Rebels leave deep scars on Uganda's youth

July 07, 2005|By G. Jefferson Price III

KITGUM, Uganda - Sunday Lalam, a 16-year-old girl, was a forced accomplice and a victim in a cruel conflict that's been waged for 19 years in northern Uganda and southern Sudan.

Ms. Lalam was abducted Aug. 4, 2000, by a Ugandan rebel group known as the Lord's Resistance Army when she was 11. During nearly five years of brutal captivity, she lived under constant threat of death and endured numerous beatings. On pain of her own death, she said, she killed many people, so many she does not know the exact number.

More than 20,000 boys and girls have been abducted by the LRA in its insurgency against the government of President Yoweri Museveni. Those who have managed to escape have described barbaric treatment by the LRA, which is led by a messianic cultist named Joseph Kony. He holds sway with a mixture of terror and spiritual mysticism and says he wants Uganda to be ruled by the Ten Commandments after he overthrows the Museveni regime.

Sunday Lalam escaped last month, six months pregnant with the child of an LRA commander to whom she was given as a "wife."

Sitting beside a counselor from the Concerned Parents Association, a group formed to rescue and rehabilitate youngsters like her, she told her story.

She was taken along with 11 others at night. They were forced to march into the bush lugging the booty the rebels, some as young as she, had plundered from her village. Later, all of the others were released. The young men were too old for the sort of indoctrination the LRA uses on young minds. The young girls were all over l6, too old for indoctrination and old enough to be HIV-positive, Ms. Lalam explained.

In a ritual designed early in the experience to instill fear in young captives, she and others were ordered to kill people - not to shoot them, but to beat them to death with clubs.

One day, Ms. Lalam said, she and four others were ordered to beat to death a boy her own age from her village because he had become too weak and was a burden. "I felt sad because I knew him, but they would have killed me if I did not do it.

"I have killed many people," she said quietly.

The penalty for trying to escape was severe, possibly deadly. She and four girls tried to escape one night. They were caught and dragged back to the LRA camp. "Each of us was beaten with 100 strokes," she said.

Ms. Lalam said she and all the others were trained to use automatic weapons and to fight. The LRA moved between northern Uganda, where its forces raided villages for new recruits, food and other supplies, and southern Sudan, where they did the same against southern Sudanese farmers. The LRA also battled southern Sudanese insurgents who were fighting their government in Khartoum, for which Khartoum provided supplies in return.

The LRA has been weakened lately by defections and diminished support from Sudan now that Khartoum has signed a peace agreement with its own rebels. The Ugandan army has been reinforced. But the LRA is still raiding, abducting and killing people in northern Uganda, where 90 percent of the population have fled their homes and are living in camps, and in southern Sudan where many also live in camps.

Six months pregnant with the child of her commander "husband," Ms. Lalam managed to escape last month in the confusion of a government attack on her LRA camp.

Now, like thousands of others with similar stories, she is being counseled and helped to return to her family and her community, the very people terrorized by the LRA.

International aid agencies are heavily involved in trying to help the millions of people displaced and otherwise affected by the conflict. But apart from that, hardly anyone outside of this region knows of the atrocities here. If Sunday Lalam had been abducted in America, she might be the subject of intense attention from the media and police. Here, she and thousands like her are casualties in a conflict that's largely unnoticed by the outside world.

That's a crime, too.

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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