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Uganda LRA child abductees cry for home

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July 31, 2006 (NABANGA) — With tears in her eyes, the 18-year-old girl (name withheld) stood before a small group of rebels and aid workers, pleading: "We want to go back home, to be reunited with our families and go to school."

She was part of a group of more than 100 children paraded by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) to officials of the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) in a camp near the border between Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on Sunday.

The rebels, led by Capt Sunday Ochaya, inhibited the children from talking openly. "I am from Gulu [northern Uganda] and have been here for two years. I want to go back home," the girl added, as more tears rolled down her scarred face.

Among the children were 18 boys aged from eight years, 20 mothers carrying babies aged from two months to two-and-a-half years and more than 60 girls aged 12 and over. Most were dressed in rags and begged for medical help.

"More than 500 boys and girls from various places in northern Uganda and southern Sudan are still in our camps," said Ochaya, who is also the coordinator between the LRA and the southern Sudan government. "They will be brought later, [because] they will have to walk for four hours."

A few metres away, a 16-year-old boy (name withheld) stood quietly in army trousers and a dirty white shirt. "I was abducted six years ago from Kitgum [northern Uganda]. But I got tired after the grass cut my feet and I could not walk so other boys carried me through the bush. I saw six men who failed to walk. They were chopped to death."

He was hesitant to discuss the details under the watchful eye of the rebels. "One of the commanders was my uncle. We walked until we came to a river where we stayed for seven days, eating only boiled sorghum. Then we were led to a place surrounded by mountains. Eventually a group came from Sudan and led us to a town.

"Here we were taken by car across a bridge to a place where we walked to where we are now. I have since been [a soldier]," he added, just before the interview was cut short by one LRA officer, who ordered him to stop talking to strangers.

As the meeting ended and the cars carrying the Unicef team, reporters and mediators in the peace talks revved up their engines, some of the children wept uncontrollably. "We wish our leaders could sign a peace agreement, so the suffering ends," one of them sobbed.

Una McCauley, Unicef’s child protection officer in south Sudan told the children: "We are ready to support you to go back to school when you rejoin your families in southern Sudan or northern Uganda."

Kony to release children

The meeting between the children and Unicef officials was part of an ongoing peace process that started on 14 July in Juba, southern Sudan. It followed a decision by the Ugandan government to begin peace negotiations with the rebels.

Several meetings are being held in jungle locations between the rebels, Sudanese officials, led by the Vice-President of the south, Riek Machar, and various Ugandan groups, including religious leaders, chiefs and government officials.

"I have many children [in camps] who were abducted from both northern Uganda and southern Sudan," Joseph Kony, the LRA leader, told leaders from his Acholi region in a separate meeting on Sunday. "We are ready to release them so they can continue with their studies, with their families. We are sorry for what happened [to them]."

He added: "Our people in northern Uganda have suffered for a long time, especially those in IDP [internally displaced persons’] camps. Now we want peace. If we don’t change the situation, our brothers in the camps will continue to be killed by HIV/AIDS." The prevalence rate for the disease in the districts of Kitgum and Gulu is more than nine percent, according to health ministry data from a recent nationwide study - three percent higher than the national average.

The leaders, including religious leaders and elders, travelled to meet Kony on Saturday night and stayed on until Sunday at a hideout near the DRC-Sudan border. They were led by the Archbishop of Gulu diocese, John Baptist Odama, and the Acholi paramount chief, Rwot Achana II.

Kony was scheduled to meet Machar but sent his 14-year-old son instead. But Machar remained upbeat, saying he would probably meet the rebel leader on Monday. Another group of leaders from northern Uganda, led by the Gulu district chairman, Norbert Mao, is also due to meet the rebel leader.

On Saturday, Machar, who is the chief mediator in the Ugandan government-LRA peace talks, had met an LRA team led by Kony’s deputy, Vincent Otti. "I wish to stay here until these people sort out all their things," the Vice-President said.

The LRA has fought for 21 years, claiming it wants to replace the Ugandan government with one based on the Ten Commandments. Almost 2 million people have been displaced in what has been called one of the world’s worst crises. More than 25,000 children have been abducted either to fight for the rebels or to become sex slaves for the commanders.

(IRIN)

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