UGANDA: MORE than 100 Ugandan children abducted by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army have been handed over to the United Nations Children's Fund to be returned home.
Aid workers airlifted the children to Uganda via Nairobi from the Sudan where they had been held. Still missing are the 35 schoolgirls of St Mary's College, Aboke, abducted in 1996 (TES, January 8, 1999).
Most of the children said they were abducted from schools near the border with Sudan.
The LRA, a rag-tag rebel movement led by Joseph Kony, usually abducts primary pupils. Boys are press-ganged into the army, while girls are sexually abused. Some of the malnourished teenagers who were released recently had babies, while boys bore bullet wounds.
According to William Fellows, a high-ranking UNICEF official in Kampala, there is now hope for the rest of the children still held in captivity in southern Sudan. More than 5,000 children are unaccounted for and it is estimated that 2,000 are still alive.
The children's release is part of the move to restore diplomatic relations between Uganda and Sudan. PresidentYoweri Museveni of Uganda and his Sudanese counterpart, Omar Bashir have agreed not to shelter rebels fighting each other's government.
The children, who had received initial medical care in Juba and Khartoum, told harrowing stories of torture and hunger.
"Survival was through one simple piece of advice: eat whatever plant you think is not poisonous," said emaciated Night Aparto, 15, holding a malnourished baby.
Uganda's vice-president, Specioza Kazibwe, said the return of the children was the first acknowledgement by the Sudanese government that kidnapped Ugandans were held there.
Many children have died as a result of the 12-year insurgency Others have been traumatised or orphaned. According to Angelina Atyam, chair of the Concerned Parents Association, whose daughter was abducted from St Mary's, rebel commanders have turned most girls into sex slaves.
"What is more sad is that some have been killed while trying to escape and others have contracted sexually-transmitted diseases, including Aids," she said. Her daughter was not among the recent returnees.