Uganda: "Breaking God's commands": The destruction of childhood by the Lord's Resistance Army

Report
September 17, 1997

Uganda: "Breaking God's commands": The destruction of childhood by the Lord's Resistance Army

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Uganda

''Breaking God's commands'': the destruction of childhood by the Lord's Resistance Army
"I would like to give you a message. Please do your best to tell the world what is happening to us, the children. So that other children don't have to pass through this violence."

The 15-year old girl who ended an interview with Amnesty International with this plea was forcibly abducted at night from her home on 26 December 1996. She was taken by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), an armed opposition movement fighting the Uganda Government. She was made to kill a boy who tried to escape. She witnessed another boy hacked to death for not raising the alarm when a friend ran away. She was beaten when she dropped a water container and ran for cover under gunfire. She received 35 days of military training and was sent to fight the Uganda Peoples' Defence Forces (UPDF), the government army. We cannot reveal her name because the LRA sometimes hunts down those who escape and takes its revenge on them and their families.

This report is our response to her. It is a call to recognize what is happening to a generation of northern Ugandan children from Gulu, Kitgum and neighbouring districts. It is estimated that since 1995 between five and eight thousand children, most from the Acholi people, have been abducted by the LRA and forced to become child soldiers.(1) Taking children is a systematic choice: most of those abducted are between 13 and 16 years old. Younger children are generally not strong enough to carry weapons or heavy loads while older children are less malleable to the will of their abductors. Boys outnumber girls.

It is a call to put an end to the human rights abuse to which children are subjected. Children are beaten, murdered and forced to become combatants. Girls are raped and used as sexual slaves by more senior soldiers. But in addition, becoming an involuntary part of the LRA means being made to abuse others. The killers of attempted escapees, captured government soldiers and civilians are themselves abused children. They are being abused by being forced to commit human rights abuses. This is deliberate. The children are often traumatized by what they have done and, believing that they are now outcasts, they become bound to the LRA.

Human rights abuses are also being committed against adults in northern Uganda, by government forces as well as by the LRA. UPDF soldiers have been responsible for illegal detentions, extrajudicial executions, rape and other forms of torture. However, Amnesty International has chosen to issue a report which focuses on abuses against children (and therefore mainly on abuses committed by the LRA) because thousands are currently being abused and tens of thousands more live each day at risk of being abducted. The wider dynamic of human rights abuses in Gulu and Kitgum Districts, including violations by the army, will be the subject of a separate report in late 1997.(2)

This report is a call to redouble efforts to break a cycle of violence that is destroying children's lives. The conflict in northern Uganda has lasted 11 years. Ultimately its roots lie in the traumatic impact on Ugandan society of the gross human rights violations of previous regimes. Northern Ugandans made up a significant proportion of the armed forces of these past governments. Some northerners claim that since 1986, when the current government took power, the rest of Uganda has turned its back on the north, blaming the Acholi in particular for mass human rights violations in the past. They say that this has created two nations - a prosperous, politically stable south and a devastated, backward north.(3)

While recognizing that a lasting peace in northern Uganda involves coming to terms with the past, arguing over history can sometimes become a barrier to addressing the future. Children from all parts of Uganda represent that future. Unless their human rights can be protected, and unless children can be helped to overcome the experiences to which they have been subjected, Uganda will not free itself from the legacy of its violent history. Establishing respect for the human rights of children lies at the heart of any forward-looking solution to conflict.