[Documents menu] Documents menu

An army of child slaves

By Samuel Grumiau, ICFTU Online..., 4 May 1998

Since 1988, 10,000 Ugandan children have been kidnapped by "The Lord’s Resistance Army", a rebel group close to the Sudanese regime. The boys are forced to become soldiers or servants, and the girls the soldiers’ sex slaves. Any attempt at escape, or any weakness, is punished by death.

Brussels, May 4 1998 (ICFTU OnLine): Since independence in 1962, Uganda has never enjoyed any real national unity. Regime has followed regime, some favourable to the South (the Bagandas) others favourable to the North (the Bacholis), defending the interests of their own ethnic group by crushing the other. The arrival in power of Yoweri Museveni in 1986 was no exception. Despite his wish to engage in a policy of national reconciliation, he has been unable to prevent his own soldiers attacking the Bacholis, or the formation of "The Lord’s Resistance Army" (Armée de Résistance du Seigneur - ARS) by a certain Joseph Kony. Officially, it only had one aim: the fall of Museveni. It has been strengthened over the years by the Khartoum government, which accuses its Ugandan counterpart of supporting another rebel group wreaking havoc in the south of Sudan, the SPLA (Soudanese People’s Liberation Army). The Islamist regime supplies Kony’s soldiers with machine guns and anti-personnel mines to replace their rifles and machetes.

Paradoxically, the ARS attacks Bacholi civilians more often that the Ugandan government’s army, even though the war in the North of the country isn’t over: they attack villages, pillage shops, burn houses and schools, rape, mutilate and torture civilians. At the end of each raid, they take away any children still alive and force them to carry heavy loads (bags of food, radios, machine guns…). "We had to walk a very long way and my feet were badly swollen" explains 10-year-old William to the representative of Human Rights Watch. "But if we said it hurt, they would say ‘should we let this boy rest’. When they said rest, they meant that they would kill us. So we had to say we didn’t need a rest."

Cyclists tortured

After being kidnapped, some of the children stay in the bush for months. The rebels use them as porters or servants, and they have to help the rebels when they attack villages. Civilians riding bicycles are prime targets, because the ARS believes they could quickly alert government soldiers to their activities. "One day, they found a man riding his bike" recounts 17-year-old Catherine. "They chopped his foot off with an axe, then forced his wife to eat it". The children giving evidence about these atrocities are children who succeeded in escaping from the ARS camps. All those who are recaptured are executed, often by other kidnapped children. Stella was taken from her school when she was not quite 15. "On the third day, a small girl tried to escape, and they forced us to kill her. First they kicked her, then they jumped on her. Each of us then had to hit her at least once with a stick. Once she was dead, they forced us to lie on the ground and they hit us 15 times: they said we knew that she was going to run away."

After a long march, most of the kidnapped children find themselves in camps in the south of Sudan, where the rebels have their principal bases. They learn how to handle guns and the girls, in addition to their training, are offered as sex slaves to the leaders. "I was given to a soldier, but I refused him" says Catherine. "He already had a wife, who was five months pregnant. He ordered the other boys to beat me on the back with a machete. I thought I was going to die. After that, we never spoke. He hated me." Another girl, Sarah, escaped from "The Lord’s Resistance Army" but she is about to give birth to a child she does not want. "After the military training, I was offered to a man called Otim. He treated me harshly, because he thought I wanted to escape. He often beat me with a stick. Now I’m pregnant. I don’t want to become a mother at 17, but I have to accept that this has happened."

Slave market?

It is estimated that 85 per cent of ARS members are kidnapped children. Recently the rebels have been kidnapping younger and younger children, even 4-year-olds. Those who managed to escape say they have never seen them in the camps, which reinforces the theory that they are sold as slaves to the Sudanese in exchange for arms and food. The growing links with the Khartoum regime are altering the religious practices of the ARS. Although Joseph Kony declared it was a Christian army when he created it, Muslim practices have since been adopted by the rebels: prayers facing Mecca, Friday as a holy day, etc. In addition to their Christian and Muslim beliefs, the Kony soldiers have adopted some of the practices of the Acholis tribal religion.

The population of Northern Uganda, poor and defenceless against the harassment of the ARS, has kept quiet for a long time. The kidnapping of 150 children from the Aboke girls school on October 10, 1996, prompted some of the parents to found the "Association of Concerned Parents". It tries to alert world public opinion to what is happening in Uganda and to persuade families to take back a child who has escaped from the ARS, even if he or she has committed atrocities. The vice-president of the Association, Angelina Atyam, a nurse and mother of six children, has had no news of one of her daughters, who was kidnapped at the age of 14. She can guess what has happened to her…"The girls who are raped by the soldiers end up getting pregnant. If they survive their pregnancy, the ARS waits for three weeks after the birth, then the mothers have to return to the battle field with a gun in their hand and the baby tied to their back. They are treated exactly the same as the other children: they have to run while firing at the enemy, in other words the government army. If they don’t advance, the ARS leaders shoot them in the back. They are caught between the two."

Contact: ICFTU-Press at: ++32-2 224.02.12 (Brussels).

International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU)
Boulevard Emile Jacqmain 155, B - 1210 Brussels, Belgium. For more information please contact:
Luc Demaret on: 00 322 224 0212