Ugandan rebels tell of army atrocities as victims call for justice

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The Independent Online

On a clear summer's morning, with the sun beating down on the dirt-red tracks, 12-year-old Jennifer, her older sister and her mother were walking home. They had been tending to their small patch of land, just beyond the borders of the camp set up by the government to protect civilians from attacks by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army.

Two soldiers appeared from behind a bush. They took the girls and their mother to a secluded spot before forcing the children to undress. Then, with their mother looking on, the soldiers raped the girls. Once they had finished, the soldiers swapped.

The Acholi people in northern Uganda have had their lives destroyed by 20 years of brutal civil war. The crimes of the LRA have been well documented. Their leaders, including the self-proclaimed "spirit guide", Joseph Kony, have been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes. But the men who raped Jennifer and Evelyn were not in the LRA. They were the UDPF - the government army sent to the camps to protect people from the LRA.

The attack was not an anomaly. Rights groups have documented a series of violations by the UDPF, including murder, against the people whom they were sent to protect.

Peace talks between the Ugandan government and the LRA have reached an advanced stage. LRA fighters have begun to arrive at two assembly points in southern Sudan - the first major step to ending the violence. But as the United Nations and the ICC focus on bringing the LRA's leaders to justice, people in northern Uganda are asking when President Museveni's army will be held responsible for its crimes.

James Otto, director of Human Rights Focus, based in Gulu, called on the ICC to investigate crimes committed by government troops. "The ICC has dented its own image in not investigating the Ugandan government which has also committed atrocities - although on a lesser scale," he said.

"People have been pulled out of prison and murdered in cold blood. Girls have been raped. There are people here who fear government soldiers more than the LRA. Should justice pursue the weak and leave the strong? What sort of justice is that?"

There are currently 18 cases of rights abuses committed by the UDPF waiting to be heard in the Ugandan High Court. Earlier this year, the court awarded Jennifer £20,000, although the government is yet to pay.

The peace talks, currently taking place in Juba, southern Sudan, are widely believed to be the best chance of peace since the conflict began in 1986.

Since then, some 100,000 people have been killed during the conflict, while 1.7 million have been forced out of their homes and into "protection camps" set up by the government. Tens of thousands of children have been abducted by the LRA and used as soldiers or sex slaves. President Museveni, who first approached the ICC in 2004 asking them to bring charges against the LRA leadership, has announced an amnesty for Kony and other leaders if a peace settlement is reached.

Leaders in the north have called for traditional Acholi reconciliation ceremonies to be carried out, instead of sending them to The Hague. But the ICC's chief prosecutor has insisted that the indictments, the court's first, should stand, and supporters of the fledgling court, including Britain, are loath to undermine it.

The soldiers who raped Jennifer and Evelyn have not been charged. Instead they were posted to a command elsewhere.

"I still have that anger," said Jennifer, now 15. "My spirit is very low. I may not stay alive for long. I do not have any plan for the future."

As if the mental scar of being gang-raped were not enough, Jennifer has also paid a physical price. "I wasn't feeling very well so I went to the doctor for tests," she said. "I have been found to be HIV positive."

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