Violent or Non-violent Solutions? The Child Soldiers of Northern Uganda
Author: Catherine Onekalit
Originally published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 11/24/2003
For seventeen years now Northern Uganda has been at war, as a result, 800,000 inhabitants are displaced and 51% of these are children. The war has cut across gender, targeting the children; the young girls who manage to escape from captivity have been sex slaves and loathe male company, it’s a generation of thorns.[i]
This war began when the present government, based in southern Uganda ousted the previous regime. Many of the defeated soldiers and supporters of the previous regime then made their way into the Sudan where they started regrouping and later formed a rebel alliance that is now known as the LRA (Lords Resistance Army) and is led by the notorious, blood thirsty, Joseph Kony who uses child soldiers and is supported logistically by the Sudan Government.[ii]
However, the war, too easily dismissed by the present government and media as a tribal war, is far more complex. Despite all the government attempts to stamp out the LRA, the rebels still persist, never strong enough to take control of the country but well able to survive. Parents are helpless because this is a conflict waged largely by and against their own children, with sons and daughters as young as seven the victims as well as the perpetrators of the atrocities[iii] The current president of Uganda refers to the rebel leader is a jigger that will be dealt with in an instant. However, though a jigger is starts as an irritating parasite it can, if not dealt with, incapacitate its victim.
Independent reports leave no doubt that the LRA, which has been fighting since 1988, systematically uses terror tactics against the civilian population in the north. They kill, burn, mutilate, behead, rape and psychologically torture their victims. The war, though little reported, forms part of Africa’s most intense conflict zones from the great lakes to the Sudan. It’s reported that more than twenty thousand children have been forcefully been recruited into the LRA, as many as eight thousand just over last year. The Ugandan government army has been unable to combat the rebels effectively, and the prospects of a negotiated peace are bleak. An amnesty and peace overtures have faltered; some guerillas/ rebels fear retribution, others know nothing but bush war.
The pressing issue is what can be done to stop these gross abuses of both human rights? In particular what can be done to stop the use of children and what can be done to rehabilitate those boys and girls who know of nothing else.
UGANDA NOT ALONE
The use of child soldiers has become widespread. Children are being forcefully recruited into the army. In dozens of countries around the world, children have become direct participants in war. Denied a childhood and often subjected to horrific violence, thousands of children are serving as soldiers in current armed conflicts and participant in all aspects of contemporary warfare. They wield AK-47s and M-16s on the front lines of combat, serve as human mine detectors, suicide missions and even act as spies[iv].
The United Nations reported some vital statistics on child soldiers, they write,
” The number of children under the age of 18 who have been coerced or induced to take up arms as child soldiers is generally thought to be in the range of 300,000. Most soldiers under 15 are to be found in non-governmental military organizations. Most child soldiers under 18 have been recruited into Governmental armed forces. The youngest child soldiers are about 7 years old. An optional protocol prohibiting the recruitment or use of children as soldiers was completed and opened for signature and ratification by all States in June 2000. Over 50 countries currently recruit children under age 18 into their armed forces”.[v]
Over the past decade, conflict worldwide has claimed the lives of more than 2 million children, and left millions maimed or permanently disabled, 10 million of whom suffer from serious psychological trauma. According to the United Nations, there are more than 40,000 children and adolescents under the age of 18, some as young as nine fighting in eastern Congo. Chelala Cesar, in his report ‘Skipping Childhood’ suggests that to limit or stop the use of child soldiers, governments and International leading agencies should make it clear that regimes and rebel groups throughout the world that enlist child soldiers in armed conflict, will not receive aid or international recognition. Its clear that unless governments act in a decisive way, children will continue to be deprived of their most basic right, their childhood[vi].
According to a research carried out in El Salvador, Ethiopia, and Uganda almost one third of the child soldiers are girls. Apart from the obvious dangers of death, drug addiction, malnutrition, sexually transmitted diseases, and unwanted pregnancies that are common among the girls, they are raped and used as sexual slaves, their virginity falls prey to wicked savagery and as a result of these brutalities, they are left with permanent scars making it impossible for them to reintegrate within the society.
Poverty, lack of education, and the promise of a heaven on earth, which leads to desperation, draws many children into armed groups. According to one child solider from Uganda, “They gathered us together and the President himself said to us: ‘You are my children and I have a duty to do everything that’s necessary for you.’ We were kadogos [child soldiers], we were too small, and we knew nothing. Even if they were lying to us, we didn’t know it. He did nothing. At least for me, personally, he did nothing’.
Children are forced to commit atrocities against other people but sometimes even against their own families. The child is severely traumatized and stigmatized and in many cases is unable ever to return to the safety of his/her home or community.
What can then be done to eradicate this horrible phenomenon and protect the child? Can national governments and the International community act? According to Chelala Ceaser in Colombia, Mozambique, Angola and Somalia, there is a rehabilitation programme implemented by the U.S agency for International development, however, much more needs to be done. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has noted, “The question of children and armed conflict is an integral part of the United Nations core responsibilities for the maintenance of International Peace and security, for the advancement of human rights and for sustainable human development”[vii].
NON VIOLENT STRUGGLE: A WAY FORWARD?
Child soldiers are recruited by conscription, abduction or coercion. In addition some youths present themselves for service; however it is misleading to think or consider this voluntary. While young people may appear to choose military service, this choice is not exercised freely. In most cases social, political and even cultural pressures drive them. According to Joshua S. Goldstein, cultural norms force men to endure trauma and master fear. He further says that in societies with frequent warfare, young males must participate in war and for some even kill an enemy[viii].
The first priority, therefore, is to look to non-violent methods to stop the atrocities committed against these young future leaders.
According to Gene Sharp, Non violent struggle is a political technique that needs to be understood in its own right, not explained or assessed by assumption of its close identity or association with different phenomena. It’s then no wonder that obtaining peace and security is the central concern of the international community. Butros Butros Ghali’s paper, An Agenda for Peace established the need for the United Nations to link humanitarian action and the protection of human rights with peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peace building.
NORTHERN UGANDA’S RESPONSE TO NON VIOLENCE
The pernicious practice of abducting children for exploitation as child soldiers or sexual slaves continues unabated in Northern Uganda’s three districts of Kitgum, Gulu and Pader. Despite tragic losses and cruel compromises of human rights of the kidnapped children, the government forces insist that they will not lay down their guns until they have disarmed and paralyzed the rebel forces, while the civil society, local communities, and religious actors are together crying for peace and beginning to address the problem. This case study explores the work of three different entities each of which is indication of possible interventions.
ACHOLI RELIGIOUS PEACE LEADERS INITIATIVE (ARPLI)
A group of religious figures from all faiths have joined together to help address alternative ways of ending the war in the northern Uganda. ’We hope that the information we publicize can be used as a tool by those seeking peace through negotiation and dialogue, not violence’[ix]. In doing this they have the vast support of the civilian population who are the main victims of the conflict and people who desperately wish for peace to return. They facilitate peace-building workshops, hold radio talk shows, prayer rallies and have even held peace talks with the rebels. According to Cynthia Sampson, the religious sector may well be expanding in the field of international conflict analysis and transformation today; religious actors have made notable contributions to peace-building.
KACOKE MADIT (BIG GATHERING): A DIASPORA ROLE
Kacoke Madit (KM) is a non-profit making forum dedicated to identifying and implementing practical initiatives to end the armed conflict in Northern Uganda by peaceful means. It was formed in 1996 by Acholi people of Northern Uganda living in the Diaspora, in response to the escalation of the armed conflict affecting the districts of Gulu, Kitgum and Pader. It is now a worldwide network, which brings together Acholi communities, groups and organizations working towards restoring peace, and promoting peace building, reconciliation and development initiatives aimed at ensuring sustainable peace and prosperity. Through this inclusive role they have raised funds to help grass root peace organizations like Watwero (We can), Transcend Art and Peace network (TAP), Peoples Voice for Peace (PVP), Voice for Peace (VFP), etcetera disseminate the cry for peace. One of the winning essays in women’s world contest, ‘Women’s voices in war zones’ was by Monica Arac de Nyeko a woman who is a member of Transcend Art and Peace network.[x]
NGOS AND NON-VIOLENCE
Non-governmental organizations are involved in representing the peoples voice for voice for peace through non-violent means. Accord for example documents peace processes and initiatives and the sources and dynamics of particular, increase public both locally and internationally to the understanding of peace processes or peace and promote learning domestically and internationally from past and comparable peace making processes experiences. They offer financial support for research on alternative ways of solving a conflict other than violence.
GUSCO (Gulu Support the Children’s Organization) is running four reintegration child help projects funded by DANIDA, USAID, DFID, WFP, UNICEF, Save the Children Denmark and Terre des Hommes. Gusco’s main objective is to reintegrate the war affected children in Gulu back into the society. According to GUSCO’s quarterly magazine the organization shares the common value of commitment, determination, transparency and good interpersonal relationship for the purpose of improving the psychosocial status of the war affected children in northern Uganda. So far 3,338 children are in GUSCO reception center, for the period August 1994 – December 2002.
The 1986 war against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Northern Uganda has eaten away Acholi land. Sometimes traumatized children flee back home to seek what was taken from them, but they discover they cannot stay because their minds think of blood and killing only. In its 1996 report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Ugandan government affirmed its general commitment “to improve the lives of . . . child soldiers” and its “special concern” for children abducted by rebels.
Overall, little has been made. The collective energy of the civil society, and the self-determination of the Acholi people, thirsty for peace, have given a ray of hope. Noise has to replace silence. Exposing the horrors helps. Parliamentarians too could shift their base to the conflict infested area and critically study the situation so that more effective, enforced legislation may help, more involvement of the media (radio stations) to broadcast the issue and even report some good news, this may have a more positive impact. The more pulpits that give a message of love and care, the better. Let’s have hope and pray for peace in Northern Uganda. Hard work helps, too.
[iii] The Guardian, Children the Victims and the Predators in the night-time war, pg. 1 http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/06/27/1056683906981.html
[v] United Nations CyberSchoolBus http://www.un.org/Pubs/CyberSchoolBus/briefing/soldiers/index.htm
[vi] United Nations CyberSchoolBus http://www.un.org/Pubs/CyberSchoolBus/briefing/soldiers/index.htm
[vii] Speech Secretary General of the United Nations to the Security Council, 26 July 2000
[viii] War and Gender, Joshua S. Goldstein pg 264