Africa Feature: Children in war-ravaged northern Uganda urge rebel to end rebellion

KITGUM, Uganda, May 31, 2007 (Xinhua via COMTEX) -- Battered by a two-decade- long conflict, children in northern Uganda have urged the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) to end the rebellion that has left most of their peers dead or as child soldiers.

The children, in their first ever children's peace conference held here on Wednesday, said the rebellion has greatly affected their studies with some losing their parents, abducted by the rebels, or getting unwanted pregnancies.

The conference, which drew hundreds of students from different schools in Kitgum district was held under the theme "Popularizing Children's Voice in Peace Building and Access to Quality Education. "

According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) statistics, some 25,000 children have been abducted by the LRA since the late 1980's to serve as porters, fighters, and sex slaves.

The children's call comes at a time when the talks between government and the rebel group enter their final stage in Juba, capital of southern Sudan.

Jennifer Ayel, a 14-year-old girl with a nine-month old baby said she is ready to forgive the rebels who killed her parents and abducted her brother.

She urged the rebels to use the amnesty provided by government to come out of the rebellion, because their fighting has continued to affect the children's education.

"The LRA do not know what they are doing, they should come out of the bush and join us. I am appealing to my brother to leave the bush. He should come out so that he can benefit from the free education that government is providing," she said while carrying her baby at Lagotcugu Primary School in Mucwini sub-county, Kitgum district.

Irene Lakot, a former abductee and child mother, urged the rebels to take the peace talks seriously and end the rebellion.

Joyce Auma a student at Y.Y Okot Girls School urged the LRA to come back home saying that the community is ready to forgive them despite the atrocities they committed.

"My appeal to the rebels is that they should come back home, we love them and we are not going to do anything bad to them," she said while seated in her wheelchair.

Childhood in northern Uganda is marked by extreme difficulties. The conflict forced over 1.4 million people mostly women and children to flee their homes and stay in squalid internally displace persons camps.

Human rights violations in the camps are widespread, including murder, rape, theft or property and conscription. In many cases children and women have been the direct targets of rebel attacks, sexual violence and abductions.

At the peak of the rebellion in 2003/04, fear for continued abduction led to night commuting, a local coping mechanism whereby families send their children to the relative safety of urban centers to sleep at night. In 2005, 40,000 children were commuting in Gulu, Pader and Kitgum districts.

John Wilfred Opiya, a head teacher at Okol Primary School in Kitgum district said "the war has greatly affected the traditional way children we supposed to be brought up."

He said the violence and AIDS have left countless children orphaned with no one to take care of them.

According to statistics from UNICEF's annual report for 2005, more than a fifth of children in the northern region have lost one or both parents.

Opiya said this has forced most girls between the ages of 13 and 17 to become victims of sexual and gender-based violence.

The peace talks, which started last July and saw the signing of a landmark truce agreement between the government and the rebels, are seen as the best chance to end the suffering of the people of northern Uganda.