Civil war in Uganda targets children

The 16-year-old sat on a woven mat and described being abducted and then deprived of food and sleep for weeks. His kidnappers were children too, some as young as 13, who wanted to force him to become a rebel fighter in Africa's longest-running civil war. Jimmy, who aid workers allowed to be identified only by his first name, escaped before his ordeal in northern Uganda was compounded by the horror of battle. The tall, slender boy who constantly twisted his fingers with anxiety as he spoke remains among the many victims of a civil war that has hit children the hardest.

The war in northern Uganda is a war on the future, with rebels abducting boys to replenish their ranks and forcing girls to become sex slaves, and other children abandoned by parents who are simply too poor to keep their families together in this war-ravaged region. The brutal tactics of the rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army and government assaults have forced more than 1.5 million people to leave their homes and take refuge in sprawling, crowded camps like the one in Gulu, about 360 kilometers (223 miles) north of the capital, Kampala, where Jimmy lives.

Food and health care provided by aid agencies mean survival _ but not for all. Disease and hunger kill some 1,000 people a week more than would otherwise be expected to die in the region, according to a survey by the Health Ministry and the U.N. children's and health agencies.

The camps are havens only during the day for children. Fearing rebel raids, tens of thousands leave their small, cone-shaped mud huts and walk into urban centers every night to sleep on verandahs, in compounds of public buildings and in shelters set up by aid agencies. The insurgents have seized at least 25,000 children during the conflict, according to United Nations estimates.

"There are two things that sets the war in northern Uganda apart and make it a particularly tragic one," said Ken Noah Davis, head of the U.N. World Food Program in Uganda. "One is there are very few conflicts where few people have had such a huge impact on so many _ with the fact that you have got one and a half million people still in camps and yet you have only got a few hundred LRA."

"The other is the fact that this is really a war against children," Davis told The Associated Press. The cultlike Lord's Resistance Army is led by Joseph Kony, described by the U.S. State Department as "erratic and vicious." During 19 years of war, his fighters have grown notorious. Jimmy was kidnapped when rebels attacked an isolated village outside Gulu.

"We were in a group of 70 rebel fighters that was led by a lieutenant," Jimmy said. "The oldest fighter was 18, the youngest was 13. But there were younger children who were born into the group from abducted girls and were growing into fighters." He ran away on a day he was sent to fetch water from a stream. He said the fighter who was assigned to watch him was too lazy to watch him carefully.

He now lives with his 70-year-old grandmother. His mother is further north in Kitgum, about 480 kilometers (300 miles) north of Kampala, and his father died of malaria in 2000.

As families disintegrate under the stress of poverty and war, children are left with guardians who are either too sick from HIV/AIDS, too old or too overwhelmed to offer protection or emotional support, said Fran Miller of the international medical aid agency, Medecins Sans Frontieres.

Poor parents force young girls into early marriage to reduce the number of mouths they have to feed. Children must also endure high rates of abuse and high levels of alcoholism in the community. Adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable. Some accept sexual advances of older men in the region with the country's second highest rates of HIV to satisfy the needs that parents or guardians are unable to address, said Beatrice Lajara who help to run a shelter for children in Gulu.

"What we are seeing are the consequences of long-term conflict ... the breaking of families and communities," Miller said. "There is a lot of depression and anxiety among children”, reports the AP. I.L.

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