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April 11, 2024

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Use of child soldiers at forefront of Ugandan war

Each night, Ugandan children march from their villages, following the main roads to larger, more secure towns. Sleeping in their own homes could mean death, rape or forced enlistment.

These are Northern Uganda’s ‘night-commuters,’ children who fear abduction by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a guerrilla faction at war with the Ugandan government for the past 23 years.

Grace Mbungu, a graduate student in the political science department, is writing her master’s thesis on whether international laws actually protect children. Uganda is one of her case studies.

Mbungu said many factors built up to the Ugandan war, but it was a 1986 coup by the current president, Yoweri Museveni, that caused the fighting to erupt. Some individuals ousted during the coup became rebels, which eventually led to the creation of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

The LRA and its leader, Joseph Kony, have become notorious for the use of child soldiers, many of whom are abducted and forced to fight.

‘The use of child soldiers has been very extensive,’ Mbungu said. ‘Eighty percent of the soldiers in the Lord’s Resistance Army are children, ages 7 to 17.’

Mbungu said there are three ways children join the LRA: they are born into it, they are abducted or they ‘volunteer.’

Girls are often abducted to be wives for LRA soldiers. They, in turn, give birth to children who eventually join the fight.

‘[These children] grow up within the environment of the rebel group and they really become child soldiers by the age of four or five,’ she said.

Mbungu said those who ‘volunteer’ do not sign up because they want to fight, but rather because it is their only chance to survive.

Sixty-two percent of the poor in the country are children, she said. Many of their parents or family members have been killed and their schools have been destroyed. They have no stability, so the LRA provides a sense of structure and a feeling of purpose.

‘They need to feel they aren’t useless, they aren’t helpless, they aren’t hopeless,’ Mbungu said. ‘When you hold a gun in your hands, you feel pretty powerful.’

Once they are in the LRA, Mbungu said children are often given drugs to keep them high and to allow them to escape reality. They are also marked with cuts on their faces, hands or ears, which allows LRA leaders to identify runaways.

Many stay out of fear, because those who fail to do as they are told face death.

‘There was a child that was told to kill his brother and his father, and the kid said no. And the three of them were killed,’ Mbungu said, ‘The orders just come as they are, ‘Kill or we will kill you.”

Neil Englehart, an associate professor in the political science department who does research on human rights, said children are used as soldiers in some countries because they will do things adult soldiers would not do.

‘If you are conducting a kind of campaign of terror, which the Lord’s Resistance Army has done at times, it is actually better to have children because their moral faculty isn’t developed, so you can get them to do things adults wouldn’t do, such as massacring,’ he said. ‘With modern small arms, which are pretty light, you can train these kids to use small arms and they can be almost as effective as an adult soldier.’

The young age also allows the children to develop a parental tie with their commanders, which can make them extremely loyal fighters, he said.

The LRA’s use of child soldiers has brought attention to the conflict, causing a worldwide campaign called Invisible Children to spring up in response.

According to Invisible Children’s Web site, the organization was created following a 2003 documentary of the same name which was made by three filmmakers who went to Africa ‘in search of a story.’

The non-profit organization grew out of feedback from the documentary and has a presence throughout the world, including Bowling Green.

‘The biggest thing Invisible Children does is raise awareness about what is going on,’ said Candace Padilla, a member of Invisible Children in Bowling Green.

Padilla said she got involved in the organization because of her 5-year-old brother.

‘Imagining my little brother being abducted, made to kill people and becoming this monster of war just completely broke my heart,’ she said. ‘Even if it’s not here in America, even if it doesn’t pertain to me directly, it still completely breaks me to know that there are kids who don’t have a childhood because they are killing people and burning down cities because they don’t have an option.’

One problem preventing the end of the war, Mbungu said, is the corrupt Ugandan government, which benefits from the war and even uses child soldiers itself.

‘The government is not providing much needed leadership. If they are using child soldiers themselves, then they really don’t expect the Lord’s Resistance Army to stop using child soldiers,’ she said. ‘What happens is when the children get released, or taken out from the Lord’s Resistance Army, the government takes them and puts them in their ranks.’

Mbungu said even if the war ended, a major issue will be what to do with the children afterward.

Resocializing the children to function in society will be tough. Adult soldiers can return from the military with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, so imagine what it must be like for a child, she said.

‘Most of the children are born in war, and they grow up through war,’ she said. ’23-year-olds in Uganda have been born into war.”

Fighting for change

Earlier this year, the LRA Disarmament ‘amp; Northern Uganda Recovery Act was introduced to Congress. If passed, the bill will require the U.S. develop a strategy to help Uganda through political, economical and military support.

Invisible Children plans to collect 250,000 petition card signatures to President Barack Obama in order to get him to sign the bill, according to their Web site. Information provided by Grace Mbungu, Neil Englehart and Amnesty International’s Web site.

Child soldiers by the numbers

Uganda is not an isolated case. It is estimated there are 300,000 child soldiers worldwide. They are used in 86 countries, 48 of which are by governments. One hundred and ninety out of 192 United Nation’s countries have signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international treaty that establishes universal rights for children.

The two that have not are the United States and Somalia. Information provided by Grace Mbungu, Dr. Neil Englehart and Amnesty International USA’s Web site.

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