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BBC News' Joanne Gilhooly
"A deliberate strategy to disrupt entire communities"
 real 28k

Thursday, 6 January, 2000, 23:01 GMT
Uganda's fight for its children

Uganda wants its children back Uganda wants its children back

By Joanne Gilhooly in Uganda

In the grounds of a compound in Northern Uganda, a mother plays with her baby in the shade of a tree.

'Mary' was a sex slave
It is a peaceful scene, but for 15-year-old 'Mary', it is bitter sweet - for it is a constant reminder of her ordeal as a sex slave.

She was passed around the commanders of the rebel group the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). However, she is one of the lucky ones - she escaped.

In northern Uganda, many of the villages are empty and communities have been decimated.

400,000 people have been forced to shelter in military-run camps after a decade-long terror campaign.

Theft of sons and daughters

The LRA says it is fighting to overthrow President Museveni's government. But it does not take on the army. Instead its fighters attack villagers, stealing their sons and daughters.

It is estimated that child soldiers make up 80% of its forces. Perhaps 20,000 children have been abducted over the years.

Angelina  Atyam: must forgive rebels for sake of children Angelina Atyam: must forgive rebels for sake of children

Many cannot withstand the harsh treatment in the bush - some have escaped.

The United Nations says up to 6,000 children are still unaccounted for.

LRA methods are brutal. They train the young to return to their own communities and attack family and friends.

It is a deliberate strategy to disrupt entire communities. Rape and mutilation - the cutting off of noses, lips, hands - are widely used.

Caught in the crossfire

The unlucky people of the north are embroiled in a complex situation: the Ugandan Government accuses the Sudanese of backing the rebels.

In turn, Khartoum accuses Uganda of supporting the Sudan People's Liberation Army in its own civil war.

But a situation that has stagnated for years may be changing.

Norbert Mao MP: critic of Museveni policy Norbert Mao MP: critic of Museveni policy

Last month, the two governments pledged to halt support for rebel groups within their borders and to return those abducted.

President Museveni also offered an amnesty to the rebels.

It is a move that has given new hope to the parents of the missing.

For years, Angelina Atyam, of the Parents Concerned for Children Association, has toured the world trying to highlight their plight.

For the sake of the living children, we have forgiven the rebels, we can still start afresh
Angelina Atyam

She says that the children have been failed by the government and the international community.

"For the sake of the living children, we have forgiven the rebels, we can still start afresh," she says.

"We cannot continue like this, we know the pain, how deep it is. We do not want our mothers to go through the same thing again."

The new sense of calm in the north is tinged with tension.

Token gesture

Those who have been working for the children's release now fear that Sudan's next move will be to force the LRA to release a few hundred children in a high profile gesture.

However, thousands more may be stranded for good.

President Museveni: Offered amnesty to rebels

Analysts say that the agreement has come from two presidents under pressure.

There is political instability in Sudan and, in Uganda, the Museveni miracle may be faltering with military involvement in the war in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo draining resources.

Back in the capital Kampala, critics of the government's policy towards the north say they notice a change in strategy.

They say that it is a change governed not so much by international opinion as by the people themselves.

Museveni under pressure

He's got to eliminate some of the concerns of the people, like the armed conflict in the north.
Norbert Mao

One of President Museveni's critics, the MP Norbert Mao, says he is anxious now to deal with the problems in the north.

"He is a man under pressure - because first of all he would like to increase his democratic credentials so he's got to eliminate some of the concerns of the people, like the armed conflict in the north," says Mr Mao.

"It's a major wart on the face of his policy."

The north is not the only problem. The area on Uganda's western border with the Democratic Republic of Congo is beset by more rebels.

Again, thousands have been forced into camps after murderous raids by the Allied Democratic Forces, a quasi Islamic group also thought to be backed by Sudan.

Attacks in this region have actually been stepped up since the agreement.

Children still abducted

Children as young as five being abducted Children as young as five being abducted

Children as young as five are being abducted into their ranks.

It is clear then that large-scale recruitment of children who are then forced to attack their own people is a deliberate strategy to cause mass disruption.

A release by the LRA in the north is supposed to be imminent, though the group has attacked again recently and is possibly in internal disarray.

This is yet another twist in a complex situation that could still leave thousands of children trapped just across the border.

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See also:
06 Jan 00 |  Africa
Attacks breach Uganda peace deal
08 Dec 99 |  Africa
Sudan and Uganda tackle rebels
07 Dec 99 |  Africa
Uganda offers amnesty to rebels
07 Mar 99 |  Monitoring
Ugandans under attack
21 Feb 99 |  Analysis
Sudan: Background

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