Children in Uganda are abducted and frequently murdered by the Lord's Resistance Army, a heavily-armed rebel group fighting the Ugandan government, according to The Scars of Death: Children Abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, released today by Human Rights Watch.
The 137-page report charges that children as young as eight years old are kidnapped, tortured, raped, virtually enslaved and sometimes killed by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in the name of "the Holy Spirit". The LRA attacks homes and schools in northern Uganda, and targets children for use as soldiers in its attempt to overthrow the Ugandan government.
The precise number of children abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army is unknown, but reliable estimates suggest that over the past two years, three to five thousand children have escaped from rebel captivity. An equal number are believed to be still in captivity, and an unknown number of abducted children are dead.
The captive children are forced to take part in combat, carry heavy loads, act as personal servants to the rebels, and, in the case of girls, serve as "wives" to rebel commanders. The children undergo a brutal initiation into rebel life: they are forced to participate in acts of extreme violence, often being compelled to help beat or hack to death fellow child captives who have attempted to escape. The rebels march their child captives to rebel base camps in neighboring southern Sudan, and many children die of disease or starvation during the march.
Those children who survive the journey are given rudimentary military training, are armed, and then forced into combat against the Ugandan army and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). In combat, children are forced to the front line and beaten by their commanders if they retreat or take cover.
The Scars of Death tells the stories of Ugandan children who have escaped from rebel captivity. In their own words, Ugandan children tell of their experiences:
"One boy tried to escape [from the rebels], but he was caught . . . . His hands were tied, and then they made us, the other new captives, kill him with a stick. I felt sick . . . I refused to kill him [but] they pointed a gun at me, so I had to do it. The boy was asking me, "Why are you doing this?" I said I had no choice. After we killed him, they made us smear his blood on our arms . . .. They said we had to do this so we would not fear death and so we would not try to escape. I still dream about the boy [whom] I killed. I see him in my dreams, and he is talking to me and saying I killed him for nothing, and I am crying."
-- Susan, sixteen
"I went for several battles in Sudan . . . .The commanders . . . would tell us to run straight into gunfire. The commanders would stay behind and would beat those of us who would not run forward . .. . I remember the first time I was in the front line. The other side started firing, and the commander ordered us to run towards the bullets. I panicked. I saw others falling down dead around me. The commanders were beating us for not running, for trying to crouch down. I don't know why we were fighting . . . . We were just ordered to fight."
-- Timothy, fourteen
"The human rights abuses of the Lord's Resistance Army shock the conscience: they violate both the most elementary principles of human morality and the most fundamental international humanitarian standards," charges Lois Whitman, the director of the Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Project. In particular, the Lord's Resistance Army's abuses violate the provisions of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which lays out the minimum humanitarian rules applicable to internal armed conflicts. The abduction of children for military purposes also contravenes international standards established by Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which obligate states parties to take all feasible measures to ensure that children under fifteen do not take part in hostilities and are protected in times of armed conflict.
The roots of the conflict between the Lord's Resistance Army and the Ugandan government lie in the complex religious traditions of the Acholi people of northern Uganda, in the history of ethnic violence and mistrust that has characterized Ugandan politics for much of the past few decades, and in the troubled relationship between the governments of Uganda and Sudan. The Lord's Resistance Army has long identified itself with a Christian religious tradition. It is led by Joseph Kony, who claims to be in communication with the Holy Spirit. The Lord's Resistance Army receives military assistance and other support from the militantly Islamic Sudanese government. The Sudanese government aids the Lord's Resistance Army in return for assistance in fighting the rebel Sudan P eople's Liberation Army (SPLA), and also in apparent retaliation for Ugandan government support of the SPLA.
Whatever the sources of the conflict, the Ugandan government is failing to protect Ugandan children from rebel abduction. For eleven years, the Ugandan army has been unable to combat the rebels effectively through military means, yet continues to maintain that the rebels are mere "bandits," on the verge of permanent defeat. Yet the rebel abductions and attacks on villages continue unabated.
Children who succeed in escaping from the Lord's Resistance Army find that their ordeal is far from over. Fearing rebel reprisals against themselves or their families if they return to their villages, most escaped children are afraid to go home. And many children literally have nowhere to go: the conflict has displaced more than 200,000 northern Ugandans from their rural homes. Tens of thousands of displaced people have set up temporary homes in the "protected camps" established near army installations by the Ugandan government, but crowded conditions and lack of food and sanitation facilities have rendered the camp population vulnerable to malnutrition, disease and death. Thousands of people die in the camps every month, and despite the nearby military presence, the camps remain frequent targets for rebel attacks.
Two nongovernmental organizations (NGO) have set up live-in trauma counseling centers for children who have escaped from the rebels, but the centers are stretched thin and cannot possibly take in all of the children in need. The Ugandan government appears to be doing little to actively provide for the rehabilitation and reintegration into society of children who have escaped from rebel captivity. After completing a program at the NGO-run centers, the children must move on in order to make room for new escapees, but where they go and how they will support themselves is unknown. Their prospects are bleak.
The title of the Human Rights Watch report is taken from a proverb current among the Acholi people of northern Uganda: "Poyo too pe rweny," which translates as "Death is a scar that never heals." The effects of the Lord's Resistance Army's atrocities will haunt Uganda for generations to come. Children who have escaped from the rebels wake screaming in the night from dreams of pain and death: their dreams are of deaths feared, deaths witnessed, and, all too often, deaths participated in. Perhaps some day, if peace comes, the scars of death will begin to fade. But they will never fully heal.
The Lord's Resistance Army's abduction of children is part of a troubling world-wide trend towards the increased use of children as soldiers. Children are more easily coerced and manipulated than adults, and the proliferation of light-weight automatic weapons makes it possible for even young children to take part in armed conflicts. Throughout the world, an estimated quarter of a million children under the age of eighteen serve as soldiers in government forces or armed opposition groups today. "Involvement in armed conflict violates every right a child has," said Yodon Thonden, counsel to the Human Rights Watch Children's Right's Project. "The fact that so many children are being used as soldiers throughout the world demonstrates the failure of the international community to protect and care for its children, and the abduction of children by the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda represents a particularly tragic instance of that failure."
Human Rights Watch takes the position that no one under the age of eighteen should take part in armed conflicts of any kind, international or internal. Human Rights Watch supports the efforts of the international community (through the work of a U.N. working group under the Commission on Human Rights) to raise the minimum age for involvement in armed conflict to eighteen, through the creation of an Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Human Rights Watch condemns the U.S. government's active opposition to international efforts to raise that age to eighteen.
In The Scars of Death, Human Rights Watch makes a number of recommendations to the parties involved in the conflict and to the international community:
To the Lord's Resistance Army:
immediately stop the abduction, killing, torture, and sexual abuse of children; immediately release all children remaining in captivity; ensure that Lord's Resistance Army combatants respect the human rights of civilians in the areas of conflict.
To the Government of Sudan:
use its influence with the Lord's Resistance Army to ensure that the above recommendations are followed; cease all military aid and other support to the Lord's Resistance Army, until they comply with the above recommendations;
To the Government of Uganda:
take all possible steps to protect children from abduction; when fighting against the Lord's Resistance Army, take all possible steps to minimize child casualties; ensure that all children who escape or are captured from the Lord's Resistance Army receive prompt and adequate access to medical attention and counseling while in government custody; release children promptly to their families, or if the families' whereabouts are unknown or the families are unable to receive the children, to arrange for appropriate alternative care for the children which takes into account their special needs; develop a concrete plan for meeting the long-term needs of former child soldiers; ensure that government soldiers respect the human rights of civilians in the north;
To the United Nations:
the U.N. special rapporteur for Sudan should investigate and report on the role of Sudan in supporting the Lord's Resistance Army, with special attention to the abduction, killing, torture, and rape of children; the U.N. Secretary General's special representative on the impact of armed conflict on children should promptly investigate the abduction, killing, torture and sexual abuse of children by the Lord's Resistance Army; the U.N. Working Group on a Draft Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on Involvement of Children in Armed Conflicts should seek to raise to eighteen the minimum age at which people can be recruited into armed forces and participate in hostilities (whether that recruitment is voluntary or compulsory, and whether it is into government armies or armed opposition groups). Human Rights Watch calls on the international community to help further these goals and to take concrete steps to end the military recruitment of children and the use of child soldiers worldwide.