As the light faded from the northern Ugandan sky, the children emerged from their families’ mud huts to begin the long walk along dirt roads to Gulu, the nearest town. Wide-eyed toddlers held older kids’ hands. Skinny boys and girls on the verge of adolescence peered warily into roadside shadows. Some walked as far as seven miles. They were on the move because they live in a world where a child’s worst fears come true, where armed men really do come in the darkness to steal children, and their shambling daily trek to safety has become so routine there’s a name for them: “night commuters.”
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Michael, a thin 10-year-old wrapped in a patched blanket, spoke of village boys and girls abducted by the armed men and never seen again. “I can’t get to sleep at home because I fear they’ll come and get me,” he said.
Around the time of my trip to northern Uganda this past November, some 21,000 night commuters trudged each twilight into Gulu, and another 20,000, aid workers said, flocked into the town of Kitgum, about 60 miles away. The children, typically bedding down on woven mats they’d brought with them, packed themselves into tents, schools, hospitals and other public buildings serving as makeshift sanctuaries that were funded by foreign governments and charities and guarded by Ugandan Army soldiers.
The children were hiding from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a murderous cult that has been fighting the Ugandan government and terrorizing civilians for nearly two decades. Led by Joseph Kony, a self-styled Christian prophet believed to be in his 40s, the LRA has captured and enslaved more than 20,000 children, most under age 13, U.N. officials say. Kony and his foot soldiers have raped many of the girls—Kony has said he is trying to create a “pure” tribal nation—and brutally forced the boys to serve as guerrilla soldiers. Aid workers have documented cases in which the LRA forced abducted children to ax or batter their own parents to death. The LRA has also killed or tortured children caught trying to escape.
LRA rebels roam northern Uganda’s countryside in small units, surfacing unpredictably to torch villages, kill people and kidnap children before returning to the forest. The LRA’s terror tactics and the bloody clashes between the rebels and the army have caused 1.6 million people, or about 90 percent of northern Uganda’s population, to flee their homes and become refugees in their own country. These “internally displaced” Ugandans have been ordered to settle in squalid government camps, where malnutrition, disease, crime and violence are common. The international medical aid group Doctors Without Borders said recently that so many people were dying in government camps in northern Uganda that the problem was “beyond an acute emergency.”
Word of the tragedy has surfaced now and then in Western news media and international bodies. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has called for an end to the violence in northern Uganda, and the U.N. has also coordinated food donations and relief efforts in Uganda. “The LRA’s brutality [is] unmatched anywhere in the world,” says a 2004 U.N. food program booklet. But the Ugandan crisis has been largely overshadowed by the genocide in neighboring Sudan, where nearly 70,000 people have been killed since early 2003 in attacks by government-supported Arab militias on the black population in the Darfur region.
The U.S. State Department classifies the LRA as a terrorist organization, and in the past year the United States has provided more than $140 million to Uganda; much of that is for economic development, but the sum includes $55 million for food and $16 million for other forms of assistance, such as AIDS education efforts and support for former child soldiers and formerly abducted persons. In May 2004, Congress passed the Northern Uganda Crisis Response Act, which President Bush signed in August. It does not provide for funding but urges Uganda to resolve the conflict peacefully and also calls for the State Department to report on the problem to Congress this month.
Despite some growing awareness of the crisis and recent small increases in assistance to Uganda from many nations and aid organizations, Jan Egeland, the U.N.’s Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, said in a press conference this past October that the chaos in northern Uganda is the world’s “largest neglected humanitarian emergency.” He went on, “Where else in the world have there been 20,000 kidnapped children? Where else in the world have 90 percent of the population in large districts been displaced? Where else in the world do children make up 80 percent of the terrorist insurgency movement?”
To spend time in northern Uganda and learn firsthand about the situation is to become horrified by the atrocities and appalled by the lack of effective response. “The tragedy here is that it’s not an adult war, this is a children’s war, these kids are 12, 13, 14 years old and it’s despicable, beyond comprehension,” says Ralph Munro, who was visiting Gulu (while I was there) as part of a U.S. Rotarian mission to deliver wheelchairs to the war zone. “The world better wake up that this is another holocaust on our hands, and we’d better deal with it. One day our kids are going to be asking us, where were you when this was going on?”
Since achieving independence from Britain in 1962, Uganda has suffered almost uninterrupted brutality. Armed rebellions, mostly split along ethnic lines, have wracked the population, now estimated at 26.4 million. Up to 300,000 people were murdered during Idi Amin’s eightyear (1971 to 1979) reign of terror. It is said that Amin, who died a year and a half ago in exile in Saudi Arabia, ate some of his opponents and fed others to his pet crocodiles. “His regime goes down in the scale of Pol Pot as one of the worst of all African regimes,” says Lord Owen, who was the British foreign secretary during Amin’s rule.