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

September 17, 1997

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

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"I was part of O.K.'s family. He is a doctor taking care of the wounded. Those who were sick came to his house to be given medicine. He had four wives, two children and 12 recruits. In the home, there were also six abducted boys and six girls."

The powers of the men at the head of each family, under the overall authority of Joseph Kony and other senior commanders, are such that they effectively ''own'' the children allocated to them as chattels. Girls are held in forced marriage. Commanders have the power to impose hard labour and physical punishment -- and the power to kill. In Amnesty International's opinion the degree of ownership over child members of the ''family'' is such that their condition is consistent with the international definition of slavery.(13)

All children are forced to carry out a range of domestic and other tasks under inhuman and life-threatening conditions with an inadequate diet. According to O.J., who was taken to Aru in Sudan in December 1996:

"Sorghum and maize was brought by the Arabs once a month, but only enough for the commanders. We ate potato leaves. Sometimes we would raid the Dinkas and Letuhas for food."

J. was also taken to Sudan:

"I collected water. The area was very sandy and it was a six mile round trip. Collecting water took three hours. I saw one boy die. He was under a tree. I thought he was resting but he was dead. I ground and cooked sorghum supplied by the Arabs. We ate no beans or vegetables. We only had leaves for sauce. Boys were made to cut firewood."

V. arrived in Aru in early 1997:

"At O.'s place there were many people so the food was too little. Nine girls were there who had to share little food...People died of thirst because there was little water. You had to dig the ground to find it."

Girls and women are forced to carry out the range of domestic duties that in rural Acholi society might be expected of a wife. These include cooking, cleaning, and fetching water and food. In the LRA if rules are not followed, the head of the family has the power to punish, often carried out by caning, the number of strokes reflecting the severity of the offence. While on the move, for example, cooking should be carried out quickly and in such a way that smoke from cooking fires cannot be seen: "if you cook too slowly, they beat you. The escort of the commander usually does that". Allowing smoke to be seen carries a death sentence.

Forced marriage means that girls are also forced to provide sexual services to their "husbands". They are effectively held as sexual slaves. Interviewed girls refer to themselves either as "wife" or "helper". Many girls appear to use the different terms as a matter of self-representation, with the choice of "helper" reflecting reluctance to recognize (perhaps to themselves, as well as to outsiders) that sexual relations were imposed upon them.

Other evidence demonstrates that sexual slavery is imposed on all abducted girls, with possibly two exceptions: girls below thirteen and those who manage to escape within a week of their abduction. When medically examined on escaping, nearly 100% of escaped girls and women have syphilis or other sexually transmitted diseases, against 60% of boys and men.(14) Except for those who had been married before abduction (a minority) and who may have been carrying sexually transmitted diseases, they are most likely to have been infected during their period with the LRA. People who work with former child members of the LRA attest that female "helpers" are, sooner or later, victims of rape by the head of the family to whom they are allocated. But many girls are unable to say so because of the stigma attached to rape, and it takes weeks of counselling for them to be able to articulate it. A counsellor told Amnesty International: