by Katy Salmon
came after midnight when we were sleeping. They forced themselves inside the house and started slapping me, shouting: 'You, girl, get up!' So I got up.
"My mother started crying but I told her: 'Don't worry. Let me go,'" recalls 15-year-old Nighty Oroma, her head bowed.
The shy young girl, picking at the mat on the floor, reluctantly continues: "Then they got in another house and took my brother. 'How can you take my brother?' I cried. They hit me with an axe."
Half a dozen children were kidnapped that night. It marked the beginning of Nighty's new life as a rebel fighter with the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).
The child soldiers are led by the dreadlocked "prophet" Joseph Kony, who claims to speak through the Holy Spirit. For the past 14 years, his soldiers have been terrorizing, abducting and killing the long-suffering Acholi people of the northern districts of Gulu and Kitgum.
Kony's stated aim is to overthrow Pres. Museveni's government and replace it with a system based on the 10 Commandments. But Kony never attacks the army -- only civilians.
As a rebel "wife," Nighty had to cook and fetch water for the soldiers. "We were always beaten," she says. She was undoubtedly raped as well.
"They say: 'If you escape, you are going to die. The army are looking for you. They will kill you. We will find you wherever you are. We know your home and we will get you.'"
The children are forced to participate in horrendous acts of violence: "Whenever someone tries to escape, they bring the person and you are ordered to kill them," she whispers.
"They say: 'This is what we will do to you. Whoever wants to escape, let this be an example.' They give you a very big stick and ask you to hit them until the head is busted."
Other children are killed when the commanders ask questions and "they (the children) don't answer how they (the commanders) want."
first LRA soldiers were members of a religious cult established by self-proclaimed prophetess Alice Lakwena back in 1986.
Lakwena started the Holy Spirit Movement after receiving instructions from the spirit to march on Kampala and take power. Thousands followed her to their deaths.
Soldiers of the Holy Spirit Mobile Force smeared their chests with shea butter oil to protect themselves from enemy bullets, and armed themselves with stones and bottles, which they believed would turn into grenades when thrown at government troops.
Within 18 months, Lakwena's forces were decimated and she fled to Kenya.
But in 1989, Kony revived the group as the LRA, based in neighboring southern Sudan. The Sudanese government is his main backer, providing everything from food and weapons to television sets.
In return, the LRA fight alongside Khartoum government troops against rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which has been fighting the north for 16 years in Africa's longest-running civil war.
According to tit-for-tat political logic, Sudan supports the LRA because Uganda backs the SPLA.
Kony's main method of recruitment is by abducting children. In opportunistic hit-and-run raids, rebels target schools, villages, roads and trading centers, burning, looting and killing before fleeing with their young captives.
In the last five years, an estimated 10.000 children, some as young as two, have been taken for use as soldiers and concubines. Over 5,000 have returned home after being caught in battle or escaping.
Another 5,000 are still missing. The children endure immense hardship, sometimes surviving on a diet of wild leaves and urine.
Nighty says most of the child soldiers want to return home but "do not get the chance because of fear." They are kept under strict observation, forced to march in a straight line and watched over by lookouts in trees.
Everyone hopes to get chosen for a mission back in Uganda as this offers the best chance of freedom. Some even try to escape from Sudan, walking through the bush for hundreds of kilometers. Many die before they find safety.
After more than a year with the rebels, Nighty was determined to escape: "I had made up my mind. Even if I am killed, my blood will flow to my home. I will not sleep here."
When she and another girl were sent to fetch firewood, they decided to run. "The soldiers realized and started shooting at us. They also used a mortar," she says.
The two girls fled but they got separated and Nighty spent the night alone in the bush. She eventually found her way to a village and was then handed over to the army.
Although she is now safe, Nighty was forced to leave behind the little brother who was abducted with her. "I never even used to talk to him. It was too dangerous," she says.
What hope does the future hold for her baby brother? Following the signing of the historic Nairobi peace accord, mediated by former United States president Jimmy Carter last December, thousands of parents began preparing for the return of their children.
The presidents of Uganda and Sudan had agreed to hand over POWs and stop supporting each others rebels in the first tentative steps towards resumption of diplomatic relations, severed in 1995. Bowing to public pressure, the Ugandan government also announced an amnesty for all rebels.
The optimism was short-lived. Just two weeks after the peace accord, the LRA resumed its murderous raids. Kony has repeatedly rejected the government's offer of amnesty. Less than 100 Ugandan children were handed over, most of whom had been discarded by the LRA because they were ill or amputees.
More than three-quarters of the population of Gulu and Kitgum have been forced into guarded camps for protection. About 250,000 displaced people live in poverty on aid agency handouts. Naked pot-bellied children are a testament to the inadequacy of these rations.
Meanwhile, the fertile countryside lies deserted and ripe mangoes rot where they fall, attracting swarms of flies.
May 8, 2000 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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