Child soldiers, sex slaves, and cannibalism at gunpoint: the horrors of Uganda's north

War, cannibalism, sex slavery and massacres were supposed to have been consigned to Uganda's past. The country has been touted as one of Africa's success stories, combating Aids and bringing relative prosperity to Kampala. But away from the capital, a horrific civil war is claiming the lives of tens of thousands of children, the United Nations warned yesterday.

War, cannibalism, sex slavery and massacres were supposed to have been consigned to Uganda's past. The country has been touted as one of Africa's success stories, combating Aids and bringing relative prosperity to Kampala. But away from the capital, a horrific civil war is claiming the lives of tens of thousands of children, the United Nations warned yesterday.

"Northern Uganda [is] the biggest neglected humanitarian crisis in the world," said Jan Egelund, the UN's under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs. "The situation is a moral outrage."

Few people outside Uganda know that in the north the government is fighting a fanatical and murderous cult - the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) - whose fighting force is made up in large part of abducted children. Up to 95 per cent of the population in these areas have been forced from their homes by the war. Nearly two million Ugandans, out of a population of 24.7 million, now live in refugee camps for fear of being attacked and killed in their villages.

Children have told how they had been forced by the rebels at gunpoint to abduct and murder other children and to drink their blood. A former commander of the rebel group explained that he had forced villagers to chop up, cook and eat their neighbours before he killed them, too.

The LRA is led by the self-proclaimed prophet Joseph Kony, who says he wants Uganda to live by the laws of the Ten Commandments. He and most of his fighters are from northern Uganda's Acholi tribe, as are most of their victims. Mr Kony says he is guided by spirits who tell him what to do and whom to kill. The UN says he may have abducted more than 20,000 children, 90 per cent of LRA fighters.

In the camps, virtually everyone has a story to tell. Pamela Aber, 18, was abducted by the rebels in February and kept prisoner for five months before she escaped. Her job was to cook and gather firewood, while acting as a sex slave to the commander. This is the fate of most of the young women and girls abducted by the rebels, many of whom have children by their captors. Soon after being kidnapped, she had had to take part in the murder of a 14-year-old girl called Adok, who had been caught trying to escape. The other new captives in the group, 10 of them, were told "to bite that girl to death".

"We started biting her but she did not die. When we were biting her she was pleading to the rebels saying they should forgive her and that she would not escape again. She was bleeding all over but still she did not die. Then we were told to pinch her and she did not die. Later we were all told to beat her with a log, one after the other, until she died."

When asked what she felt when she was doing this, she said: "I was frightened, but we were told that if we did not kill they would kill us. So you had to pretend to be brave."

Richard Abonga, 12, had spent his time with them carrying heavy loads of stolen food. When another boy, aged 11, complained that he was tired, the rebels told him to put down his load and the other children were told to gather around him: "They started chopping off his feet with a hoe. One rebel, one foot each, and then his hands and then his eyelids were cut off with razor blades and then his arms tied behind his back. He was still conscious. Then they hung him up on a tree, hanging head down and we were told to box his head until he was dead."

Captain Vincent Okello Pakorom was 16 when he was captured by the LRA in 1991. He rose to become one of Mr Kony's bodyguards and described the leader as an "ordinary human being" but one who "had the power": the ability to foresee the future.

The cult leader seems friendly, he said, until the spirits begin to talk through him. When they speak, somebody in his entourage writes down what he says. "The most cruel spirit," Pakorom said, "is "Who Are You" - the Congolese spirit who "commands killings and massacres."

Ever since Uganda gained independence in 1962, its politics have been brutal. In more than 40 years, there has never been a peaceful transfer of power. During 1971 and 1979 it was ruled by the former British colonial sergeant Idi Amin who slaughtered tens of thousands.

Why has the rebellion gone on so long? Many Acholi believe that President Museveni underestimated the rebels. Others claim he is not unhappy to have a continuing low-level insurgency, because it keeps the Acholi occupied, hence they are not able to meddle in Kampala politics.

On condition of anonymity, many people gave a different explanation for the war. Aid workers said that too many people had too great a financial stake in the war to want it over quickly. The conflict is also tied to the crisis in Darfur across the border in Sudan. Khartoum has supported the LRA for its own reasons as Uganda has for years been backing the rebel SPLA in southern Sudan. The Sudanese government has armed the LRA, using it to fight the SPLA.

Dr Lawrence Ojom has been the director of St Joseph's Hospital in Kitgum for 15 years and insists there is no end in sight. "This is the worst. It has never been this bad." Every evening St Joseph's Hospital gives shelter to "night commuters", some of the 45,000 children who, because of their fear of abduction, stream into Gulu, Kitgum, and other towns every evening to sleep in the safety of the hospitals. Many agree that not only is military action required, so are the food and medicine that would save lives. For 2004, the UN has appealed for $112m (£61m) in aid, mostly for the World Food Programme for Northern Uganda.

Tim Judah travelled to Uganda for the 'New York Review of Books'.

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