Children at war, children on the run

June 28, 2005|By G. Jefferson Price III

KEREPO, Sudan - Freddie Deichi speaks in a hoarse murmur when he describes the day he was abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army, a brutal rebel militia of young boys, girls and grown men fighting the government in northern Uganda.

It was two years ago. Freddie was 7 years old at the time. His father, Daniel Wani, his mother, Josephine Abua, and his six siblings had fled to northern Uganda to escape the war in southern Sudan.

They were living in a refugee camp in the center of another conflict. The area around them was being terrorized by the LRA, led by Joseph Kony, a messianic fanatic who claimed he wanted to rule the land according to the Ten Commandments.

In the process, he and his band were violating most commandments, especially the one on killing. To build their army, they abducted youngsters and taught them to kill at an age when they were most susceptible to indoctrination. The young girls were trained in the same murderous ways, even to return to their villages and beat to death their own parents. The girls also were taken as wives for the older LRA militiamen, forced into submission by the knowledge that they would be beaten to death if they did not submit.

At the height of the LRA's rampage, an estimated 20,000 youngsters were said to have been abducted in this way.

In that context, Freddie Deichi was one of the lucky ones. He escaped.

"They came during the day," he said, speaking through a local interpreter. "My mother was cooking. My father was working in the field.

"My father came and tried to rescue me, but they beat him and he ran to hide in the sorghum field. My mother ran away and they did not try to chase her. They were gathering together the children they had captured. There about 25 of us. Some of us were tied together with ropes.

"We marched a long way to a forest. I was not tied. When they were not looking, I hid in the forest. I walked back. It was a long way. I came to a stream and slept there. In the morning, I walked to the home of my aunt and she took me home."

His parents show no sign of awkwardness as he describes how they appeared to abandon him to his fate. If they had persisted in trying to save the boy, they would certainly have been beaten to death. All they could do was hope he would return.

In January, Sudan's Islamic fundamentalist government signed a peace agreement with the rebels of the south, who are dominated by the Sudan People's Liberation Army. The war lasted more than 20 years in its latest incarnation. Two million people died in the conflict. Four million people, like Daniel Wani and his family, were uprooted from their homes as the government forces, using bombers and tanks, swept through the south, assisted by local militias.

After the peace agreement was signed, Mr. Wani decided to bring his family back to what was left of a collection of mud huts covered with thatched roofs in Kerepo. He did this over several weeks, using only a bicycle to bring back one or two at a time.

Kerepo is near the road that runs north toward Juba. The countryside is littered with the debris of war. Men of the SPLA, carrying automatic weapons, some festooned with bandoleers of shells, patrol the area on foot and in trucks.

Why? Because although the SPLA and Sudan's army aren't fighting anymore, the LRA is here, attacking villages for food and supplies, killing people and abducting youngsters, although not nearly on the scale of a couple of years ago in northern Uganda. They are here because during the north-south war, the Khartoum government supplied them to attack the Sudanese rebels from the south.

Everything is relative, though. "I feel better protected here," says Daniel Wani, standing by a patch of peanuts he has cultivated. "I want to settle down without having to run away again."

Maybe that will happen, if the peace agreement holds, if international donors such as the United States come through with the $4.5 billion promised to rebuild southern Sudan, if the LRA is driven back into northern Uganda - and if these things happen quickly so the whole place doesn't blow up again.

G. Jefferson Price III was a foreign correspondent and an editor at The Sun. He has been traveling on behalf of Catholic Relief Services.

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