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Children Traumatized by Rebel Attacks in Northern Uganda


For almost two decades, the people of northern Uganda have been subjected to random, brutal attacks by a rebel group the United States calls a terrorist organization.

It is sunset in the northern Ugandan town of Gulu. Silhouetted against the pale yellows and pinks of the fading sky are thousands of children as young as four years old walking in small groups, some clutching textbooks, others carrying blankets.

The so-called "night commuters" filtering into Gulu town this evening from camps as far as two hours away are trying to avoid being kidnapped by rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA.

The children will either sleep on Gulu's streets or in shelters such as Noah's Ark, a huge compound that opened in 2003.

Fifteen-year-old Laouries Akello has been coming to Noah's Ark every night for more than a year. She describes her life to VOA.

"I just came here to save my life. We go to school, then we go back late at home," she said. "So we just reach [home] immediately, without eating, not even have time, just run, just rush here. It is very hard. You cannot study well because you have worries because of your parents at home - you might think that they [rebels] have killed them [parents]."

At Noah's Ark, anywhere from 300 to more than 2,000 children sleep each night on the floors of long canvas tents supplied by the U.N. children's agency and a large warehouse-type building. They rise with the sun, splash themselves with water from pumps or taps, and walk back to their homes or schools.

Some 20,000 children have been kidnapped during the 18 years that the Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA, has been abducting, mutilating, and killing the people in the districts of Gulu, Kitgum and Pader. An estimated 10,000 children are still missing.

Classified by the United States as being a terrorist organization, the LRA's motives for its violence are unclear.

Many of the 15,000 children who have escaped, or been rescued from, the LRA end up in rehabilitation centers such as Gulu Support the Children Organization, where they receive a month or so of counseling before being sent back to their families and communities.

Julius Tiboa is program coordinator for Gulu Support the Children Organization, which during its eight years of operation has rehabilitated more than 7,000 children held by the LRA.

Mr. Tiboa tells VOA the experiences the abducted children have been through are unimaginable.

"When they're abducted, they're tied up to avoid escape, and they walk long distances through the bush without water, without food," he said. "They undergo military training. Some of the girls between 11 [years of age] and above are given to the rebel commanders. Some of the children are sent back to fight and in the process many of the children get killed. Some of them are given other children to kill, to instill fear into them so that they don't escape."

Children who are unable or unwilling to get help after such experiences exhibit severe behavioral problems. Juliet Cherkut, head of Noah's Ark shelter, explains.

"Some of the children who return from the bush refuse to pass under rehabilitation. When they reach the center here, some of them come in with sharp instruments like razor blades, needles. Then, at night, they keep cutting the tents and then others could cut the friends because they said when they don't see blood within a month, they feel unsteady. So they have to cut friends to have a physical look at the blood," she said.

Even children who have never been abducted are still traumatized, Ms. Cherkut says many children who sleep at her shelter have vivid nightmares and wake up screaming thinking they are being attacked or abducted by the rebels.

She says the night commuting lifestyle destroys the cohesiveness and authority of the family, prevents the children from learning about their culture, and will make it very difficult for them in the future to stick to jobs and relationships.

In response to the crisis, the government has set up 49 camps in Gulu District that are supposed to be guarded by the army and local defense units trained by the army, yet rebel attacks and abductions still occur.

An estimated 85 percent of Gulu District's 500,000 people live in these crowded, disease-ridden settlements. Across the north, more than 1.4 million live in such camps.

In addition to insecurity, a huge problem children in the camps face is diseases linked to a lack of food such as malnutrition, diarrhea, a protein deficiency called kwashiorkor, and cholera.

The head of the World Food Program's Gulu sub-office, Pedro Amolat, explains why food is so scarce in Gulu.

"Gulu District used to be, I would say, the granary of this part of Uganda. It used to export a lot of food products just before the war, but now it's totally dependent on food aid. As a result of that insurgency, only four percent of the total arable land is under cultivation," he said.

Mr. Amolat says camp residents risk their lives if they attempt to farm more than about two kilometers away from the camp.

Nurse Grace Odokorach, who heads the anti-natal/HIV counseling unit at Gulu Hospital, tells VOA how the food shortage is contributing to the spread of HIV/AIDS, even among children.

"The mothers are desperate," she said. "They don't have food, and the little food given by World Food Program is not enough. So you find this is a mother who may even send her small daughter to go to the rich man or the man who is able to provide some food or something, so the girl will go to that man in order to get food. So you find [she] can be infected by that man."

Ms. Odokorach says the lack of food and overcrowding in the camps are contributing to a rise in domestic violence and family breakdown.

Everyone from local officials to aid workers to the night commuters themselves are crying out for an end to the violence, which has left an indelible scar on a whole generation of northern Uganda's children.