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Children of war in Uganda

"Dateline" traveled to Northern Uganda to report on "night commuters:" tens of thousands of children forced to hide in the night to escape being killed or abducted by rebels. If captured, these children are torn from their families and forced to become soldiers under the maniacal leadership of Joseph Kony. Who is he? And why is his reign of terror unknown to most people in the world?
/ Source: Dateline NBC

"Dateline" traveled to Northern Uganda to report on "night commuters": tens of thousands of children forced to hide in the night to escape being killed or abducted by rebels. If captured by the rebels, these children of war are torn from their families and forced to become soldiers under the maniacal leadership of Joseph Kony. Who is he? And why is his reign of terror unknown to most people in the world?

Around northern Uganda, little children who don’t find a safe place at night are in danger. And so are adults. People who are found by the rebels can be burnt to death, or beyond recognition. Body parts are cut off — noses, lips, ears, fingers.

Jan Egeland is the United Nation’s head of disaster relief. He’s seen it all. But nothing like this. "His is terror like no other terror," he says. “I’ve been in a hundred countries. I’ve been working with human rights, peace, and humanitarian problems for 25 years. I was shocked to my bones, seeing what happened in Uganda. For me, this is one of the biggest scandals of our time and generation.”

The root of this trauma is a civil war that has raged for 19 years in northern Uganda, almost unnoticed by the rest of the world.

What makes this stand out from other wars is that it is being fought with children. Children stolen from their families are forced to become soldiers. At the age of 8, or 10 or 12, children forced to kill. 

Joseph Kony: 'Worst of the worst'
Who steals the souls of children?

His name is Joseph Kony. He imagines he’s a reincarnation of Jesus and calls his group “The Lord’s Resistance Army.” With virtually no popular support, he has increasingly resorted to abducting children to fight for him— against not only government forces but his own civilian people. His army has stolen as many as 30,000 innocent kids since the war began.

He is anything but a defender of the people. He terrorizes.“Your nose will be cut off together with your ears and in the end the sword will kill you. Your children will be taken into captivity and they will be burnt to death,”  he says on video tapes.

His maniacal rants are more than empty threats. Listen to what these kids say they were forced to do:

Patrick: There was a boy who could not walk anymore because he was too thirsty. So they made us kill him with a club.

Attempting to escape is dangerous.

Patrick:  If you are captured trying to escape, you will be beaten or killed.

Girls are no exception. They are forced to fight. Or, something else— become sex slaves for the rebels.

Jennifer: They gathered all the girls aged 13 years and above. They then distributed us to the commanders as their wives.

Some of them are lucky, they escape, now in recovery centers like this.  But you can see the damage in their eyes. It's in the pictures they draw, that the horror at the hands of Kony comes back to life.

“He knows how to instill utter fear,” says Egeland.  “But he also knows how to make them believe that he has some kind of a mission.”

Keith Morrison: Almost a supernatural power?Jan Egeland: Yes.  Morrison: Where does Kony fit in the in the sort of pantheon of evil people?Egeland: I think Kony is among the worst.

Among the worst because Kony preys on children— they’re easier to indoctrinate, control, have them commit atrocities.

Fear of Kony and his rebels is so strong, that more than a million and a half people have been forced from their homes for fear of being killed or abducted.

They go to squalid camps, like Pabbo, barely surviving on foreign food donations hoping that government army patrols might provide a little more protection than they had in their villages.

On the scale of sheer misery, there’s little that can top Pabbo.  About 63,000 souls are jammed into a vast sea of tiny, round mud-huts, ten to a room or more. There is one water well for every five thousand people.

There’s malnutrition, malaria, cholera, HIV. People here have grown accustomed to tragedy upon tragedy.  In the past year alone, Pabbo has been burned out, flooded out, and attacked constantly.  But if life in the camp is dreadful, outside it is a catalog of horrors. Children are taught early that if to stray to the edges of Pabbo, for fun or firewood, is to risk being abducted, or raped or hacked to death by the rebels.

Night commuters
More often than not, the children in northern Uganda have their own survival routines. 

Patrick is one of the 'night commuters.' Terrified of being recaptured, and has joined the tens of thousands of so-called night commuters in northern Uganda, each one of them simply hoping  to stay alive to see the morning.

He lives in a tiny, unprotected village in a mud-hut with his aunt and uncle, and his dog, Sarah. And because he knows the danger of being killed or abducted into the rebel army all too well, he has a survival ritual: Each morning he washes, puts on his school clothes and walks to class. Each evening, as dusk arrives, he joins what may be the world’s most astonishing migration.

Barefoot, a blanket stuffed in a sack, he walks for 5 miles through remote and sometimes dangerous terrain to the relative safety of town, where the rebels are less likely to attack. Mothers with infants, small children, boys, girls, leave their parents behind in those isolated villages. They carry straw sleeping mats, their worldly possessions. Here, at least, they feel safe from the rebels.

Most of the children know no other way of life, let alone why this war is being fought.

Patrick sleeps in a crowded school, a nighttime shelter run by volunteers. Others find spots on the grass, under verandas, on hospital grounds, in large tents. Worn blankets are their only protection, their bodies crammed together, tangled and entwined.

Night after night after night, thousands dream of the restless dreams of the forsaken. 

In the morning, before the sun rises, they gather their belongings and leave for home, surviving another night. 

But it’s not just a matter of survival: For Patrick, the shelter gives daily comfort to a soul tormented by what he witnessed, and even more so by something the rebels forced him to do.

Patrick is an escapee.

Morrison: Did you see other people being killed?Patrick: Many. Many, many. 

Patrick, now a tiny 13-year-old, was a 10-year-old when the war came his way.  Within minutes, he had committed murder.

Patrick: We normally use a big sticks to kill somebody if you need.          Morrison: You said you usually used a big stick?Patrick: Yeah.Morrison: Did you kill more than one?Patrick: Yeah.Morrison: Many?Patrick: Many. For fear, you must kill. If you refuse, you are going to be killed.

And then, out came the story that none of us who heard it have been able to forget — how Patrick learned the lesson: kill or be killed.

It was, he said, the very first night of his abduction.  Patrick, his parents and his siblings, were forced at gunpoint into the bush near a river. And then he watched as the rebels killed his father. He watched as they slashed away at his mother with their knives. And then, as she lay grievously wounded, a rebel commander turned and spoke to the children.

Patrick: Then they say that we must kill our mother. 

Horrified, Patrick and his young brothers and sisters refused.

Patrick: Then they said, if you refuse, they’re going to kill us all.  Then we do that. So then, after that... Morrison:Well, wait a minute, Patrick.  Then you had to kill your own mother?Patrick: Yeah. With fear to be killed, we kill our own mother.Morrison: Hard for you to remember that, isn’t it?Morrison: Do you dream about that?Patrick: Sometime I dream.

Occasionally as we talked, Patrick seemed to get lost in his thoughts,  searching his memory for his mother as he so often does, wondering what he’ll do without her.

Patrick: I was thinking that without my mother, how can I stay in the world?

During his year in captivity, he witnessed countless atrocities.

Patrick: Babies, babies, babies.Morrison: They killed babies?Patrick: If they started crying in the bush, there they can destroy them—like this. That’s how the world of northern Uganda here is.

And year after year goes by with more of this every day: Children are losing their mothers and fathers, mothers and fathers losing their children.

Who is there to protect?  In the midst of all this misery, there are some voices of hope.

Gun-toting preacher
How are they to be protected against a man so maniacal as to claim to speak for god?

This American preacher believes god has given him the answer.  Reverend Sam Childers is the son of a Pennsylvania iron worker. Childers is a former biker who rode with the hell’s angels and he’s born again.

Now, supported by contributions from the American evangelical community, he goes on military-style rescue missions for abducted children.  He even joins with local African militias to hunt Kony down.

Childers: I always liked to fight. Still do. I’m a preacher but I still like to fightMorrison: Is it fair to say that you’re a missionary? Or are you a mercenary?Childers: A lot of people call me a Christian mercenary.  And I will accept it either way.

Seven years ago, Childers built an orphanage on the border of Uganda and Sudan, as it turns out the same region where children like Patrick are held captive.

He offers us a ride along the treacherous trip to his orphanage. We soon saw just how hard it would be for any child to escape the rebels in these rugged badlands.

We were joined by Childers’ personal militia —35 seasoned fighters from Sudan who join hands to pray for protection.

They pray together, but they also put their faith in a veritable weapons arsenal: rifles, AK-47s, and machine guns. The pastor drives with a pistol on his seat and—when he senses trouble—a rifle on his lap.

"If you see ‘em, you better shoot ‘em quick because they’ll shoot ya. Yeah, you don’t even play around with ‘em," he says.

His little army rides the truck behind him down a hot, dusty road, littered with remnants of battles past.  Along the way he stopped to show us a school attacked by rebels, where he says students were given a gruesome choice.

Childers: They came here, they took the teachers. Killed all the teachers. Took one and chopped ‘em up. Started cooking them. The children that would eat ‘em, they let the children go. And any of the other children they’d shoot ‘em in the head.  The bodies were stacked high of children.

Difficult to believe, but human rights groups have documented similar cases.

Though the rebel soldiers never far away from Childer's orphanage, children like Betty and Mary find refuge from the horrors they experienced beyond the orphanage fence.

Mary shows us a large scar from a severe lashing the rebels gave her. Betty, only 11, holds dark memories, but it's the loss of her parents that haunts her the most.

And so they are scarred and traumatized, but at the camp, somehow, at home. It is their oasis amid chaos where there is a semblance of routine and normalcy. It appears fear is held at bay, where night terrors are chased off by song.

But Kony’s terror is never far from Childers’ mind.

Morrison: What would you do with him if you could find him? Childers: He needs to pay for the crimes that he’s done.Morrison: But if you saw him—if you ran into him, what would you do?Childers: We’re gonna fight. We’re gonna fight.  And I’m gonna win.Morrison: Meaning what?  You’d kill him?Childers: I’m gonna win. I’m gonna win.  Definitely.  Yeah. 

While it may make sense for some to use violence to fight Kony’s violence, there is something very unusual about this little country in the middle of Africa. Many people here choose an entirely different approach.

A mother fights war with peace
For Angelina Atyam, a peaceful strategy is the only answer. "The bullets have been flying for all these years. It is almost 20 years. Guns don’t solve problems," she argues.

That’s all the more surprising because of what happened to her own daughter, Charlotte.

Charlotte was one of more than a hundred abducted at gunpoint by Kony’s rebels from a girls boarding school. Charlotte became a so-called wife to one of Kony’s commanders.

Angelina Atyam: They were given out, you know, like, like things. Not like people.

And soon enough, Charlotte had two children in captivity. Parents of the stolen school girls decided to turn their pain into action. And Atyam, a humble midwife, soon began to speak for them. Going village to village, then across the world, she made a name for herself as she met with the prominent and powerful. She was even invited to speak at the United Nations.

Kony heard about Atyam’s crusade and did not like the attention she was bringing his way.  His rebels summoned Atyam to a secret meeting.

Morrison: You received an offer from them. What was that?Atyam: It was giving me my daughter in exchange for silence.  Not to talk about them.

She could have her daughter back.  All she needed to do was keep quiet.  A kind of Sophie’s choice. The rebels waited for her answer. And Atyam said no.

Atyam:I told them that is unacceptable.Morrison: How can you do that as the mother of Charlotte? Atyam:  If I had asked for Charlotte and she came back—what about the rest?  What about the other parents?  What about this very many children?  What about their mothers?  The pain I feel is what also they feel.

And then years passed, until the day she got a phone call. Fateful news about Charlotte.  The caller didn’t mince words.

Atyam: He told me, “Your daughter is here.”

Charlotte had escaped.

Morrison: Were those the words?Atyam: Yes. “Your daughter is here.” 

It was a joyous reunion. 

Atyam: And once she looked at me, she was carrying a child. She just put him down and she ran to meet me and I ran to meet her, and we couldn’t talk.  We just cried for a long, long, long time.

Today, Charlotte is 22 years old, is making up for lost time. She's back at a boarding school, this one in southern Uganda, far away from Kony’s rebels. Her children live with their grandmother, Angelina. And Charlotte still holds out hope for all the other children.

Charlotte: I never lose that hope. Because I know if there’s still life, there’s something that can still be done. 

So what canbe done? Retribution? Her mother doesn’t ask for that. To end it all, she turns to a tribal tradition of forgiveness.

Atyam: Admitting guilt, asking to be forgiven is all you need from them.

It’s hard to fathom, but Atyam and many leaders here in northern Uganda say it’s time to actually forgive Kony and his rebels. The only way is amnesty or immunity from prosecution if they’ll just stop fighting and stop abducting children.

Atyam: Nobody can ever make a restitution for us. We are sacrificing justice for sustainable peace.

Is she right? Certainly, says the U.N.’s Jan Egeland, the rest of the world has yet to help win justice for the children of Uganda.

Egeland: This is an outrage we cannot tolerate.

And yet, he says, the world does tolerate it.

Egeland:I have a deep sense of frustration because I feel I'm failing... because we are all failing.

So they wait, like Patrick, the former child soldier. We asked him, what do you want Americans to know? 

Patrick: We, as the children of northern Uganda, we are so tired with that war.

But tonight and every night, tens of thousands of night commuters will stream into northern Ugandan towns, hoping to stay alive long enough to see the morning.

And somewhere among them is little Patrick, forced to kill his own mother, still trying to learn how to live without her.

And yet, they smile, they laugh, they sing. Just children, with nothing left but resilience and hope.

The U.S. government says it contributes tens of millions of dollars for humanitarian aid to Ugandans forced from their homes.

In Fall 2005, the International Criminal Court in the Hague issued arrest warrants for Kony and four of his top commanders on charges of war crimes.  These are the first warrants ever issued by the court.