WASHINGTON _ Snatch a child. Hack to death a loved one. Fire an AK-47 at a citizen. Slaughter or be slaughtered.
In Uganda today, abducted children as young as 8 years old are forced to raid villages, murdering their victims.
“For 13 years now, this has been going on in Northern Uganda,” said Erin A. O'Brien, executive director of Soldier Child International, recently at a press conference. “The violence they've experienced is going to live with them and return.”
Soldier Child International, a non-profit organization, works to provide immediate and long-term relief for children who have been kidnapped and forced into becoming soldiers in northern Uganda. The organization's long-term goal is to return the abducted children to their communities. But that involves working with the communities to provide holistic, long-term solutions to the relief and rehabilitation, says the group's mission statement.
“There is still a need for this long-term rehabilitation and that's what Soldier Child International is about,” O'Brien said.
O'Brien has lived and worked in Ugandan refugee camps and with organizations such as World Vision, an international Christian organization that encourages the well being of needy children, since she was 17 years old.
About 9,000 Ugandan children have been abducted, according to the Denmark chapter of Save the Children, an international organization dedicated to helping children. Less than half of the children, who range from 7 to 16 years old, manage to escape their abductors, according to Save the Children.
For 13 years, Uganda has been torn by civil war. More than 10 rebel groups, said O'Brien, are abducting Ugandan children today to become child soldiers. While held captive by the rebels, many children die. Any abducted child who tries to escape is murdered by the other children, who are forced at gun point to beat, stab, or hack the child to death, according to Soldier Child International. Abducted girls often are beaten, raped, and given to rebel commanders to be used as sexual slaves, cooks, porters and soldiers, says the group.
In northern Uganda, 11 districts are hard hit by the civil strife. But the country only has three rehabilitation centers for children caught up in the conflict.
At a press conference recently on Capitol Hill, Soldier Child International urged Congress to take more action against the use of child soldiers in other countries. In 1998, the Congress passed a non-binding resolution, O'Brien said, that declared the use of child soldiers as wrong. O'Brien called for the United States to use its influence to stop the use of child soldiers in its civil war.
At its press conference, the organization presented a documentary, called “Soldier Child,” which told of the horrors Ugandan children face. Directed by Neil Abramson, cofounder of Soldier Child International, the film opens with photos of child soldiers and a few of their victims. The scene changes to children playing at a Support the Children Organization Rehabilitation Center, in Gulu, Uganda.
The children at this center are fresh escapees, as of April 1998, from the “Lord's Resistance Army,” the rebel group that abducted them. The documentary is narrated by Danny Glover.
As of late 1998, the Gulu Support the Children Organization has taken in more than 1,050 children and has reunited more than 800 children with their families, says Save the Children.
The rehabilitation center, says actor Glover in the film, “is a safe haven where the children are allowed to be children again.” Adds Glover: “It is where their healing process begins.”
As part of their healing, the children express their emotions, often through drawings. Some draw ropes, knives, and bullets. The children generally stay one to three months, depending on their injuries, said O'Brien of Soldier Child International.
Throughout the film, a few children tell of their experiences with the “Lord's Resistance Army” rebel group. One young boy tells a translator he was forced to drink the blood of the person he killed. Another young boy is shown with swollen, flesh-torn feet.
“A lot of these children are forced to walk many, many miles from Sudan to Northern Uganda,” said Abramson, director of the film, later in an interview. Many times their feet become raw, he added, because they have no shoes.
The film also tells of some parents who did not want their children back because of the atrocities their children committed. The parents fear their children will now attack them.
After the press conference, Larry Goodwin, executive director for the Africa Faith and Justice Network, said the documentary portrayed much of what he saw in Uganda when he spent 8 years in the country doing church and community work.
“I saw very young kids with guns. They didn't quite know what they were doing,” said Goodwin. They looked confused and out of control, he added. Often they were 13- and 14-year-olds in military uniforms. Their faces, Goodwin recalled, were often full of “fear and anger.”
The Africa Faith and Justice Network is a public policy organization that focuses on encouraging economic, political, and human rights policies towards Africa.
The United States should sign a United Nations protocol that will not allow countries to recruit children under 18 years old into the military, Goodwin said. Besides Uganda, many other countries, such as Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Colombia, use children for war.
The root causes of the children's plight are political and economic, said Goodwin. Freeing the child soldiers, he said, requires solving the political and economic troubles that plunged Uganda into civil war.
The use and abuse of young children as child soldiers in Uganda doesn't have to exist in Uganda today, said O'Brien of Soldier Child International. “It's very, very preventable,” she said, “It doesn't have to be like this.”