Christian Aid partners help Ugandan children
Christian Aid partners have been helping children targeted by the Lord's Resistance Army in northern Uganda
The 18-year war waged by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) against the Ugandan government has been characterised by its ferocious brutality against civilians and the abduction of children. It is estimated that between 25,000 to 30,000 children have been taken.
The children are forced to walk for miles tied together at the waist and carry heavy loads of looted food and weapons. They are then trained as child soldiers or given as wives to rebel commanders.
The Concerned Parents Association (CPA) was set up in 1996 to help the parents of these abducted children and to reintegrate the children who manage to escape. The CPA, which is Christian Aid partner, now represents over 3,400 families in 121 support groups across northern Uganda.
In the dusty, small town of Kitgum, close to the border with Sudan, the CPA has set up a reception centre for escaped young people. Most are need of serious medical help, many have walked for miles with little food or water and may also have battlefield wounds. Staff at the centre try to trace and help reconcile them with their families and their communities.
The limbo in which these children find themselves illustrates the dilemma for the Acholi people, the dominant tribe in the north. The government of the Uganda insists the only way to end the war is by military means. But an estimated 85 per cent of the rebel soldiers are abducted children forced to fight.
The government views the Acholis with suspicion. But, as a CPA member says: 'The fighters are our children. Just because we don't support military action doesn't mean we support the LRA. You cannot expect us to support the killing of our children.'
Justin Onekalit has been staying at the centre since he escaped last month. He is fortunate that the rebels thought he was too old - he is now 25 - to mould into a soldier. But he still has nightmares about the ten months he spent with the LRA.
'They took me because they thought I was young and strong - I could carry heavy loads. To frighten me they beat me right away - 160 times. I know it was 160 because the others who were taken were forced to watch and they counted silently.
'We had to go to Teso district where they were fighting. They commanded us to beat to death one of us who tried to escape. Before I beat him I prayed to God. I didn't want to do it. I was forced to, if I hadn't I would have been killed also.'
Justin escaped with a friend and made it to safety in the CPA centre but he still feels he cannot go back to his wife and children 'If the LRA finds me again I am sure to be killed. I feel more secure here.'
The CPA in Gulu, 100 kilometres south of Kitgum, has 150 'child mothers' on its books. These are the young girls who have been given to rebel soldiers as wives; they sometimes return with as many as four children.
Most of these girls have missed out on their primary education so CPA helps them with ways of earning a living by setting up a small business or raising poultry.
Beatrice Llaweny was taken at night when she was sleeping at home - she was just 13 years-old. 'I was really scared, they tied all of us together and forced me to lead them to the next village because I knew the way in the dark.'
They walked to an LRA base in Sudan where she was immediately given to a rebel as his wife. A year later she gave birth to a son, Innocent and three years later to a daughter, Susan.
'At first my husband was rude and cruel but later it went well. I always thought about escaping. If my husband had gone to fight in Uganda I would have gone with him and then run away.'
In August, 2002 the LRA was flushed out of its bases in Sudan and its leader, Joseph Kony, ordered the release of 42 mothers and their children for military reasons.
CPA traced Beatrice's uncle and she is living with him. She says talking to the CPA counsellors is helpful; she is still having problems with her situation. 'I don't know how to deal with my children. I will look after them but I just want them to grow up to be responsible adults.'