In the gathering dusk, a long line of small figures stretches down the red dirt road leading into town. They are children, some clutching blankets around themselves against the oncoming night, others carrying a few belongings in bundles and packs. At a time when children the world over would be eating under their own roof and preparing for sleep, these children are trekking away from their homes and families because it is not safe for them to stay.
"Every evening, as many as 40,000 children in northern Uganda hike for miles from their rural villages to shelters in town. These so-called night commuters are hiding from the Lord’s Resistance Army, a radical, religious paramilitary group that seeks to swell its ranks by abducting children while they sleep. If caught, their next march will be as Uganda’s youngest soldiers."
This is the first caption in a photo essay, "Night Flight", by Bruno Stevens, published in the online version of the journal Foreign Policy. The eight pictures tell a story of pathos and stoicism that moves the heart and disturbs the conscience of the comfortable first world spectator.
Shelter, but no comfort
The LRA is led by Joseph Kony, who sees himself as a spirit medium. He is one of the Acholi, the northern ethnic group on whom his army largely preys. Acholi formed the backbone of the Ugandan army before being ousted by current president Yoweri Museveni and his own militants in 1986. But most of the people (more than 1.7 million) are victims of the conflict, living in misery in displaced persons camps or sheltering where they can, like the children in this story.
During 20 years of insurgency the LRA has abducted 25,000 children. Typically, it strikes the villages at dusk or dawn. Shelters set up by aid agencies provide some protection for village children, but few comforts: a meal, a blanket, and a hard floor on which to fall into an exhausted sleep. Children who arrive too late, or who want to get an early start to school in the morning, find shelter in churches and doorways.
Another image: Young faces marked by suspicion and sadness look out from behind the security fence of a camp, as we have seen them gazing out of so many concentration camp photos stretching back through the wars of the twentieth century. Because of distance and security concerns, many child "commuters" visit their families only once a week.
These are children who seldom get enough food or sleep, who are separated from the loving protection of their parents and the comforting rhythms of family life, who are haunted by the fear of capture, abuse and death. A naked child half curled in the foetal position on the floor, hip and rib bones showing through his flesh, is the very picture of vulnerability, of the terrible exposure of the African child to war, hunger, loneliness and disease.
There is one picture, not shown in the photo essay, which comes unbidden: the image of the suffering parents, whose daily anxiety as they watch and work surpasses that of their children because they know better the risk of capture and the brutality that would follow. Their worst nightmare is that their own children may become their enemy, terrorising the village they came from and even murdering members of the family.
What about us?
How little we in the West know of hardship and suffering. The things that worry parents in America or Europe or Australia on an average day – being late to pick the children up from school, or finding the fees for a better education or getting their teeth straightened – are never matters of life and death.
How lucky we are that the odds of physical harm to our children are remote, and that moral harm is something largely within our own control. How free we are to protect them if we really want to: often it comes down to no more than turning off the television set or refusing to give them a cell phone.
Yet real freedom demands more. The Ugandan children fleeing into the night remind us how necessary it is to train our children in understanding, patience, generosity, forgiveness – all the virtues that make for peace. Without these, the lucky people of the world are quite useless to the others and our pity for their plight is wasted.
Turning kids into killers
"At any given time, over 300,000 child soldiers, some as young as eight, are exploited in armed conflicts in more than 30 countries around the world," says UNICEF. "More than 2 million children are estimated to have died as a direct result of armed conflict over the last decade. At least 6 million children have been seriously injured or permanently disabled. Meanwhile, between 8,000 and 10,000 children continue to be killed or maimed by landmines each year."
P.K., abducted in Liberia at the age of 11, was freed two years later. "Government soldiers came and forced me and my father to join them," he told Amnesty International. "My father refused so they cut his throat. They beat me and tied me and forced me to join the fighters."
Some youngsters join the rebel groups without much coercion, because it is preferable to life in a threatened community. Albert was 15 when he was recruited by an armed opposition group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He said the insurgents would give the boys cannabis and force them to kill people to toughen them up. Sometimes they brought them women and girls to rape. They would be beaten if they refused.
Amnesty says, "Children are recruited because they are perceived as cheap and expendable, easily brutalised into fearless killing and unquestioning obedience. Child soldiers are often chosen for the most dangerous assignments or forced to participate in appalling human rights abuses, sometimes against their own families or communities. Children are also forced to carry ammunition, find and prepare food or perform other non-combat roles."
Numbers of these young people do escape or are captured by the regular army and are then, theoretically, free to return home. In the Congo more than half of the 30,000 under-age militants have passed through a demobilisation and reintegration program assisted by the United Nations. But whom will they turn to? The families and villages they have helped to terrorise? And what work would they do? Many in fact are re-recruited into combat, often in the national army.
We must end the conflicts
It is true that the world community is trying to save children from this evil. Africa itself has a Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, in force since 1999, which bans all forms of military recruitment under the age of 18, although not all countries have signed it. The involvement of children in armed conflict is also the subject of an optional protocol to the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. Last July the UN Security Council issued a resolution that establishes a monitoring and reporting system for children affected by armed conflict. The new mechanism requires both governments and armed groups to use time-bound plans of action to end the use and recruitment of child soldiers.
So the paperwork has been done, the monitoring duties assigned, the deadlines set. But even if governments comply, how will they make the Lord’s Resistance Army and groups like it give up what is both a source of manpower and a method of intimidating people they want to control? LRA leader Joseph Kony presents himself as divinely inspired and therefore above the norms that either the Ugandan government or the UN may lay down.
There is, clearly, only one way to end this horrendous abuse of children, and that is to end the conflicts themselves. Wars that drag on for 20 years, sacrificing the lives and welfare of millions of citizens are an indictment of the ruling party as much as of those rebelling against it.
That, anyway, is how the Acholi people see it. Caught between a vicious militia and a vengeful national army, and virtual prisoners in their own land, they want President Yoweri Museveni to give up his goal of defeating the rebels and to open negotiations with them. Acholi leaders say they no more desire revenge against Museveni than they do against their own members who have defected from the LRA.
One of them told the London Observer: "There is no desire to punish. There have been too many atrocities. Even though people know that this boy killed their parents or raped their daughter, not one of them has been touched. They have been forgiven. That is our way."
And for us in the comfortable world, or the developed world, or whatever we want to call that portion of humanity that seldom has more to fear than a traffic jam or a rise in oil prices, this also has to be the way. If, in the past, our security rested on war and conquest, it can no longer do so. We know too much now. We know from Iraq that revenge and pre-emptive strikes solve nothing.
We begin to understand that our luck might run out. And, even if it doesn’t, we would have to live with the knowledge that refusal to negotiate, to forgive, to be reconciled, are the very attitudes that somewhere, certainly, are making the lives of innocent children and their families hell. In this sense the night commuters of Uganda are teaching us how to protect them, and our own children as well.
Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet