By Samuel Okiror Egadu in Gulu (AR No. 117, 18-June-07)
A new report documenting violence in the 21-year-long conflict between Ugandan government forces and the rebel Lord's Resistance Army indicates that as many as 38,000 children and 37,000 adults have been abducted and forced to join the insurgents.
"Many of these children and adults are still unaccounted for, and more work is needed to identify the whereabouts of those still missing," said Patrick Vinck, who led the study conducted by two American universities, when the 47-page report was released in Gulu, northern Uganda, on June 15.
The report, "Abduction: the Lord's Resistance Army and Forced Conscription in Northern Uganda," was compiled by researchers from the University of California Berkeley's Human Rights Centre and Tulane University's Centre for International Development.
These estimated figures for LRA abductions are much higher than previous estimates, and the whereabouts of most of the people involved remains unknown.
Until now, the best estimates for the number of children forcibly taken to serve as fighters, porters and sex slaves to rebel soldiers previously stood at around 20,000, while the total number of people taken to LRA guerrilla camps remains unknown.
Teams of researchers collected data from reception and rehabilitation centres for former child soldiers and other abductees in war-torn northern Uganda. These centres were established by human rights organisations and the Ugandan government in the Nineties to rehabilitate children who had escaped from the LRA or had been captured by the Ugandan army.
While many abductees still remain with the rebels, others have died on the battlefield or at the hands of their LRA captors, according to the report. Still others have rejoined their families without passing through reception centres.
"More work is needed to identify the number of people who have gone missing in northern Uganda and to investigate their whereabouts," said the report. "Cross-cultural studies have shown that most families wish to know the fate of their missing relatives and, if they have died, to receive their remains."
The LRA's camps are currently located deep inside the 4,920 square kilometre Garamba National Park in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where they fled in late 2004 from their former bases in southern Sudan.
Confirming findings from many other sources, the Berkeley-Tulane study said that rebel commanders had forced girls, some as young as 12, to serve as sexual partners and domestic servants. Both boys and girls have been compelled to inflict horrific injuries on civilians by cutting off ears, noses, lips and limbs. Some as young as seven have been forced to kill and mutilate members of their own families and village communities.
The report is the result of a Berkeley-Tulane project launched in December 2005 to set up a data base and provide better documentation about the phenomenon of abduction in northern Uganda. The researchers also trained local leaders for eight reception centres in Gulu, Kitgum, Pader, Apac and Lira districts how to collect and analyse information on former LRA abductees.
The report noted that the majority - 61 per cent - of former abductees were between ten and 18 when they arrived at a reception centre. Females aged 19 to 30 stayed longer with the LRA than males - they served as long-term sexual partners, and those who gave birth to children feared to take the risk of an escape attempt.
"Fourteen per cent of females who passed through a reception centre in the district of Apac self-reported that they had been given to commanders and ten per cent reported giving birth while in captivity," the report said. "Women forced to serve as 'wives' are likely to be kept in encampments and villages located a distance from combat zones, offering less opportunity to escape, surrender or be captured by [Ugandan] army troops."
The International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague, the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal, has warrants outstanding for the arrest of LRA leader Joseph Kony and three other commanders.
The Berkeley-Tulane team said its report could be made available to ICC prosecutors if the rebel leaders are eventually brought to trial.
Samuel Okiror Egadu is an IWPR contributor in Uganda.