A new report Stolen Children: Abduction and Recruitment in Northern Uganda says record numbers of children are being abducted by rebels in northern Uganda.
In the last 10 months, according to the Human Rights Watch report, 5,000 Ugandan children have been seized by rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army. A Human Rights Watch official, Jo Becker, says more children have been taken in the last 10 months than in any year of the 16 years of fighting between the government and the rebels.
Tony Tate, one of the authors of the report, tells the story of a 15-year-old boy from the Ugandan town of Gulu who escaped from the rebels, the LRA. "At the time he was taken by the LRA, he was in his home in the evening sleeping," he said. "He was taken out of his home. The rest of the family was ordered inside the hut and the home was then burned by the LRA. And he knows that his mother and his siblings were burnt alive inside the house. He spoke at length about the horrific treatment he had at the hands of the LRA, including being beaten and tortured and forced to kill other children who had tried to escape. He's desperate now. He has nowhere to go. He has no family. He's an orphan and was very, very depressed."
The Human Rights Watch report says abducted children are forced to carry out raids, burn houses and intimidate the local population. Girls who are abducted are usually used as domestic slaves or forced to "marry" LRA commanders.
Human Rights Watch officials link the upsurge in abductions to the Ugandan army's efforts to defeat the rebels militarily. Last March, the army launched Operation Iron Fist, which included operations in southern Sudan to destroy rebel bases there. This forced the rebels to move back into northern Uganda and abductions and looting have increased ever since.
Mr. Tate says Human Rights Watch is calling on the United Nations to negotiate with the rebels for the children's release. "We have made a strong recommendation to the United Nations to appoint a special envoy that would act as sort of a shuttle diplomacy between the Ugandan government and the LRA to try to negotiate for the release of these children,' said Tony Tate. "We realize that this is a first step only, but it is an important first step for the children. And hopefully would gather some momentum around a lasting solution to the conflict in the north."
The rebels declared a cease-fire earlier this month, and there have been attempts since then to start peace negotiations between the two sides, but these have not had much success. On Monday, a Ugandan army officer who was sent to deliver a peace message to the LRA was killed.
But religious leaders in northern Uganda are urging the government to persist in its peace efforts, saying 16 years of distrust cannot be overcome in a few weeks.
Mr. Tate points out that religious leaders have in the past managed to negotiate with the rebels for the release of women and children.
The rebels say they want to replace the government of President Yoweri Museveni with one based on the 10 Commandments of the Bible.