Our man in Uganda

Ten years on, the war in Northern Uganda is still raging, and 80 per cent of the rebel army is now made up of children. To launch a major campaign to stop the spread of arms, Jamie Theakston reports on a heart-rending conflict
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The Independent Online

AY 1 TUESDAY 23/09/03

In a rather marked change from my normal schedule, today I leave comfortable Notting Hill for Northern Uganda - to visit an area which the Foreign Office warns you to avoid. The trip is a fact-finding mission with Oxfam and Amnesty International as part of their new Control Arms campaign. I am going to see first hand the effects of a vicious guerrilla war which has been raging for more than 10 years between the Ugandan government and a group of rebels known as the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) - more than 80 per cent of which is made up of child soldiers. The itinerary looks daunting, the security procedures ominous - I've been told to keep a picture of my family in my wallet, to act as a bargaining tool in case I'm abducted.

DAY 2 WEDNESDAY 24/09/03

Dawn is breaking through thick cloud as we land in Kampala, Uganda's capital. It is busy and chaotic, and the airport road is lined with people making coffins. We go straight to the hotel for a briefing. I learn that the LRA swells its ranks by abducting children, training the boys into killing machines and forcing girls into sexual slavery. They target children because they are easy to indoctrinate and manipulate. Led by Joseph Kony - a charismatic but unstable leader who claims to have religious powers - the LRA has abducted more than 20,000 children, a quarter of them in the past 15 months alone. Grotesquely, Kony aims to create a country built round the Ten Commandments. Quite how you can kill, rape and mutilate while adhering to those Commandments is beyond my comprehension.

After the briefing, we visit a local MP whose constituents are caught up in the conflict. f Historically the north of Uganda has been marginalised by President Musevini's government but this MP is unusually outspoken. He argues passionately that the government is ignoring the plight of his people, obstructing the peace process and spreading arms across the region. The official strategy of the Ugandan government is three pronged - military intervention, peaceful negotiation, and prayer - but in reality they focus only on the military approach with "Operation Iron Fist" intended to eliminate the rebels. A terrifying 26 per cent of the national budget is now spent on arms. The trouble is that most of those killed by this hard-line military approach are children, themselves victims of the LRA and unwilling participants in the bloody conflict.

I'm feeling shell-shocked already and we haven't even arrived in the conflict zone.

DAY 3 THURSDAY 25/09/03

We leave the hotel at 5.30 am. As the sun rises we walk over the airport tarmac to our 8-seater plane. The conflict means it's unsafe to travel to the north by road. An hour later, we land in Kitgum, avoiding people, cars and animals on the dirt-track runway.

There is no sign of the conflict except for a couple of troop carriers moving government forces. The soldiers look ill-equipped, wearing only flip-flops on their feet. At our first security briefing we're told there was a raid by the LRA the night before and our movements will therefore be highly restricted. The war in Uganda suddenly feels uncomfortably close.

First stop is a school in the town where more than 2,000 pupils are crammed together in seven classrooms. The children originally attended six different schools in surrounding villages, until LRA raids forced them to close. For safety, the children now sleep at the school rather than return to their homes. But the conditions here are terrible. The headmistress tells me how worms from the mud floor bury their way into the children's feet and cause them serious health problems.

We go on to a rehabilitation centre for young people who have escaped from the LRA or been rescued by government forces. Here staff help them to regain a sense of normality and try to mend their broken lives. Bazil is 17. He is a huge football fan, and idolises David Beckham. Unlike most 17-year-old soccer fans, however, he estimates that in his short life he has killed 35 people. He's lost count. The rebels don't want to waste bullets on children trying to escape, so they get other kids to beat them to death. The reason Bazil has lost count of how many he killed is because he was not always sure if he was the one who dealt the fatal blow. Abducted by the LRA aged 14, he was forced to walk miles into the bush, where he was beaten, abused and made to watch those who tried to escape being hacked to death in front of him. Later, at gun point, he was himself forced to cut off the limbs of a fellow child soldier who was trying to escape. When I ask him what his hopes are for the future, he tells me that he wishes the demons that haunt him may one day go away.

I've never met a mass murderer before. I would have thought I'd be angry, or repulsed, yet I feel only sympathy for Bazil, a child with an impossible past to overcome. Before we leave, about 50 of the children stand and sing together, the strangest choir that I've ever heard.

Our next stop is a hospital. Three people are allocated to every bed here and the wounds, smells and screams are extremely shocking. Sam was shot by the LRA when they sprayed machine-gun fire into his village; both his legs are shattered by the bullets. He lies there in pain, knowing he'll never be able to walk again properly. In fact, he's only alive because the rebels assumed he was dead.

Later that evening, as we leave the hospital, a stream of children march past, carrying blankets. Each night, thousands of children - known as "night commuters" - walk into town from the surrounding villages, seeking protection from the rebels who might kill or abduct them if they slept in their beds. At first there are just a few kids, but soon there will be thousands, all heading towards the hospital or school for protection. The older girls look after the younger children, acting like self-appointed prefects and each night forming themselves into small "family" groups.

Tonight it's raining and most of them are sleeping outside as there's no shelter. I'm amazed by their strength of spirit.

DAY 4 FRIDAY 26/09/03

I didn't sleep well. Maybe I need time to acclimatise to the intensity, the sheer level of horror. Maybe I'll never comprehend it. I'm feeling angry that the international community is doing nothing about this guerrilla war which has devastated the people of Northern Uganda. Uganda is generally heralded as an African success story, even buying into the World Bank and IMF agendas, which perhaps explains why the government remains keen f

not to publicise its bloody war in the north.

Today we visit a hospital-feeding centre and see severely malnourished children, with distended stomachs, covered in flies. Children are starving here not because there's a famine or a drought but because it's too dangerous to farm the fields. Anyone going out into the open becomes an instant sitting target.

Today we also meet representatives from three "protected" villages, otherwise known as Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps. Many people have fled to these camps to escape the rebels. Many others have been herded into them by the army, with those who stay outside treated as suspected LRA collaborators. It is too dangerous for us to travel to the camps but their representatives have travelled 40 miles on foot through rebel territory, risking their lives to talk to us. They tell us that the camps are grim disease-ridden settlements with little or no sanitation. The people are supposed to be protected by government soldiers but in reality the barracks are often built in the centre with the people acting as a buffer zone all around. When starvation looms, the people have no choice but to go out and farm their land - many are killed in doing so.

DAY 5 SATURDAY 27/09/03

Met more former abductees this morning. Justin, 14, has killed five people. Hilda, 20, was raped by an LRA commander. Samuel, 9, was given a pistol and told to kill. In some ways the girls' experiences are more horrific. Used as sex slaves by rebel commanders, many are now HIV positive. The stigma of rape is so great that they hate to talk of their experience but you can see the trauma in their eyes.

One little girl is smiling, however. She's about the only child I've met whose innocence has not been destroyed by the conflict. She's an extraordinary child, about a year old, who was born in captivity. Her young mother, who was abducted as a sex slave, died in the jungle but somehow the baby was rescued. Too young to be traumatised, her smiles provide a marked contrast to the other children who have vacant eyes and a ghost-like expression on their faces.

Our next stop is Kotido, in the north-eastern Karamojo region. Again we fly in a tiny plane because the roads are too unsafe. We've come to talk to local cattle herders - to see how gun proliferation has affected the farmers here.

Historically these nomadic pastoralists have carried out comparatively bloodless raids on the cattle of rival tribes. Now with the introduction of AK-47s, cattle raids have been transformed into massacres. In recent years, the price of a gun has dropped from 20 cows to just two.

We visit a village which has recently been raided and in which there are only women, children and old men left. The young men have all been killed and the cattle stolen. The surviving villagers are now killing their last calves for food. Soon they'll have nothing.

As we are talking we are suddenly warned of approaching warriors and another raid. It's a tense moment and we climb quickly back into the Jeep. We're lucky to be able to leave; the villagers do not have that option.

DAY 6 SUNDAY 28/09/03

On my last day in Uganda we drive two hours into the bush where suddenly ahead of us we see an encampment of about 100 cattle farmers sitting on rocks. All are carrying AK-47s.

One of the farmers tells me the Karamijong used to fight and defend their herds with sticks but then guns poured into the region, turning cattle raids into lethal battles. Government promises to provide security have come to nothing. They tell us the people who raid now kill men, children and cattle. They too carry AK-47s to protect their livelihoods. As we leave they show off their guns by firing several rounds into the air. I pick up one of the empty cases. (Later, back in the UK, it is traced back to a Royal Ordnance Factory in Cheshire.)

On the long Jeep journey back to Kampala, I reflect on my time in Uganda, on the horror and devastation caused by armed conflict, but also on the pride and resilience, even among the most brutalised kids. What has amazed me, too, is how compassionate the adults are - willing to accept children back into their community even when they know those children have murdered their neighbours.

The Ugandans I met weren't asking for charity; they just want the international community to help stop the fighting that is destroying their country. The arms trade is fuelling conflicts like the one in Northern Uganda, and at present there are virtually no international controls to stop it. The Control Arms campaign launched by Amnesty International, Oxfam and IANSA (the International Action Network on Small Arms) calls for an international arms-trade treaty to stop guns getting into conflict zones and to human-rights abusers. As the world's second-biggest arms exporter, it's vital that the UK Government gets behind it. We can no longer ignore the desperate plight of these people, and millions like them around the world.

For more information on the Control Arms campaign (including how to join the 'Million Faces Project', a global photo petition), visit www.controlarms.org