July 19, 2003

‘They tied me up and hacked off my lips’

FIRST the rebels tied Geofrey Obita’s hands behind his back so tightly that he could barely move his fingers.

Then, 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 his lips.

“They were all over me, stamping, pushing, cutting. I could not move, I could barely breathe,” he told The Times in a barely audible whisper from his hospital bed in the small impoverished northern Ugandan town of Kitgum .

Yet the child soldiers of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), one of Africa ’s 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 both thumbs.

They 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.

Another 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 protect Uganda ’s 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.

Geofrey 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.

He 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.

“This 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.

Geofrey 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.

One 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 to escape.

“They 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 face.

Verified 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 flesh.

Joseph 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.

“You 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.”

Geofrey’s 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.

His 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.

The result is a crisis in northern Uganda . 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 dreadful conditions.

Villages 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.

“Malnutrition 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.

Hundreds 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.

Adong, 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 crutches?”

According to the President Museveni of Uganda , 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 Sudan , which has supported the LRA in retaliation for Uganda ’s support for Sudanese rebels. He raided the LRA’s base camps in southern Sudan , 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 Uganda 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 Khartoum , re-equipped the LRA, which by now had set up new camps throughout the bush of northern Uganda , and they hit back.

Philip 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.”

The 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 Uganda ’s presence in the mineral- rich Democratic Republic of Congo and seem to have no interest in ending the rebellion.

“Operation 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 power.”

But Britain , by far Uganda ’s largest donor, has kept largely quiet about the unfolding humanitarian emergency. Like the United States , Britain — which last year gave Uganda almost £70 million in aid — instead praises Uganda ’s relative success in fighting Aids and Mr Museveni’s enthusiastic implementation of the World Bank’s free market economic policies.

When President Bush visited Uganda last week, the subject was not on the agenda.