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Ordered to catch a warlord, Ugandan troops are accused of hunting girls

The hunt for Joseph Kony is officially over, but the Ugandan soldiers sent to capture him are now being accused of their own crimes

Zack Baddorf
Wednesday 24 May 2017 18:21 BST
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Joseph Kony has been Africa’s most notorious warlord for three decades, but now it appears he may never be brought to justice
Joseph Kony has been Africa’s most notorious warlord for three decades, but now it appears he may never be brought to justice (Getty)

“Joseph Kony is dead,” announced American-made leaflets dropped from a helicopter in the Central African Republic in recent weeks. “The war is finished.”

The claims that Kony, the notorious leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), has died are false, though. American officials say such disinformation is often intended to sow confusion and encourage defections from Kony’s group, which has committed atrocities in the region for decades. But while Kony has evaded capture, the United States and the Ugandan military decided to end their search for him in late April, abandoning the international effort to bring him to justice.

US Army Captain Gregory, 29, from Texas, right, speaks with troops from the Central African Republic and Uganda (AP)

Now, after eight years of being deployed in the Central African Republic, the Ugandans are leaving behind their own trail of abuse allegations – including rape, sexual slavery and the exploitation of young girls.

Dozens of accusations of sexual abuse have been documented by the UN, human rights groups and survivors themselves. It is a “widespread problem,” said Emmanuel Daba, a local victims’ advocate investigating sexual violence by the Ugandan military.

According to internal UN records, peacekeepers in the Central African Republic have documented allegations of the rape, sexual abuse or sexual harassment of more than 30 women and girls by Ugandan soldiers. Beyond that, they found 44 instances of girls and women being impregnated by Ugandan forces.

“Several women and girls reported they had been taken from their villages by UPDF [Uganda people’s defence force] members and forced to become prostitutes or sex slaves, or to marry Ugandan soldiers,” the head of the UN peacekeeping mission wrote in a letter to Ugandan authorities last June.

“I was working out in the fields when it happened,” says one girl who. “The man came behind me without me noticing. He grabbed me. Then he raped me in the field.”

She was 13 years old at the time, she said, and she became pregnant by the man – a Ugandan soldier. Her parents went to the nearby Ugandan military base to report the crime, she said. Officers said that the soldier had already left the country but that they would “bring him to justice and put him in prison”.

Betty, 3, looks up at her mother Adye Sunday, 25, unseen, who was abducted aged 13 by the LRA (AP)

She is now 15 and says no action was ever taken.

Jeanine Animbou says she was 13 when a Ugandan soldier used to send a motorcycle taxi to her mud hut and take her to his military camp. She claims the sentry let her in without any problems.

Animbou, who is now 18, says she met the soldier while walking down a dirt road here in Obo, a town used as a base in the search for Kony. He told her he wanted to start a relationship with her, promising to take care of her and give her things like soap and food, she said.

Living on her own in a country where most people make less than a dollar a day, she says she agreed, seeing few other options.

The Ugandan military denies all such allegations of sexual violence and abuse.

Members of Joseph Kony’s LRA, which killed more than 100,000 people over three decades (AP)

“Our soldiers did not get involved in such unprofessional behaviour,” said a military spokesman, Brig. Richard Karemire. “We don’t have one [case].”

Similarly, the American Special Operations forces partnering with the Ugandans in the fight against the LRA denied any “direct knowledge of any sexual misconduct by UPDF forces,” according to Brigadier General Donald C Bolduc, who commands American Special Operations in Africa.

A United States State Department official said, however, that American diplomats did discuss the allegations with military and civilian leaders in Uganda, who promised that “any soldiers responsible for such acts would be repatriated and prosecuted.”

Over almost three decades, Kony and his fighters killed more than 100,000 people and abducted more than 20,000 children to use as soldiers, servants or sex slaves, according to the UN.

But the LRA has withered to around 100 fighters from a peak of about 3,000. No longer viewing the group as the threat it once was, the Ugandan military said last month that it was withdrawing its entire contingent of about 1,500 soldiers in the Central African Republic. The 150 American soldiers helping in the hunt for Kony are also standing down.

This region of the Central African Republic is one of the most remote and lawless parts of the country. Surrounded by dense forests, the town of Obo is right at the triple border with South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo – the territory of Kony’s LRA.

Inside the Ugandan camp here, the headquarters for the military’s regional mission against the LRA, soldiers cluster around a fire pit and hang their laundry on strings. Broken, rusted and half-disassembled military trucks litter the area.

An aerial view over northern Uganda. Joseph Kony has been Africa's most notorious warlord for three decades, but now it appears he may never be brought to justice (AP)

The women and girls entered the Ugandan headquarters “like it was the most normal thing in the world,” said Lewis Mudge, a researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRw) who has investigated allegations of sexual violence. “It was a complete culture of impunity where this was completely tolerated and accepted.”

The UN defines sexual exploitation as “any actual or attempted abuse of position of vulnerability, differential power or trust, for sexual purposes.” The African Union prohibits any “sexual activities” with children as well as any “sexual favour in exchange for assistance.”

Jolie Nadia Ipangba says she was 16 when a Ugandan soldier pursued a relationship with her.

“My father had died, so that’s why I accepted to be with [him]”, she says. “Because he would support me. For me, it was an opportunity.”

Ipangba, who is now 18, said the soldier told her he was looking for a woman to have a child for him and promised to take care of the mother. However, a month after she got pregnant, he was back home in Uganda.

“After he left, that was it,” she said. “I never heard from him again.”

Under Ugandan law, the military conducts the investigations and prosecutes its own soldiers for crimes committed while they are deployed outside Uganda.

Ugandan authorities sent their own team in September 2016 to look into the allegations. No soldier has been charged or prosecuted for sexual crimes, said the spokesman, Brigadier Karemire.

However, troops from Uganda are far from the only forces accused of abuse in the country.

Auma Consolata was abducted by the LRA – who cut off her lips, ears and nose – in 2005, aged 17 (Getty) (Getty Images)

Central African Republic, one of the continent’s most vulnerable countries, has been rife with allegations that foreign soldiers sexually exploited its citizens. Peacekeepers from France, Gabon, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, as well as contingents from the European Union and the African Union have all been accused of sexual abuse over the past couple of years, including against children.

The top UN human rights official has called the problem of sexual abuse by peacekeepers “rampant”. The former head of the UN mission in the country was fired in 2015, after the first allegations.

The security environment in the southeastern Central African Republic contributes to the environment of impunity, explains Daba, the local victims’ advocate.

“There is no law here in Obo,” he says. “There’s no authority. There’s no gendarmes, no police, not even a court. So the UPDF do what they want.”

Animbou says she eventually got pregnant with the soldier’s child. He promised to take care of the baby but left the country before she gave birth and has not helped since.

Uganda’s penal code does prohibit abandoning and failing to support children. But Animbou says she never went to the Ugandan base or the local authorities to report the soldier.

“They don’t want to talk about this, even with the authorities,” says Daba, adding that some women have been threatened by Ugandan soldiers. “The UPDF said they will do something bad to them – kill them or something else.”

The UN and HRW have found similar evidence of threats of retaliation.

Daba says it is difficult for the abandoned women to feed their children.

“I don’t have enough clothes or even soap to clean her,” Ipangba says of her child. “I pray to god to guard me and give me strength to watch over my child because it’s just me who has to take care of her.”

​Gladis Koutiyote said she, too, had a child with a Ugandan soldier who promised to marry her. She said some Ugandan soldiers did bring her “a little bit of sugar in a cup and some rice.”

“I used it for just one day and then it was finished,” she said.

A TV grab made available by the Monitor media group in Kampala, Uganda, shows one of the world's most wanted rebel chieves, Joseph Kony of the Lord Resistance Movement (Getty Images) (Getty)

The girl who said she was raped in the fields at 13 has had to drop out of school to take care of her child. She wants the soldier to go to prison and to provide money for the baby’s care. But she says she is not sure she will ever get justice.

She still walks miles to a field to grow beans, manioc and maize to eat. “But I’m scared,” she says. “I worry that he could come for me again.”

Brigadier Karemire, the Ugandan military spokesman, says the Ugandan investigations are finished. He claims that no cases of rape or statutory rape were registered here in the Central African Republic, and that there is no plan to support any children left behind. All Ugandan forces will be gone from the Central African Republic within a few weeks.

© New York Times

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