Child Soldiers of Uganda: What Does the Future Hold?

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Uganda gained independence in 1962 under peaceful circumstances. Trouble started in 1966 when Milton Obote, in an attempt to consolidate his power, ordered his army to depose the King of Buganda, and made changes in the constitution. In 1971 Idi Amin, Commander of the Army, seized power in a military coup and ushered in a reign of terror and bloodshed which lasted until 1979 when the Tanzanian Army and a band of Ugandan exiles - Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) - drove him from Uganda.

Three successive weak governments followed until December 1980 when national elections, widely believed to have been manipulated, returned Obote to power. In early 1981, Yoweri Museveni formed the National Resistance Army (NRA) and led 26 men into the bush to mount an armed war against Obote's UNLA. The NRA concentrated in the Luwero triangle, a densely populated fertile coffee-growing region inhabited by 750,000 Buganda tribespeople just north of the capital, Kampala. During the next three years the guerrilla war gained momentum and growing support. By 1983 the UNLA responded with a massive counterinsurgency campaign, which during a two-year period left an estimated 200,000 dead, drove 150,000 into UNLA-administered camps and displaced another 150,000 people.

Child Soldiers

Against this background thousands of homes were destroyed, communities dissolved and the fabric of social life in the triangle shredded. Families ran and hid in the bush to escape the atrocities of the predominantly northern UNLA soldiers. Parents and children were separated. Malnutrition and starvation escalated, as did the UNLA's "seek-and-destroy" missions.

Meanwhile, the popularly supported NRA could not turn its back on the needs of the local people. Abandoned children were cared for in small numbers in the beginning, but by 1983 more and more school-aged children were absorbed into the NRA. As UNLA operations intensified and threatened remote NRA camps where these children were kept, a decision was taken to disperse the children and give them basic self-defense training to reduce risks. NRA officers "adopted" these children and looked after food, clothing and shelter. After basic self-defense training the children soon escorted the officers, carried weapons, ran errands, cleaned and cooked, and in this way became loyal contributors to individual officers and the NRA as a whole. They were highly motivated, reliable and dedicated, often instilled with a strong sense of revenge triggered by means of UNLA atrocities against their families, friends or village.

In mid-1985 the NRA extended their sphere of control from the Luwero triangle to Mubende, Fort Pontal and Kasese. On July 27, the UNLA overthrew Obote in a bloodless coup and invited all "fighting groups" to join the newly formed Military Council. Smaller guerrilla groups plus the remnants of Amin's old army known as the Former Uganda National Army (FUNA) joined the Okello government (previously Obote's Chief of the Defence Forces). However, the more principled NRA refused to join, seeing no prospect for any substantive change from the policies of repression of Obote.

Consequently, the country was divided in civil war between the southwest one-third, controlled by the NRA, and the remainder, held by the UNLA, from August 1985 to January 1986. During this time the front line was a mere 20 miles from Kampala. Peace talks commenced in Nairobi and eventually a cease fire was agreed to in mid-December.

The NRA achieved a greater degree of military success than it had anticipated, which led to their encirclement and isolation of the UNLA barracks at Masaka and Mbarara and control of the southwest. With a long front line spanning the area from Lake Albert to Lake Victoria containing four major roads and the railroad as well as two large barracks still containing sell-equipped UNLA soldiers, the NRA was spread thin and is resources heavily taxed. Every available solider was pressed into action and by late 1985 this included the child soldiers. New recruits were rapidly trained and deployed. As fighting intensified in and around Kampala, more and more child soldiers turned up in the ranks of the NRA.

A major offensive was mounted on January 17, 1986, and Kampala fell on January 26 to the NRA. The child soldiers were highly visible. They were the mascots of the NRA and became written of as young liberators. To the credit of the NRA they came equipped with a code of conduct and exercised restraint previously unseen in the UNLA where young soldiers were especially feared. The NRA took prisoners of war and often assigned child soldiers to guard duty while the war front pushed slowly north for the final liberation of the country in late March. Child soldiers on road blocks and in the streets were seen to be reliable and trustworthy, seldom abusing the power of the gun which they all carried with pride and skill. Smoking and drinking were forbidden in these early days following the capture of Kampala, as it had been in the bush.

Uganda received considerable attention in the international media form the time of the July coup until mid-1986. Commentary on the child soldiers started soon after the country was divided in 1985. Feature articles glorifying the young soldiers appeared in the Nairobi press in late 1985 and early 1986. The BBC carried news of them as early as November 1985. Eventually, as Kampala fell and reporters had ready access to the child soldiers, feature-length articles appeared in major newspapers in the western world. A BBC documentary appeared on television and radio in late March 1986. Most of the Western press reports carried some critical comment about the child soldiers. The Kenya press recognized the positive role the NRA had played in initially taking in the youngsters and gave credit to their role in the liberation of the country.

UNICEF opened a dialogue with NRA leadership on the issue of child soldiers on United Nations Day, October 24, 1985, when the first "Corridor of Peace" flight landed in Kasese with medical supplies. Initial concern was followed by a three-and-a-half-hour meeting between the NRA leader Museveni and myself, the UNICEF representative, on January 17, 1986, when the entire issue of child soldiers was discussed. No agreement on their future was reached. With mounting international pressure the new government announced in late February that all child soldiers were to be removed from front line battalions and that children would not be deployed in front line action. The NRA also claimed that they had never pressed them into actual fighting and the ICRC confirmed that there were very few child soldiers in the front line medical units which they visited and service on the NRA side before Kampala fell. While this is widely believed to be generally true, nonetheless many journalists interviewed child soldiers who claimed to have engaged in fighting.

The dialogue for the future and potential rehabilitation of the child soldiers was pursued principally by UNICEF until July 1986. The government announced that many returned to their homes in Luwero in May and further that all children in Luwero would receive free education. By June it was estimated by the Prime Minister's office that 3,000 remained in the army, including 500 young girls.

The Future

Two principal options are available to the NRA. The first is to keep the children in the army and provide for their education within the military itself. The proponents of this line of reasoning point out that the child soldiers have no known parents and that their home has been the NRA. Further, the children themselves do not want to leave. Finally, it is stated that these children represent a potential to improve the quality of the NRA as they mature with credentials of loyalty, service and unquestionable motivation.

The second option is to take the child soldiers out of the army and enroll them in civilian schools. The schools would provide a minimum of primary schooling plus one or two skills. Proponents of this option point out that the officers would be encouraged to continue a relationship with their "adopted" children. Simultaneously, a tracing process could be initiated to identify surviving parents and relatives for reunification. By going into civilian schools the children could be given the option of later choosing between a career in the army or civilian life.

Whichever option the government choose, it should be recognized that these children of Uganda's terror will carry with them the scars of violence and war. They are mature beyond their years, but the respect shown them by adults is frequently because of the weapon they proudly carry.

The precedent set in Uganda for incorporating children into the NRA in the first instance can be understood, but the continued presence and use of child soldiers raises issues which frighten many. Some point out that Idi Amin and Bassilio Okello are products of youthful recruitment leading to eventual abuse of power. If the child soldiers become dissatisfied with slow progress and continued injustice will they form a radical clique? Others wonder if, given the severe economic and political problems currently facing he country, the NRA can really devote the necessary resources and priority to the child soldiers.

Some of the children will continue to harbor revenge motives into their adulthood, presenting problems as yet unforeseen. Studies of children in Northern Ireland and the Middle East adequately document that deeply imprinted and strongly held revenge is believed to contribute significantly to the perpetuation of mistrust, hatted and a never-ending circle of violence. In a 1984-85 study of 650 school children in Kampala, Masaka and Jinja, we found little or no revenge motivation - a very positive indication that he violence and insecurity have not yet been internalized as tribal animosities. The child soldiers, however, are a separate and highly motivated group who have been encouraged to hate the enemy (the UNLA or Obote's soldiers), who were predominantly from the northern tribes of Acholis or Lango. Since almost all of the child soldiers are children of Bantu (or southern) tribes and are predominantly Buganda, there may be the seeds for future revenge against the north.

Yoweri Museveni and other NRA officers feel that much too much "fuss" has been made about child soldiers by Western reporters, diplomats and agencies such as UNICEF. They point out that the Geneva Convention, which prohibits children under the age of 15 to bear arms, was written by predominantly Western countries and that it does not apply to Uganda's situation. They claim that children in Uganda are taught to fight with sticks and to defend livestock herds from predators at very young age - five or six years. They maintain that training in the use of a gun is just an extension of these traditional values, and that even for the child soldiers who have experienced front line action, there is no basis for concern about psychological scars and aftereffects.

While it is true that children in Africa do "grow up" sooner than their Western contemporaries, it is still not clear that the child soldiers have the maturity to handle the stresses of a war experience. Other observes point out that the impact of war leaves long-term psychological problems for a significant number of combatants and that these problems would likely be magnified in the case of child soldiers. There have been no studies of child soldiers, and if Uganda decides to keep the children in the NRA, it is unlikely that we will know how these children fare. If the option for civil schools is chosen, there would be the opportunity to follow the children closely and record their experiences during their schooling years.

Child soldiers are increasingly deployed in guerrilla and conventional wars in developing countries, yet we have little or no information on how this affects them. The Uganda situation, as was stated earlier, can be seen as commendable, given the humanitarian nature of the NRA's overseeing of the children in the first place. It presents an ideal opportunity to study the impact of war and violence on child soldiers in combination with schooling and training to better enable the children themselves to adjust to their experience. This would set a precedent and contribute significantly to an area which presents increasing problems and worries for those concerned about today's children - tomorrow's leaders.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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