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Another African tragedy

At twilight in Uganda’s north, ‘the night commuters’, made up of lines of thousands of children, begin the trek along the dusty roads from their family compounds. They are seeking the temporary safety of towns such as Kitgum, Pader or the regional capital Gulu, where they will huddle together for the night in makeshift shelters—church missions, bus stations or decaying warehouses. The latecomers simply sleep on the streets, where they are vulnerable to theft, beatings and sexual abuse from other children and adults, including Ugandan government soldiers.

For Olara Otunnu, winner of the 2005 Sydney Peace Prize, his birthplace of Acholiland in northern Uganda is the worst place on earth to be a child today. Those children who do not make it to the township sanctuaries also face the real danger of being abducted by insurgents of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) into the nightmare world of child soldiers and sex slaves.

In two decades of war, the United Nations estimates that the LRA has captured and enslaved more than 20,000 children, some of them as young as five years old. Those small, unwilling recruits lucky enough to escape bear witness to the horror of LRA indoctrination practices such as being ordered to hack former classmates to death with pangas, as punishment for being too tired to walk any further.

Olara Otunnu will use his $50,000 Sydney Peace Prize to establish a new international foundation to help such children of violence and social devastation. As the former UN Under-Secretary-General and Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, he will also continue to lobby for the full implementation of a UN Security Council Resolution for the ‘naming and shaming’ of groups that brutalise children.

Otunnu has no illusions that these initiatives are more than a small part of what needs to be done to try to save a lost generation of children from the scourge of ethnic war in his homeland. A small, slight man, gentle and measured, he has used public forums in Australia to make a heart-wrenching appeal for Western intervention to put a stop to a conflict ‘far worse than Darfur or the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields’. During the last ten years, Uganda’s national government has responded to the LRA rebels by uprooting and herding 95 per cent of the Acholi population of two million into ‘concentration camps’. In other words, an entire society has become trapped between the gruesome violence of the LRA terrorists and the genocidal atrocities of a corrupt national government.

‘In the camps my people are living like animals,’ Otunnu said. ‘An estimated 1000 people die each week; over 40 per cent of children under five years have seriously stunted growth due to malnutrition, and two generations of children have been denied education as a matter of government policy.’

‘HIV/AIDS has also become a deliberate weapon of mass destruction,’ he added. ‘Government soldiers who have tested HIV-positive are especially deployed to the north to commit havoc on local girls and women.’

Acholi-born Australian microbiologist Dr Norbet Okech Temajo shares Otunnu’s anguish at the systematic destruction of culture, values and family structure, and the future of the children in the camps. When I went to interview him in a dormitory suburb adjacent to the Australian National University, he was waiting for me in the street. ‘This situation has been ignored by the international community,’ he said, ‘but I believe people in Australia will listen and care.’

Two months ago, Temajo’s clandestine visit to Acholiland left him with the shocked certainty that the Museveni central government was engaged in a comprehensive and methodical Final Solution for the Acholi people. ‘The government has burnt down villages and destroyed crops and food storage silos. In the camps, people live 10–12 to a room. Husband and wives must lie together in the same room as their children—this is not the Acholi way. There is starvation, lack of water, no proper sanitation, disease. No one is safe from the soldiers or the terrorists.’ In Koch, a camp of 60,000 people outside Gulu, he saw little kids thin as sticks, pregnant 12-year-old girls and despairing adults, drunk on a toxic local brew called kasese.

Not surprisingly, Temajo also claims that the majority of Acholi would rather take their chances in their home villages against the LRA. Despite their brutality, the rebels have been reduced to about 4000 in number, scattered in small cells across the north and west of the country. They are mostly poorly trained children and young adult graduates of the LRA indoctrination—no match for a determined campaign by the Ugandan national forces. ‘Plainly, the Museveni government,’ he said, ‘does not want either a military solution or a negotiated settlement with the insurgents.’

In the face of the unfolding humanitarian tragedy in their birthplace, both Otunnu and Temajo ask: ‘What will it take, and how long will it take, for leaders of the Western democracies to acknowledge, denounce and take action to end the genocide?’

Dorothy Horsfield is a Canberra writer and journalist who has lived and worked in Africa. Her new novel, Venom, will be published in March by Pandanus.


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