the rebels tied Geofrey Obita’s hands behind his
back so tightly that he could barely move his
telling the 16-year-old schoolboy not to scream,
they sliced off his ears. Then they pushed him
down to the ground and cut off what they could of
were all over me, stamping, pushing, cutting. I
could not move, I could barely breathe,” he told
in a barely audible whisper from his hospital bed
in the small impoverished northern Ugandan town of
the child soldiers of the Lord’s Resistance Army
(LRA), one of
most-feared rebel groups, were far from finished.
They pinned the boy’s arms to the ground and
took it in turns to hack off all his fingers and
stuffed the body parts into his pockets, wrapped
his severed ears around a letter and, after
briefly parading him in front of a group of other
terrified abducted children, told him to report to
the Ugandan Army.
terrified child, snatched in the early morning
rebel raid on the tiny hamlet of Mucwini outside
Kitgum,had denounced Geofrey, saying that he
wanted to join government militias being formed to
northern villages from a renewed and ferocious
rebel onslaught that has brought the entire region
to a standstill. But it was a lie, uttered in
panic to deflect attention from himself.
was just a schoolboy from a poor family hoping to
pass exams this summer so that he could move into
what Ugandans call “secondary”, the final
years of school. His father is dead, his two
sisters left home long ago. He looked after his
elderly mother and was sweeping her compound when
he was taken.
showed the rebels his student ID card, but to no
avail; many of them were abducted long ago or even
were born into rebel captivity and cannot read or
write. Even if they could, they would not have
been interested: they needed a victim.
one we are going to kill,” they told the group
of about 20 other abductees. Instead, after an
agonising four-hour wait, they decided to use him
to deliver a macabre warning to government
soldiers not to hunt them down.
has few possessions, but one of his most cherished
is a notebook-sized transistor radio, lying on the
table beside his hospital bed. “I wanted to be a
car mechanic. Now, I have no hope. I cannot even
turn the pages of my school book,” he whispered
through his disfigured mouth and stared helplessly
at the radio’s tuning knob, smaller than his
swollen finger stumps.
of the LRA’s tactics is to terrify abducted
children and then quickly to involve them in their
atrocities. By so doing, they bind the children
into the group and reduce the risk of them trying
feel guilt and fear, and then there is no way out.
The commanders tell them they will be killed if
they go back,” said Father Carlos Rodriguez
Soto, a Spanish missionary and one of the few
people to have met senior rebel commanders face to
reports abound of children being forced to kill
other abductees who try to escape, of horrific
mutilations, from castrations to boiling people
alive. Some are even forced to cook and eat human
Kony, the LRA’s messianic leader, has mixed
traditional Acholi beliefs with smatterings of
Christianity and even Islam to hold his followers
in an evil vice. Both children and adult followers
believe that he is imbued with spirits that allow
him to see into your mind and predict the future.
take a terrified, traumatised 11-year-old child,
you force them to kill and you brainwash them and
you have a monster,” Father Carlos said. “This
is one the reasons why the LRA are so brutal.
There is a reward system and the children want to
impress their peers.”
tale bears this out. He says that he was older
than the children who have ruined his life, but
remembers an older commander in the background.
injuries are horrific, his experience
unimaginable, but he is far from alone and, unlike
many others, he is alive. The LRA, which claims to
want to rule according to the Ten Commandments,
has abducted thousands of children in the past
year alone; some human rights groups put the
figure as high as 8,000, others say 6,000.
Civilians have been attacked and killed in
ambushes on buses, villages and towns almost
daily. More than 40 children drowned this week
when rebels forced them to forge a flooded river.
result is a crisis in northern
More than 800,000 people of a population of 1.2
million are displaced, many herded into camps
protected by government forces. They live in
are deserted, crops are withering in the fields,
and food and medical supplies are inadequate to
deal with the huge human influxes into the two
main towns of Gulu and Kitgum. At night, hundreds
of children come into the centre of town from
outlying districts, sleeping rough on verandahs
and outside shop fronts.
rates are high, and getting higher every day. No
one is out working the fields. The situation is
very bad,” Filippo Ortolani, an assistant
emergency officer with Avsi, a voluntary Italian
medical charity, said.
manage to escape in the immediate confusion
surrounding rebel raids, but for the dozens that
do not a nightmare awaits. Either they become
killers themselves, or they are killed. Girls are
taken as “wives” by commanders.
a 15-year-old girl, lies near Geoffrey. Her leg
has been amputated just above the knee after
bullet wounds suffered on an attack on the bus
bringing her home from school. Her main fear is
that she will not be able to go back school and
study to be a nurse: “Who wants a nurse on
to the President Museveni of
none of this horror should be happening. Mr
Museveni, vowing that he would end the 17-year
rebellion within weeks, launched Operation Iron
Fist last June, after an historic deal with
which has supported the LRA in retaliation for
support for Sudanese rebels. He raided the LRA’s
base camps in southern
even though the Acholi people and religious and
traditional leaders were always against the
military option, saying that it would drive the
rebels back into
and result in the deaths of their own children.
After a promising start, the army’s operations
ground to a halt and Mr Museveni failed to bring
his Sudanese rebel allies to heel. The Sudanese
Army, allegedly without the knowledge of
re-equipped the LRA, which by now had set up new
camps throughout the bush of northern
and they hit back.
Odwong, a retired headmaster, said: “It never
has been as bad as it is now. Before, we had
intervals. They would come and go back and it
would be several months before another attack.
They are attacking continuously.”
commitment of Ugandan troops, many underpaid
conscripts who lack the rebels’ knowledge of the
local terrain, was also questioned, while the
army’s commanders have grown fat and lazy
reaping the spoils from
presence in the mineral- rich Democratic Republic
of Congo and seem to have no interest in ending
Iron Fist was a disaster. The army was arrogant
and overconfident and they underestimated the
strength of the rebels,” Father Joseph Gerner, a
German priest at Kitgum St Mary’s mission, said.
“The only way to solve this is the involvement
of the international community. The British should
take more interest, being the former colonial
largest donor, has kept largely quiet about the
unfolding humanitarian emergency. Like the
— which last year gave
almost £70 million in aid — instead praises
relative success in fighting Aids and Mr
Museveni’s enthusiastic implementation of the
World Bank’s free market economic policies.
President Bush visited
last week, the subject was not on the agenda.