February 16, 2009

VII. Life with the LRA: The Children Speak

I cried so much after I was abducted and they told me that I was to become a soldier. I wanted to be in school. I didn't want to fight. They said to stop crying and not to think about home, but I thought about it everyday.
-A 12-year-old boy abducted from his school in Duru, September 17, 2008. He escaped from the LRA three months later.

When Ugandan aircraft bombarded LRA leader Joseph Kony's main camp at the start of the military campaign on December 14, some abducted children were able to flee and reach safety at a Congolese army camp. Several of those who escaped that day told Human Rights Watch researchers about their lives in service to LRA combatants.

After setting up their camps in the park and the surrounding hunting reserve in 2006 and 2007, the LRA began extensively cultivating fields in the immediate vicinity. They grew enough beans, sweet potatoes, and other produce to meet most of their food needs. Abducted children and women worked in these fields as well as taking care of household tasks and providing sexual services to male combatants.

Male combatants who were considered reliable and compliant were allocated one abducted girl as a "wife," while senior commanders were allowed to have several. Kony took the largest number of girls and women, some 40 for himself, according to children abducted by the LRA who later managed to escape. Florence, a 17-year-old girl from the CAR who was abducted by the LRA in April 2008, told Human Rights Watch researchers about her life as a "wife."  She said:

I was assigned to a commander. He spoke a different language from me, so we never spoke to each other. He forced me to sleep with him whenever he wanted. If I resisted, he whipped me. Sometimes he even grabbed my neck and tried to strangle me.
With the LRA, a man can only have one wife, and a woman can only be with one man. If they disobeyed this rule, they would be killed. Kony and the other high-level commanders were the exception, and they could have many women.
If I tried to talk to the other girls, they beat us and threatened to kill us. They thought we were plotting against them. A boy from CAR tried to escape, and they killed him with a blow to the head. I had to bury him.
I prepared the food for my commander and I also had to work on the farm. We moved around a lot because we were attacked regularly by the SPLA, and sometimes there were planes flying overhead looking for us. I went everywhere with my commander, but I didn't participate in any of the fighting or raids.[117]

When Florence was interviewed, she was eight months pregnant from having been raped by the LRA commander. She hopes to return to CAR once her baby is born.

Abducted boys were also assigned to combatants or commanders and were charged with cooking, transporting their goods from one camp to another, and working in the fields. Some received military training and others were assigned to be Kony's bodyguards.

Abducted children were often beaten and in some cases killed, if they walked too slowly while moving from one camp to another or if they tried to talk to each other. Children abducted in Congo, the CAR or Sudan lacked a common language with LRA combatants from Uganda and communicated little with them. Through ill-treatment of themselves and others they learned how to behave to avoid further abuse. Those who tried to escape and were caught were often brutally killed. To teach the others a lesson, LRA leaders in some cases forced other children to kill their own friends who had tried to escape.[118] 

Pierre, 15-years-old, was abducted by the LRA from his secondary school in Duru on September 17, 2008. He and 60 schoolmates traveled through the bush from one camp to another for a little over two weeks under the escort of about 80 LRA combatants. When the group arrived at the main camp at Kiswahili, the children were divided and he became one of Kony's guards. He said:

Kony had two groups of seven bodyguards. I was in the second group which protected the outer circle around Kony. There were two children and five adults in my group. During the day we worked on the farm and did military exercises. Whenever Kony traveled, we went with him. He also brought his forty wives with him wherever he went. Kony always had a Motorola [cell phone] with him and his number two, who was always with him, had a Thuraya [satellite] phone. Kony didn't work or do anything during the day.
The younger combatants around Kony whipped us whenever they wanted, and especially if we tried to talk to each other.
They didn't teach us their ideology, but they told us their objective was to take over Uganda so that Kony could become president. They said they needed more soldiers in order to do this. The one commandment they taught us was that anyone who tried to escape would be killed.
The combatants applied oil on their faces, chests, backs, and the palms of their hands. They said the oil made them bullet-proof and that it protected them from death while in battle. They also said the oil made people who tried to escape return to camp.
After the first two weeks in Kiswahili, we went back to a camp called Gambungbu for four days. Two abducted children from CAR had tried to escape, and Kony gave the order that their friends had to kill them in front of all the other children. Kony wanted to be there himself when they were killed. There were about sixty children who had to watch the killing.[119]

Pierre was able to escape the day Ugandan aircraft bombarded Kiswahili. He told Human Rights Watch researchers that he fled the camp right after the bombing began.

I left alone and went west through the bush. I crossed two rivers and eventually came out at the road that goes to Kiliwa. I ran all the way to Kiliwa that day, and arrived at the Congolese army (FARDC) base there around 5 p.m. At first the Congolese soldiers there wanted to shoot at me. Then I was afraid and thought maybe they were with the LRA so I hid in the bush for the night. I presented myself to the Congolese soldiers in the morning, and they eventually accepted me in their camp and gave me something to eat. Another boy and two girls came out in the following days, and the Congolese soldiers brought us all to Dungu.[120]

Pierre said he would like to go back to school but was afraid to go home to Duru because the LRA was still nearby. He said they would kill him if they found him.

A 17-year-old boy who was abducted with 37 others in Kpaika on September 17, 2008 said that on the way to Kiswahili camp, three of the children were killed because they walked too slowly. After the rest arrived at camp, the 17 girls and 21 boys were each assigned to a combatant or commander. He was given to one of the commanders who kept close watch over him but he nonetheless managed to escape two months after his capture. He said:

In the morning I worked on the farm, harvesting beans and sweet potatoes. We came back to eat at noon. Then we looked for wood and water, always under the surveillance of the combatants. I didn't have any military training before I escaped, but they talked about how I was going to get it soon. They showed me how to take a gun apart, wash it, and put it back together.
I escaped in late November, when my commander was eating with two women. I was about 20 yards from my commander, which is the furthest distance I'd been from him since the day I was abducted. I slipped out of the camp quietly and then ran all the way through the forest to the main road, and then I went on towards Dungu.
As far as I know, none of the other children abducted from Kpaika have managed to escape, including my two sisters who are still with the LRA.[121]

These testimonies from Congolese children abducted by the LRA mirror the stories of children abducted in Uganda and southern Sudan in previous years. These testimonies illustrate that despite participation in peace talks and indictments issued by the ICC, the LRA leadership continue to perpetuate widespread human rights abuses against both children and adults.

[117] Human Rights Watch interview with abducted person, Dungu, January 8, 2009.

[118] Human Rights Watch interview with abducted person, Dungu, January 8, 2009.

[119] Human Rights Watch interview with abducted person, Dungu, January 8, 2009.

[120] Human Rights Watch interview with abducted person, Dungu, January 8, 2009.

[121] Human Rights Watch interview with abducted person, Dungu, January 8, 2009.