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The Problem of Child Soldiers in the Ugandan Conflict

African countries such as Angola, Sierra Leon, Liberia, DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), Somalia and Sudan among others have one thing in common; they are experiencing or have experienced lengthy periods of civil strife and armed conflicts. The causes of conflicts in Africa are both complex and varied. However, from current and past analysis one common underlying characteristic that has been found to be present with uncanny frequency in these conflicts is the competition of scarce resources as well as the social inequalities aggravated by an increasingly capitalistic disposition.

These conflicts continually increase vulnerabilities among the civilian communities in the conflict zones. Among the worst hit are children. According to Julia Maxted (2003), current conflicts have greater impacts on children than ever before. The situation for children affected by conflict in Northern Uganda is presently worse than any other region in the world. There are high incidences of abduction, abuse and brutality against children. Additionally several children have voluntarily or otherwise been recruited to serve as soldiers or as messengers in the Lords Resistance Army (LRA).

The impact of the war on the children particularly those who are actively involved go beyond the time loss to far reaching implications that prevent these children from having meaningful and constructive lives as adults in their communities. This paper explores the Ugandan conflict tracing its roots and following its unfolding to the present day. It also explores short and long term implications on children’s soldiers as well as other children who perform military support duties. Background of the Conflict The Northern Uganda conflict is one of Africa’s longest running conflict.

The conflict has affected more than 3 million people directly or indirectly. About 1. 7 million of these people have been displaced about 80% of the region. These are the same people who live in extreme poverty and under unsanitary conditions in camps spread around the Northern Region. The conflict is internationally known for its use of children soldiers (Uganda conflict ‘worse than Iraq’, BBC News, 10 November 2003). The Ugandan conflict has its roots on the divisive political climate that was cultivated by the colonial administration’s divide and rule tactic.

This politicized climate created an environment for internal insurgency when the national resistance army led by President Yoweri Museveni ceased over power in 1986 from President Titus Okello (an ethnic Acholi), the northerners mainly the Acholi’s felt insecure due to the loss of their time established control over national resources and the army (Dolan, Chris. 26). Additionally, they feared that the national resistance army would alienate them as well as revenge for counter insurgency actions committed in the past.

Several rebel groups that had started forming gained grounds for increased activities. The main group that arose was the Holy Spirit Movement led by Alice Auma who claimed guidance from the spirit Lakwena. This movement rebelled against the government for a short while before its eventual defeat by the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF). Soon after, another movement sprung from Alice’s movement led by Joseph Kony. The Lords Resistance Army was formed in 1987, to resist the central government and confined its activities in the northern region.

The rebel group specialized in waging war against the government and terrorizing the general population by for instance looting foodstuffs from villagers. Several attempts in peace making have been undertaken since the conflict began but with little success. Today, the war and its origin, continue to be mixed up. One such collapsed peace talk had been initiated by Betty Bigombe in 1994 (Uganda conflict ‘worse than Iraq’, BBC News, 10 November 2003). Since then there had been collaboration between the LRA and the Sudanese government and as a result the Ugandan government provided support to the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA).

There was also an intervention by the international community especially by the US who supplied the SPLA with necessary war requirements through the Museveni government. This was ostensibly done in order to reduce the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in Sudan and other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. Such developments have only served to exacerbate the activities of the LRA as well as increasing the suffering of the people in Northern Uganda. Early in 2006, there was another attempt by the New Sudan government to facilitate cessation of hostility.

However, these talks have also failed due to divisions within the LRA as well as the weakness in the facilitating teams. The war between the SPLA and the government has contributed greatly to the violent climate in the great lakes region of Africa. This conflict is considerably connected to the genocide and the atrocities in Darfur as well as the civil war between the Northern and Southern Sudan. Due to several geo-political factors instability in the regions of Northern Uganda has continued to have a major impact on the prospects of peace in the entire Sudan. Why children are Used as Soldiers

Children have been used in several parts of the world in military service as well as performing support duties such as messengers and path finders (Dolan, Chris, 50). It is approximated that over 30,000 children below the age of 18 have been involved in the Ugandan conflict in its 21 years. These children have been recruited by force and some have voluntarily joined the war due to lack of a better option (Daniel Pine et al, 47). Children soldiers are mainly recruited to serve as soldiers due to unavailability of mature men willing to give their time and life to the conditions that the rebel armies live by.

Children soldiers have fewer expectations and can easily be exploited to fight without anything in return. They can also be brainwashed and trained easily. In several instances such as in northern Uganda, children remain the only alternative if the LRA is to maintain a significant number of fighting men. Due to atrocities directed to the ordinary Northerner, many ethnic Acholi’s have chosen not to support the rebel group. As a result, men of fighting age are reluctant to join what they view as an unnecessary war.

Several of them have fled their territories and have ended up in the cities especially Kampala and Entebbe. Other incentives of using children to fight include the fact that the modern gangs are significantly lighter and simpler in operation. This makes it possible for children to be able to comfortably carry them as well as assemble and use them effectively. Social economic situations in developing nations including scarcity of basic resources such as health and education, also majorly contribute to the prevalence of child soldiers.

Unstable living conditions make children vulnerable to forced or voluntary recruitment into the army. It is understandable that due to the large number of casualties and deaths that are as a result of continual fighting, many children are left without any responsible adult to take care of them when their parent(s) are killed or maimed in the war. Sometimes parents flee the fighting and the children end up on their own without parental protection. They are thus at a vulnerable position and can easily be recruited to fight with or without their will.

Children also lack the capacity to make decisions of such magnitude in the absence of a responsible adult to provide guidance. Psychological Impact of Conflict on Child Soldiers Children are adversely affected by war more than any other group of people. The conditions at war times are most unfavorable for children’s healthy development. The violence as well as unstable family conditions has significant impact on children growing up in war prone zones. However, the psychological impact is increased considerably when children are involved in the fighting either as soldiers or as support service providers.

This is because in the course of their duties they are exposed to intense violence and violent situations. These experiences are embedded in their minds and become a source of trauma and psychological conflicts. These traumatic experiences are severe in early childhood because they rob children of the ability to establish trust in people even during peace times (Daniel Pine et al, 12). Children are unable to relate with good and everything to them seems suspicious. The psychological conflict arises as a result of behaving and doing the things that they feel are not right.

They also experience situations that they feel are not right such as violent situations and other situations that are likely at the battle field. Children witness people being killed brutally and they may be the ones to do the killing. This numbs their feelings and they no longer feel or experience normal emotions. According to The Lancet, 2 most children in Northern Uganda are abducted at a very young age, and for a period of about two years, during this time the children are exposed to several acts of violence. Many of these children’s parents are also victims of such abductions.

These experiences create problems for the children and they are unable to reconstruct their lives later on as adults. The children have difficulties in becoming responsible and useful members of the society. This is because of the interruption of the development of integrated and balanced ego (Daniel Pine et al 6). Interviews conducted with children gave insight to the nature of experiences that they had during their abduction. According to the results of the interviews, children experienced an average of six traumatic events including witnessing an execution. For others the person being killed had been a parent or a relative.

A significant percentage of the children had to kill somebody some of them having to kill their own parents or relative after being forced by their abductors. All of them reported living in extremely difficult conditions. The experience of child soldiers left a psychological mark on their person’s and they experienced different types of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A very big percentage of the interviewed people who had served as child soldiers, reported re-experiencing the traumatizing events now and again. They experienced flash backs, nightmares, and uncontrollable moments of intrusive memories.

A big percentage experienced dreams of violent events. Some also experienced feelings of detachment where very few activities would arouse any interest or excitement. This led to depression and feelings of hopelessness and despair. Still another percentage of the interviewees reported feeling distant from people who led them to avoiding any kind of group activity or socialization. They thus avoided activities and places that would remind them of the trauma they went through. A fourth group experienced sleeping problems as well as difficulties in concentrating in one thing.

They were irritable and quick to get angry with most of them reporting aggressive behavior. It must be noted that, in most of the former child soldiers experienced more than one post traumatic stress disorder symptom. The response to PTSD, led these people to becoming habitual drunkards. There were high incidences of violent and aggressive behavior as well as compulsive behavior. The feelings of guilt robbed these former child soldiers their ability and willingness to socialize and fit in into the society. Anxiety also characterized most of the interviewees with some, being very fearful to relate with the outside world.

In extreme cases, some of the former child soldiers had attempted to commit suicide due to their inability to deal with their past experiences. The re-integration into the society has been one of the most difficult things because of the post traumatic stress disorder as well as due to lack of skills in other disciplines or trade. Other observable consequences included low self esteem, lack of interpersonal skills, alcohol and substances, use and abuse, compulsive behaviors that led to unplanned pregnancies or exposure to sexual transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS and criminal tendencies.

The absence of parents especially the mother, increased the interviewees response to post traumatic stress disorder. Women who had lost their mothers were more adversely affected than men who had lost their mothers. This was explained to be as a result of their strong attachment to the mother. Who is Doing Something to Alleviate the Problem Since the beginning of this conflict different organizations as well as governments have attempted to facilitate peace between the government and LRA with little success.

Some of the intervention measures undertaken had been positive while others have not been constructive at all. The United States have responded to the threat offered by Joseph Kony’s movement in various ways including: providing support for the UPDF and the SPLA. Even though this move was positive it served to increase the brutality of the LRA and thus increasing the suffering of people in the Northern Region. In 2006, the UN security counsel attempted to co-ordinate the international criminal court involvement in bringing peace to the region.

However, inflexibility of this court contributed to the scattering of the peace talks. Additionally, the regional governments in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have also intervened by providing military support to the Ugandan government. Non-Governmental Organizations Uganda-CAN A most active NGO is the Uganda Conflict Action Network (Uganda –CAN) This is according to their mission statement a grass root campaign of citizens working through awareness building and advocacy to end the Northern Ugandan Conflict (Ugandan Conflict Action Network, 2006).

It advocates for a US policy that would respond to the suffering of those caught in the conflict. Uganda Peace Foundation Initiative According to (UPFI) is actively involved in organizing action oriented activities that instill understanding of values of a culture of peace and non-violence in Northern Uganda. It promotes peace and conflict transformation capacities as well as the culture of tolerance and non-violent co-existence within the population especially in the districts of Kitgum, Pader and Gulu. Northern Uganda Advocacy Partnership for Peace (NUAPP)

The NUAPP plays a facilitating role in enabling a more effective advocacy mainly in the UK especially (NUAPP 2005) urging the British Government to support the peace efforts in Uganda as well as to play a more active role in seeing to it that the implications of ICC indictment before a peace agreement is signed. International Rescue Committee (IRC) The IRC has been involved in mobilizing for the signing of a petition demanding for intensified effort by the US government to end the violence in Northern Uganda as well as supporting the peace talks.

The IRC has for a long time been involved in distribution of essential necessities among the people in the camps. (International Rescue Committee, 2007) Volunteering/Donating Any person or organization wishing to offer help in the form of a donation or volunteering can do so at the Uganda Red Cross Society offices. There are also other organizations such as mentioned above that are actively involved in creating awareness among the public about peaceful co-existence. Every now and then these organizations would do well with support from volunteers willing to work with the people in reaching their peace objectives. Conclusion

The conflict in Northern Uganda has been described as a senseless war that has had an extremely adverse impact on the people of Northern Uganda. 1. 7 million People are currently living under extremely poor conditions in camps as a result of this war. 30,000 children have also been abducted and kidnapped to serve as children soldiers. These children soldiers now form 80% of the military force of the Lord’s Resistance Army. The psychological and physiological impact of being a child soldier has complicated the lives of these children creating an inability to be integrated successfully in the society during peace times.

Additionally, the negative social environment created by the conflict has created an imbalanced society with several social problems. The international community needs to play a more active role in the promotion of peace and dialogue in the Northern Uganda Conflict. The crises that have been created by insurgency needs to be addressed once and for all. The option of strengthening the government’s capacity to deal with LRA should be considered while at the same time pushing for an empowered ICC that will be able to take a corrective action against the senior members of the rebel movement.

There also needs to a be a stronger involvement of the regional governments in support of peace efforts specifically the peace keeping mission in the Sudan region should be active in ensuring that the LRA does not continue to wreck havoc and terrorize the population in the Southern Sudan. This paper asserts that peace in Northern Uganda is achievable if and only if a collective effort by the international and regional community is converged to ensure the defeat and destruction of the Lords Resistance Army.

Work Cited

Daniel Pine, Jane Costello and Ann Masten. Trauma, Proximity, and DevelopmentalPsychopathology: The Effects of War and Terrorism on Children. Neuropsychopharmacology (2005). 30. Dolan, Chris. What do you remember? A rough guide to the war in Northern Uganda 1986-2000 (PDF), COPE Working Paper No. 33, 2000, p. 19, and Weeks, Willard. Pushing the Envelope: Moving Beyond ‘Protected Villages’ in Northern Uganda (PDF), for UNOCHA Kampala, March 2002, p. 4 Ilse Derluyn, Eric Broekaert, Gilberte Schuyten, Els De Temmerman. Post-traumatic stress in former Ugandan child soldiers. THE LANCET. Vol 363 Research Letters March, 2004. International Rescue Committee, 2007. Available at:

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