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Uganda's Child Soldiers Find Respite

October 20, 2002|Andrew England | Associated Press Writer

GULU, Uganda — Head bowed, Cosmos Onek fiddles with a whistle as he mumbles the story of how he took a bayonet and hacked off the ears and lips of a woman because she was working in her field on a Sunday.

That was two years ago, when he was 16 and in the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel movement whose fight is guided by a jumble of Christianity, traditional religion and mythology -- and fueled by resentment.

Both the brutalized woman and the youth, now 18 and undergoing rehabilitation, are victims of an insurgency that has bloodied northern Uganda for 16 years, killing thousands and forcing tens of thousands to live in bleak camps.

Onek is one of an estimated 14,000 children who have been abducted by the rebels to be porters, fighters and sex slaves. In June, he escaped after four years with the group.

He looks forward to returning to his family, once counselors decide that he can handle normal life, but he worries that the rebels will just grab him again. "At the moment, I'm not feeling anything

The rebels, led by Joseph Kony, have intensified their attacks since March, when the Ugandan army sent soldiers and tanks into neighboring Sudan to attack rebel bases in an effort to force them to agree to a government-dictated cease-fire.

While not directly linked to the 19-year civil war in southern Sudan or the four-year conflict in neighboring Congo, the insurgency in northern Uganda is fueled by the seemingly endless supply of small arms and ammunition that pour into this corner of Africa.

The insurgency has waxed and waned, depending on relations between Uganda and its neighbors. The Ugandan army offensive was undertaken with the blessing of the Sudanese government, perhaps because of Sudan's desire to polish its anti-terrorist credentials.

Sudan's withdrawal of support for the Ugandan rebels has considerably weakened the Lord's Resistance Army, Ugandan military officials contend.

"Militarily, we are capable of defeating Kony because he no longer has support from Sudan," said an army spokesman, Lt. Paddy Ankunda. "When a bullet is shot, he cannot replace it, and that is how people lose wars."

Rebel leaders insist that they have the means to carry on, and they contend that they have changed their brutal ways.

In a rare interview, the rebels' chief of staff, Tolbert Yardin Nyeko, said the group has remodeled itself and put a stop to abductions and other atrocities that he blamed on low-level commanders.

He said the movement also is now willing to talk peace.

"If it's guaranteed that peace talks are going to work, we will come out willingly," Nyeko said. "We have seen the war has taken long, and we have seen the suffering of the people of the soil, our own people."

Nyeko, 38, said he was recruited by the rebel movement while still in high school and joined because he didn't trust President Yoweri Museveni, who rose to power in 1986 after leading a guerrilla war against President Milton Obote.

The Lord's Resistance Army rose from the remnants of a revolt by Acholi soldiers after Museveni, a southerner, won power. Most of the rebels had given up by mid-1988, but those who kept up the fight coalesced into the Lord's Resistance Army.

Kony, one of the original members, is the son of a Roman Catholic religion teacher and claims to posses spiritual powers. Originally, the group proclaimed that it would run the country according to the Ten Commandants. Now, it would be satisfied with equal treatment.

Despite talk of a cease-fire, bloodshed continues. The army says abductions are on the increase; the rebels say the government is not sincere about peace.

People in Gulu, a town surrounded by lush, green savanna, have seen too much conflict to be optimistic. No one pays attention to 1960s-vintage T-55 tanks rumbling through the streets except for the barefoot kids chasing after them.

"People here have lost hope because the government is not helping the people with all its heart," said Richard Komakech, a shopkeeper.

"The government is now hoping for a military solution, which we see as not viable."

Most of the 500,000 people in the Gulu district are Acholi, a warrior tribe devoted to its long-horned cattle. But herds have been decimated during the war, and about three-fourths of the people have been forced into squalid camps that the government claims will protect them from rebel attacks.

People regularly call the army-run Radio Freedom in Gulu to complain about the army and Museveni, who won less than 12% of the vote in the Gulu district in last year's presidential election. The callers want to know why the government has taken so long to rein in the rebels. Museveni blames the failure to crush the rebels on a lack of resources. He says international donors, who provide more than half the government's operating budget, discourage any increase in defense spending.

He also defends the army's offensive in Sudan, Operation Iron Fist, saying it resulted in 450 rebel deaths and 470 rescued abductees. The army lost only 134 men, he said recently .

Nyeko, the rebels' chief of staff, put government losses at "hundreds and hundreds" and those of the rebels at "below 500."

Nyeko refused to say how many fighters the rebels have. But a former senior rebel, who left the group in August, put the number at 2,500, most of them under 16.

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