldn't count." 

After the beginning of Operation Iron Fist, the LRA released over 100 "child mothers" with their children. Christine A., released with her two children in June of 2002, was told by the LRA that the LRA "was coming (to Uganda) for battle, for real war." Local NGOs believe that mothers were released because their young children hindered the LRA's movements.  When Christine A. learned she was being released after nearly ten years in captivity, she said, "I was happy because I knew I would come back home and not suffer any more."

The child mothers were sent to rehabilitation centers in Gulu with the message that they should be well taken care of.  At least twenty of the child mothers were "widows;" their commanders had been killed in battle or died from disease.  Many commanders did not want to release their wives, however.  During Operation Iron Fist, the LRA sent many of these child mothers to Alar, an LRA camp southwest of Gulu, which also tended many of the sick and wounded among the LRA.

Christine A. said that she is fearful that the LRA may come back for her and has heard from children who escaped the LRA more recently that the LRA leadership now regrets their decision to release the child mothers, especially those with boy children.  Her son Patrick is now three, and her baby Richard is seven months.  Christine A. has no relatives in towns that are thought to be safe, so feels she has no choice but to return to the village from where she was abducted.


One night I was beaten terribly and then sent to sleep outside in the cold and rain.  The next morning, at 5 a.m., I was beaten again and then sent to fetch water.  My hands were swollen so I wasn't able to lift the jerry can onto my head.  No one came to help, so I decided to pour out the water and throw the can away.  I went into the bush.  It was raining heavily so I stayed under a tree.  When it stopped, I stayed in the wilderness, eating leaves.  I spent three weeks there.  One day I saw a road.  I had no strength left and collapsed by the road.  A hunter came and found me and carried me on his bicycle.

-Ruth K., age twelve

Despite the risk of death if they are caught, some children manage to escape from the LRA.  Others surrender to the UPDF, are "rescued," or captured during battle.  Some are released or abandoned when they become sick or injured. 

The number of children returning from the LRA has increased dramatically since early 2002.  This is in part because of the increased rate of abductions, and also because increased LRA activity within Uganda has provided more children with the opportunity to escape from their captors.  Within Uganda, they are more familiar with their geographical surroundings and have shorter distances to travel to find assistance.

In 2002, more than 1,700 returnees, mostly children, passed through the World Vision and GUSCO rehabilitation centers based in Gulu after escaping LRA captivity.  There were more than 1,000 returnees (both adults and children) assisted by World Vision alone in 2002, up from 263 in 2001.  GUSCO assisted 745 children between June and December of 2002, with the largest number of children-185-being brought to the center in December.  Other children have gone directly home, without passing through the centers.

The Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative reports that of 2,611 abductions documented in Kitgum and Pader districts from June through December of 2002, at least 870, or one-third of those abducted, escaped or were released within several weeks of being abducted.  However, they found that although children make up three-quarters of abductions, half of those returning are adults, and concluded that "a larger portion of children are remaining with the LRA."[16]

The children interviewed by Human Rights Watch escaped or were released from the LRA between May of 2002 and February of 2003, with half of those interviewed leaving captivity in December 2002 and January of 2003.  The majority had escaped the LRA inside Uganda, although a few were released or abandoned after they were injured in battle or developed physical problems from the hardships of LRA life.  One, a child mother, was released in June 2002 together with more than 100 other girls or women with young children.

Children look for opportunities when they may not be watched or choose to run during the confusion of battle.  Thirteen-year-old Martin P. escaped in December 2002, when he and three others were on a raid looking for food.  "I saw some sim sim (sesame) and told the others to go and collect it.  They ran off and left me alone.  So then I took off the gum boots I was wearing and left my gun and ran.  I ran until I got to Amuru camp.  I ran because life was bad with the LRA.  I couldn't stand it anymore.  I couldn't stop thinking about my brothers (whom the LRA killed)."

Charles M., age thirteen, escaped during a battle.  When a UPDF armored vehicle began firing on the LRA, "the LRA fled in all directions.  I fled then and fell into a swamp.  I lay among the papyrus reeds.  I could hear the fighting still going on, but I kept calm and didn't move at all.  After some time, there were shots that landed quite near to me, so I crept along the reeds and found a place to sleep in the bush.  I spent the night there by myself.  The next day, I went to the UPDF forces."

Mark T., seventeen, decided to run after his unit carried out an ambush and killed the brother of an uncle with whom he had stayed in Kampala.  "I realized that I had to get out.  Killing all my relatives was bad.  Better to try (to escape) and die than not try at all."

Some children are "rescued" by the UPDF during military operations.  These are often children who surrender or who are wounded in battle and left behind.  Local NGOs are critical of the UPDF for the way it reports on military operations during Operation Iron Fist.  "Those killed are called terrorists or rebels, and those who survive are 'rescued abductees,'" said one local NGO representative.[17]

Some children who are injured are simply abandoned or left for dead by the LRA.  Julius Tiboa, director of the GUSCO rehabilitation center, said that children released by the LRA "are mostly sick and malnourished, children who could not be of help or significance to their efforts."[18]

James K., seventeen, was injured in an UPDF air attack near Lira.  He said that many new LRA recruits were killed in the attack, and others, old and new, were left for dead.

Following the attack, we moved on, and I felt the pain increasing in my legs.  I was urged to move on and told that if I did not, I would be killed.  When we reached a certain position, we settled there for two days.  I was not given any medical treatment.  After two days, my legs were swollen and there was a yellow puss coming out of the wounds, but I had to keep moving. . . . During this time, I was very afraid. I didn't know what to do and if I was going to live because my legs were hurting me so badly.  When I was limping, the soldiers would come once in a while and beat me with a stick and say "move faster." They kept threatening to kill me.  Finally, my wounds got so bad that they abandoned me in the bush.  I was left there to die, but I decided to crawl on my knees until I came to a dirt road.  Finally, a cyclist passed and agreed to give me a lift. 

Samuel B. was abandoned in October 2002 after being injured in a UPDF helicopter attack.  When he could no longer walk, he was left at an empty house with some food and water.  For five weeks, he survived by eating raw cassava until the owner of the home finally returned and helped him get to the local army detachment.

Thirteen-year-old Janet M. developed swollen legs from walking and was left at a woman's house.  The woman was told to take care of Janet M. and that the LRA would come back for her.  "They told her not to allow me to go home.  If they found that I was taken home, they said they would either kill the woman or her family."  The woman gave her food and medicine, washed her clothes, and then took her to the army barracks.  Janet M. is now worried about what the LRA might do to the woman who helped her. 

Children who are released, "rescued," or escape are usually brought to the nearest army detachment, transported to the Fourth Division army barracks in Gulu, and then to a special Child Protection Unit (CPU) managed by the army, where they are kept for debriefing with army intelligence.  If injured, they may receive treatment at the local army hospital.

Most children, particularly those who were in captivity for a short period of time, are kept at the CPU for brief periods of one to three days.  However, children who served with the LRA for longer periods, particularly as combatants, are kept for several weeks or more.  In one case reported to Human Rights Watch, two children were kept for over two months, reportedly because the children were receiving medical treatment at the army hospital.[19]

Children are taken from the CPU to rehabilitation centers in Gulu, Kitgum, or Pader that are supported by nongovernmental organizations.  Other children are brought to the centers directly by community members.  At these centers, children receive medical care, including testing for STDs, counseling, vocational training, and other assistance.  The centers help trace the families of abducted children and work with both the children and their families to reintegrate the children into their communities. 

The Future

I'm not happy at all because they ruined me.  I had to cut short my studies.  I have no hope that I will one day be somebody.  I gave birth to two children and was not prepared.  I have two children and no means of survival.  I worry about what will happen next.

-Christine A., age twenty

For most abductees, release or escape does not end their ordeal.  Most are fearful of reabduction and few are able to return to their original homes either because of the increased LRA activity or the forced displacement by the Ugandan government.  Many have siblings or other family members still in captivity.  Girls and young women with children born in captivity fear they will not be able to support their children.  Most bear physical or psychological scars.

After escaping from the LRA in January 2003, Angela P. discovered that the LRA had killed her mother during a raid.  Others find that their families have relocated to other districts seeking safety from the LRA or been forcibly displaced into IDP camps.  Ruth K., age twelve, was abducted from Purongo, a "protected" village in July 2002.  Her family left the camp after her abduction and moved to Masindi district.  Unable to join them, she plans to stay near Gulu and live with a cousin.

Many of the children worry about brothers and sisters who are still in LRA captivity.  One third of the children interviewed by Human Rights Watch were abducted with siblings that are still missing.  Grace T., age sixteen, told us she was abducted in July 2002 together with two of her sisters and a brother.  She and one sister have managed to escape; the other sister and her brother are still in captivity.  Janet M., age twelve, was abducted in November 2002 with two sisters, ages fifteen and seventeen.  One sister was eventually released, but the other remains missing.  Thirteen-year-old Martin P. was abducted with four of his brothers; two were killed by the LRA, one was killed by the UPDF, and one is still missing.

Most of the children want to return to school, but many don't feel it's safe at home.  Charlotte W. said, "I want to go back to school, but I will stay with my uncle in town.  In my home area, rebels are moving freely, so I could easily be reabducted." Similarly, Janet M. says, "I want to go back to school, but I'm afraid the rebels will come for me.  I will go to visit my parents, but will study in town and stay with my uncle." Matthew A. fears that if he returns home, he will not be able to run if the LRA attacks his village.  His leg was amputated after he was shot in a battle with the UPDF.

Representatives of Save the Children Denmark, which supports the GUSCO center, said:

The insurgency has made reintegration difficult.  Initially the idea was to have social workers go out first and contact family members and the community, and then go back a week later.  Then send the child out for one day, and then have the child come back for a longer period, a gradual reintegration process.  But this has been disrupted.  There is insecurity to the child, the families, and to the social workers.  So this work has been interrupted by the insurgency.  The majority of kids are now staying in and around the municipality, or they are sent to other districts.[20]

Some children will join the "night commuters"–the children who travel into town each night to sleep, seeking safety from abduction.  Grace T. was abducted from Agwe, just two kilometers from Gulu town.  She plans to return to her family in Agwe, but will go into town to sleep at night, together with her sister, who has also escaped the LRA.  She said that she is "afraid when I hear about the LRA, because now that I have been abducted, they might kill me."

Returnees also suffer ongoing physical and psychological problems.  A nurse at World Vision identified gunshot wounds, skin problems from walking long distances, and sexually transmitted diseases as the major physical problems affecting returnees.  She estimates that about fifteen percent return with gunshot wounds, and another five percent have injuries from bomb fragments.  Fifteen children assisted by the center since 1996 have had limbs amputated.

The nurse also identified psychological problems for returnees.  "Almost all of them suffer from nightmares and flashbacks, especially those that were long in the bush.  Some are quiet, withdrawn, and don't want to talk."[21] Susan A. is one of the children who has nightmares about the LRA.  She told us that she dreams that she is staying with her mother and that the LRA comes and abducts her. 

Many wonder about their future.  Sixteen-year old John W., now an orphan, said, "What disappoints me most is the future.  Some seem to have things to do here, and a place to go, but for me, the future is blank. . . . What am I going to do?"

[3] All interviews with former LRA abductees were conducted in Gulu between February 4 and 8, 2003. All names of children have been changed to protect their privacy.

[4] In this report, the word "child" refers to anyone under the age of eighteen. Article 1 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as "every human being under the age of eighteen years unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier." Convention on the Rights of the Child, G.A. Res. 44/25, U.N. Doc. A/RES/44/25, ratified by Uganda on August 17, 1990.

[5]UNICEF reports that over 38,000 adults and children have been abducted during the course of the conflict, with children making up the majority of abductions. Data provided to Human Rights Watch by UNICEF, February 3, 2002.

[6]Ibid. UNICEF states that a conservative estimate is that 4,500 children were abducted in 2002, the vast majority in the second half of the year. Abductions have continued in 2003.

[7] The Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative also documented abductions of more than 2,500 people in Kitgum and Pader districts from June through December 2002, but believes that due to under-reporting, the true total is higher. Data provided to Human Rights Watch by Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, February 2003. For more information, see

[8] Human Rights Watch interview, Gulu, February 4, 2003.

[9] Human Rights Watch interview with GUSCO representative, Gulu, February 4, 2003. 

[10] Ibid.

[11] Data provided to Human Rights Watch by the Alcholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, February 2003.

[12] Human Rights Watch interview with nurse at the World Vision rehabilitation center, Gulu, February 10, 2003.

[13] Ibid.  It should be noted that children at both centers who chose to be tested were more likely to be at high risk of HIV infection than those who chose not to be tested.

[14] Human Rights Watch interview with GUSCO representative, Gulu, February 4, 2003.

[15] Okello is a common Acholi name. This commander Okello is a different person than the Commander Okello described by Angela P., above.

[16] Information provided to Human Rights Watch by the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, February 2003.

[17] Human Rights Watch interview with nongovernmental representative, Gulu, February 4, 2003.

[18]Human Rights Watch interview at GUSCO, Gulu, February 4, 2003.

[19] Human Rights Watch interview with local religious leader, Gulu, February 5, 2003.

[20] Human Rights Watch interview, Gulu, February 6, 2003.

[21] Human Rights Watch interview with nurse at World Vision rehabilitation center, Gulu, February 10, 2003.