Tragedy of Child-Soldiers in Uganda

Interview With Belgian Journalist Els de Temmerman

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BRUSSELS, Belgium, AUG. 23, 2004 ( On Oct. 9, 1996, 139 girls of St. Mary’s College in Aboke, Uganda, were kidnapped by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army.

The vice president of the school, a sister of the Comboni Missionaries, succeeded in rescuing 109 of them, but the remaining 30 disappeared without a trace.

Belgian journalist Els de Temmerman, in her book “The Girls of Aboke: Children Abducted in Northern Uganda,” reconstructs the journey of two girls who escaped, the courageous efforts of Sister Rachele Fassera to seek their release and the experience of one of the boy soldiers who participated in the abduction.

Here is an interview with Temmerman who works in Uganda to aid the rehabilitation of child-soldiers.

Q: How did you get involved in the tragedy of the Aboke adolescents?

Temmerman: I learned about the girls’ story when I visited northern Uganda as a journalist in December 1998. I met a boy in a social worker’s garden who had been kidnapped for years, and who was forced to kidnap the girls of Aboke.

This boy told me terrible stories and I thought, “If it’s true, how is it that the world doesn’t know about it?” I felt it was my responsibility, given the problems of these boys and girls. It was the reason that led me to write this book.

I was fascinated by the story that this boy told me about Sister Rachele, the Italian nun who offered her life in exchange for the 139 kidnapped girls. I admired the nun’s courage. I thought that she might serve as a bridge between Europe and Africa for my book.

Q: Would the tragedy have been worse without the Comboni nuns?

Temmerman: Certainly. Without the heroic action of Sister Rachele, things would have been far worse. She was able to rescue 109 of the girls. Sadly, she had to leave 30 behind.

For years, she has campaigned around the world asking for the liberation of these girls. She has visited John Paul II, Kofi Annan, Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela, as well as the presidents of Sudan, Uganda, Libya and Zimbabwe.

The Aboke kidnapping was the first in northern Uganda to have an international repercussion, thanks to the efforts of Sister Rachele and the Comboni Missionaries.

Q: Did you decide to create the two nongovernmental organizations you founded when you discovered the reality of these kidnappings as a journalist?

Temmerman: Even before the book was published, I already decided to donate the profits to pay for the school expenses of children who had been kidnapped.

Given that in northern Uganda there was no organization that would carry out a project of this type, I founded my own organization, together with my husband and some Belgian friends. For years I have given talks in Belgium to obtain funds for this program of scholarships.

At present, we are paying the fees of more than 1,400 boys and girls, the majority in secondary school and five in university.

In 2003, the Belgian government founded a rehabilitation center for these children in Lira. It is named after Sister Rachele. In eight months, the center has rehabilitated 1,300 boys who escaped or were rescued by the Ugandan army.

Q: What does the Lord’s Resistance Army want?

Temmerman: Since 1994, thousands of children have been kidnapped in northern Uganda by the Lord’s Resistance Army [LRA]. It is a guerrilla movement led by Joseph Kony, who calls himself a Christian prophet.

Boys and girls, some only 5 years old, are taken from their homes and schools to neighboring Sudan. They are given basic military training there and are used as cheap soldiers to fight in Sudan and Uganda.

The LRA uses extreme forms of terror and brutality to obtain the children’s obedience.

Between 30-40% of the kidnapped are girls. Already at 12 years of age they are given as “wives” to military men. In reality, they become sexual slaves. Many children are born in the LRA’s camps in southern Sudan. Kony’s idea is that there should be more child-soldiers so that one day they will be able to overthrow the government of Uganda.

We are talking about more than 30,000 kidnapped children since 1994. Many escape; they suffer malnutrition and have many sicknesses. However, the least visible and the most difficult wounds to cure are the psychological traumas, such as fear and anger, against a society that is incapable of protecting them.

Education is the best way to rehabilitate them and help them to recover their self-esteem. To achieve this we created the Abducted Children of Uganda association in Belgium. We have already succeeded in having 1,400 kidnapped children return to school.

Q: What is the role of the neighboring country of Sudan?

Temmerman: Sudan’s support has been basically a response to the alleged support of Uganda of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army [SPLA].

Since 1983 these rebels of southern Sudan are fighting against the Shariah — Islamic law — and the persecution of Christians by the Muslim government of Sudan. They also try to extract natural resources, such as oil, from the south.

At the same time, Kony and his army of child-soldiers has been used by the government of Sudan itself to fight against the SPLA. Because, as a child-solider said, “Children are the best fighters: They are obedient, easy to manipulate, courageous, fast and cheap.”

Q: Are you afraid, after having lived all this firsthand?

Temmerman: There were times when I was afraid. When I was in northern Uganda in July 2002, my name appeared on the list of persons that the Lord’s Resistance Army wanted to kill.

I took several precautions at that time. I traveled to northern Uganda with security guards and sometimes I traveled in a “mamba,” an armored car.

I was very afraid again in October 2003 when the rebels launched attacks 4 kilometers from our Rehabilitation Center in Lira. The army provided us with 30 soldiers to protect the center. What we care about is the education of these children, and that the world knows what is happening.

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