The Prisoners of Fear
EMILY WAX, The Washington Post: Feb. 17,
PAGAK, Uganda - The despondent-looking
man with the smudged glasses moved gingerly through this squalid camp, home to
20,000 people and not a single health center.
In a, maze of tightly
packed mud huts, smoldering pit latrines and dirt footpaths, children lay
collapsed on the hot earth, their bellies swollen and sore from hunger, their
hair yellowing from lack of protein, their noses raw and leaking.
entire generation of Ugandans in the north of the country is growing up in
places like Pagak Camp, just outside Gulu and 200 miles north of Kampala, the
capital. An estimated 1.4 million of the 25.8 million population are living in
camps in northern and eastern Uganda. They fled their villages to escape the
Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a guerrilla force that has terrorized the
population for nearly two decades.
"We can't live like this anymore,"
said Lemoi, a community leader who has lived in the camp since 1996. "It's just
absolutely shameful. ... We are beggars now. We can't even sleep in separate
areas from our children. All of our traditional pride is withered. How long will
we be here? Forever?"
Ugandans call it "the war that won't end." In
the face of a government offensive called Operation Iron Fist, launched in March
2002, rebels have stepped up their raids on villages - burning huts, reportedly
hacking civilians to death with machetes and axes, and abducting children in
Nationwide, there is despair about the war in the
north. In response to rebel attacks and the Ugandan military's apparent
inability to counter them, the government has in the past six weeks trained and
armed 8,000 civilians. The new militia members were portrayed on state
television as heroes, proudly wielding AK-47s, marching through towns like Lira,
in the same region as Gulu.
Human-rights groups have criticized the
government, saying children are being recruited. An even bigger concern is that
the groups being armed by the government are members of the Langi tribe, ethnic
rivals of the Acholi, who live in the north.
militia a is a very dangerous idea and is nothing to feel proud about,"
said the Rev. Carlos Rodriguez, a Spaniard who works with the
interdenominational Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative.
Lira, those who have joined the militia said there would be no problems. Wearing
a government issued green uniform, Nancy Awio, 25, said she quit her job as a
secretary to join the forces. Her father was killed by rebels in November, she
said, dragged off by 15 men and beaten in the head and stomach until he
hemorrhaged. Awio has 6-year-old twins and said she was worried about the
pay the government promised her but has yet to give her. But she said she wasn't
afraid of death.
"I'm not afraid because I have the techniques to
fight in the front lines," said Awio. I don't think they can kill me. I was so
shocked when I saw my father lying there. It was so painful. That's why I
"Everyone wants to join and fight back," said Felix Okot
Ogong, state minister for youth and children's affairs, at his office in
Kampala. "I don't see any dangers in it. They are not soldiers, they are
defenders against the LRA."
The war in northern Uganda began in 1986.
The rebel leader is an enigmatic recluse and self-declared prophet, Joseph Kony,
who has said he started the uprising to overthrow the government of President
Yoweri Museveni and replace it with a government based on the Ten
Some observers say what Kony really wanted was to avenge
his ethnic group, the Acholi, who have felt disadvantaged in comparison with
people in the richer south since the British protectorate of Uganda was created
in 1894. Some of the Acholi also served in the armies of the governments of Idi
Amin and Milton Obote, longtime enemies of Museveni.
kidnapped children to create his army, his movement quickly lost popular
support, and he was dismissed as a lunatic. But his rebels were provided with
high-tech firepower by the Sudanese government, which was trying to destabilize
the area and deal with its own rebels in southern Sudan, along the Ugandan
In radio broadcasts, Kony has denied getting Sudanese support
and frequently quotes biblical passages that he says sanction taking children
for a cause.
He has said he believes Ugandans must be cleansed" for
not embracing his philosophy. Rebels are known for cutting off victims' fingers
and lips, and taking young girls, some only 9 or 10, as sex slaves.
Kony and other top rebel commanders are allowed to hide in Sudan's mountains.
They stage hit-and-run attacks on civilians at night. There are no checkpoints
and no rebel-held towns.
Recently, peace talks aimed at ending Sudan's
civil war brought hope that Uganda's war would wind down. But Sudan broke a
promise made in late 2002 to stop supplying weapons to the Lord's Resistance
Army, according to John Prendergast, an Africa analyst with the International
Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization that monitors global
"As yet, there is not enough. pressure to make any
diplomatic opening possible," Prendergast said. "The U.S. will have to lean
heavily on the government of Sudan to cut off its support to the LRA and bring
it to the table to talk."
In Kampala, politicians and. ordinary
Ugandans have fiercely criticized the government's failure to stop the war. In
November, 34 members of parliament walked out of a session, saying the
government was insincere about wanting peace.
The latest bloodshed
occurred Feb. 5, when rebels attacked the Abia camp near Lira, tossing hand
grenades, torching huts and hacking to death 50 villagers, leaving body parts
strewn through the camp. About 13 miles from the scene, they abducted 10 people
from their fields.
At Pagak, the men are afraid to leave camp. They
use their savings to buy a local alcohol drink, and laze in dark, musty
Every few days, chaotic lines snake out into the trampled fields
where families wait for small rations of beans and maize from the U.N. World
Within view on a clear day are their abandoned fields,
just over the hills. Farmers who once grew bountiful sweet potatoes, sugar cane,
pumpkins and mangoes are afraid to plant and harvest.
After dark, children huddle in refuge from
15,000 ‘night commuters’ find brief respite from
THE WASHINGTON POST
GULU, Uganda - Night was falling quickly. In the faded red and orange light of
Africa at dusk, two 15-year-old girls, Jennifer Adoch and Susan Oyella, anus
linked, backs straight, hair tightly shaved, hiked dusty trails without shoes,
their feet swollen and callused.
They walked with thousands of other
children, all rushing away from the danger of nighttime rebel raids on their
villages and toward the safety of the town center to sleep. Tiny boys in
tattered clothing, girls with chubby cheeks clutching ragged dolls, others with
foam mattresses balanced on their heads, others with nothing at all were
Jennifer and Susan sang a marching song. "People in Gulu are
suffering. Education is poor. Communication is poor. There are no more virgins
in Gulu," the girls sang sweetly in English. "They were all raped. Hear us now:
There are no more virgins in Gulu."
The children are called simply
"the night commuters," About 15,000 young Ugandans trek every evening from more
than 300 villages, some more than five miles away, into the safety of Gulu.
Other towns in northern Uganda, such as nearby Lira and Kitgum, also have their
nightly flood of children.
Rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army, or
LRA, raid villages at night, abducting boys and girls to fill the ranks of their
army and to become sex slaves and porters. After the government launched an
offensive two years ago, the kidnappings increased. Last year, an average of 30
children every day were snatched from boarding schools 'and homes, according to
Terrified of abductions, which almost always took place at
night, the children began to sleep in the towns, where it was harder for rebels
to attack. Parents stayed behind in the villages to watch over their
possessions. They, too, have been the victims of rebel kidnappings, but children
are the main targets. An estimated 34,000 children have been abducted since
"My family was killed by rebels so I started footing it to the
bus park. So many (children) were there, too," said Jennifer, her large eyes
shifting down. In the dark, three months ago, she was offered about 30 cents to
have sex with a man. She said she closed her eyes and accepted the
"I'm not lazy. I can run. I have been beaten. I have been taken
to discos and raped. I am not scared anymore," Susan said.
On the road
to Gufu, Innocent Opinonya, 14, walked gracefully and with perfect posture. Also
walking, but with her back hunched over and her shoulders folded into her body,
was his sister Prossy Atimangoi, 16.
Prossy quietly recalled being
taken as a "rebel wife" on a Tuesday in the last week of July 1998. She was mute
for three months after escaping last year. Her first words to her brother were
ones he still remembers: "I am still fearing in the village that they may abduct
me. Let's hide in Gulu town."
“I am really ashamed”
Prossy said she was raped many times. She described being forced to participate
in killing a fellow prisoner -- a girl with light brown eyes -- who disobeyed a
"I am really ashamed. I was disrespecting my
heart., I wanted to be dead, afterwards. I wasn't experiencing life. It was
living a curse," mumbled Prossy, her eyes welling with tears. She pulled her
jacket over her head and said again: "I wanted to be dead. I wanted to take my
"Then you found me," Innocent piped in, touching her hand.
"I was fearing, too, and I told you we could be together."
He tried to
defend her one night at a dank, dirty bus park in the center of Gulu when two
men tried to rip her clothes off as she slept under a wooden bench. She woke up
sweating and screaming.
Innocent, just under 5 feet tall, said he
didn't know what to do because "the boys were so much bigger than me." So he
started screaming, too, as loud as he could, and he bit one of the men on the
arm before they hit him on the head, knocking him out.
arrive in town at night know what to do. Some of the older children curl up into
tiny balls, their chafed skin pressed against the concrete floors of government
offices and the bus depot. Some huddle on the verandas of stores, in government
buildings and in churches. The lucky ones end up in tents, with supervision and
supplies, set up behind barbed-wire fences by aid groups.
Susan and Jennifer sat side by side on a log, their
hands clasped, their legs swinging ner-vously, near three huge tent shelters
called Noah's Ark in a field on the edge of Gulu. A wire-mesh fence surrounds
the encampment, topped with barbed wire. The two girls had been late to check
in, but strutted past the counselor.
Last week, a counselor caught
them trying to make money for school fees by offering their bodies in town.
Susan explained with dead eyes: "We don't have sponsorship for schooling. This
is the way we do it. We can't dig in the fields to sell vegetables because it's
A counselor with a cross swinging from her neck
constantly scolds them. She confronted them after hearing they were trying to
get other girls involved in a sex ring. Jennifer and Susan laughed, then looked
despondent. They slumped away. Later, Jennifer slipped her arm around the
counselor's waist, looked her in the eyes and stated: "I'm always in
Anett Korui, 24, who runs the shelter, walked around the
compound announcing that it was time for bed. The children filed into the tents
- about 500 children in each - and squeezed onto wooden rafters and straw mats,
side by side. With bloodshot eyes, they stared nervously at the openings of the
tents. Quiet fell over Noah's Ark.
On a chilly morning just before
dawn, sleepy children lined up outside the water pumps to wash their faces and
start their lineup.
Arts and crafts
Innocent, an appointed
student leader in the camp, was in charge of counting everyone and helping them
get into line. He also told a group of boys how they could join his crafts
Innocent started a boys group that makes stick renditions of
cellphones and local buildings, and armed rebel trucks out of wood and
jerrycans. He calls the two benches and two tables set up to make the crafts his
"I have my ideas and concepts," he said proudly, displaying
his crowded table of work, including an accurate rendition of the bus depot and
the town's Pan Africa Hotel. "I am improving on all of my knowledge. I want to
be president of Uganda one day. I like schooling so much." Four of his other
siblings were abducted over the years, as well as his father, who was taken in
1996. None has returned. His mother is in a hospital with cerebral
The counselor said it was time for everyone to go home.
Innocent and his fan club got into line, and all of them - streams of little
bodies - marched out of the wire-mesh gate.
Outside, a half-dozen
giggling children stopped to balance on an enormous fallen tree branch. Girls
rode sidesaddle on bikes steered by boys. Boys and girls raced each other
For a few minutes, Gulu looked like a giant
elementary-school-campus. And in the bright, sunlight, the children headed home.
AN ESTIMATED 1.4 million of the 25.8 million population are living in
camps in northern and eastern, Uganda- They fled their villages in waves to
escape the Lord's Resistance Army, a guerrilla group headed by a religious
fanatic that has wreaked havoc and seized their children. Now the government is
forming a civilian militia to fight back, but rights groups say the strategy
could result in even more bloodshed.