The “Lost Children” of Northern Uganda.

>> Saturday, July 26, 2008

By Samuel Olara

International humanitarian law prohibits all parties to armed conflicts from arbitrarily depriving any person of their liberty, including through abductions and forced recruitment. Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and applicable to non-international armed conflicts, requires that all civilians be treated humanely – arbitrary deprivation of liberty is incompatible with this requirement. (See 1949 Geneva Conventions, article 3; see also International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Customary International Humanitarian Law (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005), see rule 99 and accompanying text).

As such, the recruitment of children under the age of 15 or their use in hostilities is considered a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The statute was adopted in July 1998 and considers such recruitment a war crime under its jurisdiction whether carried out by members of national armed forces or non-state armed groups.

Individuals who are responsible for recruiting children under the age of 15 into armed groups are criminally responsible for acts amounting to war crimes under customary international law. In May 2004 the Appeals Chamber of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in Prosecutor v. Sam Hinga Norman ruled that the prohibition on recruiting children below age 15 had crystallized as customary international law prior to 1996, citing the widespread recognition and acceptance of the norm in international instruments such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone also found that the individuals responsible for recruiting children under the age of 15 bear criminal responsibility for their acts:

“The practice of child recruitment bears the most atrocious consequences for the children. Serious violations of fundamental guarantees lead to individual criminal responsibility. Therefore the recruitment of children was already a crime by the time of the adoption of the 1998 Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court, which codified and ensured the effective implementation of an existing customary norm relating to child recruitment rather than forming a new one.” (see, Summary of Decision on Preliminary Motion on Lack of Jurisdiction (Child Recruitment), Prosecutor v. Sam Hinga Norman, Appeals Chamber of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, May 31, 2004, Case Number SCSL-2003-14-AR72 (E)).

In Northern Uganda, the United Nation’s Security Council Resolution 1612, adopted in July 2005, lists both the LRA and the government of Uganda as culprits with regard to child recruitment.

The issue of the centrality of children’s experiences to the conflict in northern Uganda raises uncomfortable questions - what are the purposes of these conventions and resolutions if not to offer children protection. More fundamentally, are the experiences and horrors perpetuated against children being manipulated-wittingly or unwittingly- by vested interests in this conflict?

This is why it is so important that all children, abducted or forcefully conscripted by both parties to the conflict are accounted for. Some commentators have argued that the number could be as high as 60,000.

According to available statistics, it is believed the LRA abducted up to 30,000, which begs the question, where are the other 30,000? These are the children referred to as the “Lost children”.

It is plausible that some of the unaccounted for were killed during abduction. The camp environment created by the government was fertile ground for abduction and forceful conscription, once children have been abducted by the LRA; they are automatically regarded and treated as LRA combatants, even if they were not yet armed, they are therefore killed indiscriminately once UPDF firepower has been unleashed.

Indeed, at the height of the war there were no signs of LRA-abducted children emerging, even as prisoners of war – rather those that escaped were referred to as “rescued”.

In response to criticism, instead of committing to minimising child casualties, Maj Shaban Bantariza, the UPDF spokesman emphasised that the children had been militarised, indoctrinated and trained to resist (see, Human Rights Watch, LRA conflict in Northern Uganda and Southern Sudan, 2002).

Such statements served to legitimise in the spheres of the general public and other governments, the massacre of the captive children by the UPDF and NRM government.

Understandably, the issue of children is a thorny issue. Much as we already know the culpability of the LRA in regard to the "lost children", less do we talk about NRA/M -UPDF role. The truth is that the "lost children" will never be accounted for; they never existed and are therefore just simply numbers.

By 1991, the NRM government through Betty Bigombe and former RDC for Kitgum, JB Ochaya (RIP), were directed to recruit youths – the most significant aspect of the scorch-earth policy of Operation North, led by Maj Gen David Tinyefunze – in the entire Acholi sub-region to protect their own people as “the NRA/UPDF were busy with the security of the country”, they were called Atero Boys / Brigade.

Up to 6,000 youth armed with arrows, spears, machetes, and sticks, were mobilized and recruited in Gulu and Kitgum (then we didn’t have Pader and Amuru districts); then let lose against the LRA (see “Kitgum forms peoples’ battalions,” New Vision, 17 May 1991; “Gulu forms ‘arrow’ battalions,” The Economy, 4 June 1991).

Without warning, the NRA/UPDF decided that the Atero Brigades could take care of the rebels alone. Predictably, the rebels, seeing the Arrow Brigades as the key to their own demise, stepped up terror attacks on civilians, especially militia members and their families. The NRA/UPDF abandoned the mobilized Acholi population at the key moment, leaving them unprotected against an unprecedented wave of atrocities (see, “Kitgum rebels burn 14 in hut,” New Vision, 4 June 1991).

Then in 1994 Museveni accelerated the programme of recruitment and labelled the groups “Homeguards,” (not Atero boys) under the sterwardship of yet again Betty Bigombo. Every LC Zone was directed to come up with 200 youths who would help the army in guarding the civilians whilst the army pursued the LRA (see “9000 homeguards to counter Kony,” Sunday Vision, 23 October 1994; “EC envoys assess Sudan-Kony threat,” New Vision, 1 December 1994.)

By February, 1995, up to 12,000 Acholi youth had been given two weeks basic training, then armed and absorbed into the army (“Scores killed as NRA hits back,” Monitor, 25 January 1995; “Slavery returns: Sudanese dealers buy 110 Ugandan kids,” New Vision, 7 February 1995).

But, like the 6,000 Arrow (atero) youths before them, Homeguards were under-trained and under-armed; they became an easy target for the LRA. In one case, over 200 were killed in Atiak in April 1995. After routing the Homeguard, the LRA announced, “you Acholi are now fighting us, we shall teach you a lesson you will never forget.” (“Kony rebels massacre 82,” New Vision, 22 April 1995; “Kony toll rises,” New Vision, 24 April 1995; “Atiak’s longest day of the bullet,” Sunday Vision, 30 April 1995).

The LRA went so far as to send a letter to Bigombe announcing that she had “brought death to the Acholi” by telling the people to rise against them, and that they were going to kill all Acholi, leaving only 10,000 (see “Kony still in Kitgum,” New Vision, 5 July 1991).

Bigombe, for her part, further encouraged the creation of the Arrow Groups and did her best to justify the NRA’s abandonment of the militia, arguing that it was the people’s duty to clean up the rebels, and so the NRA could now “relax.” (see “Gulu assured of unity, peace,” New Vision, 12 June 1991).

The Operation North Commander, Maj Gen David Tinyefuza agreed and stated that NRA’s job was done, and those few rebels remaining would be handled by the militias. (see “Over 1500 rebels killed,” Weekly Topic, 9 August 1991).

Acholi elders and Resistance Councillors pleaded to both Bigombe and Gen Tinyefunza for the Arrow Brigades to be better armed, but the NRA refused to supply more than a handful of rifles. (see “Rebels massacre over 60 civilians,” The Guide, 24 October 1991).

The reason why the NRA abandoned the Arrow Brigades is not clear, but many believe it was a strategic calculation influenced by the NRA’s intention to eliminate any uprising in Acholi. Others attribute the desertion to the NRA’s plan to wipe out the Acholi using Kony as a tool (see “Kony rules revealed,” New Vision, 14 February 1992).

Clearly, the LRA who were better armed regularly overcame the Homeguard and then punished the civilians they were guarding, while the UPDF did not intervene, but actually encouraged them by provocation. (“Homeguards kill six Kony rebels,” New Vision, 28 April 1995; “Govt to be sued over Atiak massacre,” Monitor, 19 May 1995).

Also, the eradication of Acholi leadership under the guise of eliminating rebel collaborators — accelerated during Operation North by David Tinyefunza — meant that the NRM government remained unaccountable to the Acholi, so that when the militias called for NRA assistance, it did not arrive, and when the NRA deserted the Arrow Groups, no one could protest. Equally, it meant that no politician, Local Councillors or civil society leaders ever thought of listing the names of these youth in any way shape or form (see “3000 rebels netted in Kitgum,” New Vision, 14 May 1991).

Right from June 1987 onwards, the rural Acholi not only protested the abuse that the government troops doled out, but more frequently protested the NRA’s refusal to protect them from the LRA. As the New Vision put it in June, the NRA “seem to be only defending themselves and the barracks…; they are doing nothing to contain the situation.”( New Vision, Situation in Gulu is Unbearable,” 16 June 1987).

Or, according to the Weekly Topic, “the NRA mostly keeps to the urban centres in the region and leaves the rebels to roam the villages administering ‘terror to their own people.’” (“Kenya becomes rebels’ rear base,” Weekly Topic, 26 August 1987).

When the NRA did act, it avoided the rebels and conducted operations against civilians in zones suspected to harbour rebel support (“Insane happenings in the ‘northern’ war,” Weekly Topic, 24 June 1987). According to the Financial Times, the Acholi were “like millet in between two grinding stones.” (“Life in Gulu, Apac remains appalling,” Financial Times (Kampala), 29 June 1987).

Through a marriage of convenience, the NRA and the rebels came to what was termed by one journalist as a “peaceful coexistence,” rarely engaging each other in combat or making any attempt to do so, while the government through Betty Bigombe under the directive of Museveni continued recruiting militias, inadequately arming them and sending them to face the LRA. (see “The fire burns again in Gulu,” Weekly Topic, 12 April 1991).

Clearly, the Militias became a labour reserve for the UPDF: when regular NRA/UPDF soldiers are killed, militias are often assigned to their duties. The NRA/UPDF death is on the other hand not recorded, thus creating ghost soldiers from which officers pocketed money. (see “Army loses Shs 600bn in ghost soldiers report”, Uganda Observer, 26th May 2005).

As recently as 2006, following her visit to northern Uganda, the UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict said that, “an estimated 5,000 children are serving in the Ugandan armed forces which violates the United Nations Security Council resolutions” Citing the Voice of America, the Monitor Daily quoted Ms Radhika Coomaraswamy, as having told reporters in Geneva that “recruitment of child soldiers was still a problem.” (see UPDF has 5,000 child soldiers – UN, Monitor June 19th, 2006).

It was in northern Uganda that militias were stealthily ferried away in trailer-fulls in their thousands to die needlessly in the wars in Rwanda, in Buseruka (Hoima), in the DRC, in the Rwenzori Mountains against ADF, and in the Sudan, not considering the killing fields of Northern Uganda? (see Army loses Shs 600bn in ghost soldiers report, Uganda Observer, 26th May 2005); to which the then Army Spokesperson, Maj. Shaban Bantariza cynically said, the homeguards begged to join the force (see Monitor June 2, 2003).

Homeguards/LDUs are without any legal recognition, and so can be used at the discretion and mercy of the UPDF. Even those who join the homeguard to protect their homes often find themselves shipped off to Congo and other war fronts when they reach a reasonable level of competence. (Human Rights Focus 27-30).

By making children do their killing for them and killing thousands in the process, both the LRA and government of Uganda have killed the childhoods of the children of northern Uganda. As the survivors piece together the shreds of their humanity, they are no longer children. What they will become is a mystery, better still, even with the many international legal instruments to protect them; the sad fact of life is that nobody will ever account for the “Lost Children” of northern Uganda.

The writer is a human rights advocate in the UK;

For further reading and reports, see “Amnesty concerned at reports of killings in the North,” Weekly Topic, 14 December 1988; for the failure to protect the Acholi civilians, see “100,000 displaced in Gulu,” New Vision, 14 November 1988; and “NRM officials narrowly escape rebel attack,” The Citizen, 3 May 1989, where the NRA admitted problems with its defense of Gulu town, after a large group of rebels entered the town, yelling and singing, and assaulted the hotel where the NRM officials were staying without any response from the NRA soldiers. See also “NRA mops up in the North,” New Vision, 18 March 18, which reports that the NRA troops in the area want the war to continue because of “operational allowances” and because they see it as intra-Acholi violence. For testimonies that civilians “feel that both the Holy Spirit and the NRA are no longer fighting each other but they, the civilians,” see “Rebels promote Latek,” New Vision, 1 November 1988. For genocide, see “N. Uganda: Okeny petitions Museveni,” The Citizen, 7 December 1988, where Okeny states that the NRA’s “scorched earth policy” in Acholiland appears to many Acholi civilians to be “the implementation of the often publicly uttered statements by high ranking NRM officials to exterminate a people.” As usual, the fact that the NRA actually has to defend itself against these accusations speaks to the accusations’ broad appeal: see “Holy Spirit enters Kitgum,” New Vision, 16 November 1988, where an NRA officer argues that, “The government troops are not out to wipe the Acholi. Some civilians believe that the government troops are in a sort of campaign to wipe them out.”


About This Blog

The X.U.G (Xpose Uganda's Genocide) Coalition was created to bring to light the truth about Yoweri Museveni's woefully undemocratic regime and the ongoing secret genocide in northern Uganda, with the aim of the restoration of human rights and peace.

The coalition's secondary goal is to ensure accountability for reconstruction and development funds slated for war-torn N. Uganda by the US and other donors.

A crisis of epic proportions, the genocide being carried out against the Acoli for the last two decades has produced devastating consequences.

For the sake of current and future generations in Uganda, the world must recognize and end the genocide in Uganda. All Ugandans have a right to basic human rights, including the right to health, protection and education.

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