Rebel guerrillas are raping, torturing and ritually killing Ugandan children. Wachira Kigotho reports
The Ugandan army has rescued 29 of the 40 schoolgirls abducted by guerrillas from the Lord's Resistance Army last month. Five of the remaining 11 are being held in rebel hide-outs across the Sudanese border.
This recent abduction of students by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army has brought the number of children seized by guerrillas over the past two years to about 12,000. However, many have managed to escape or have been rescued by government soldiers.
The rebels are led by Joseph Kony, a little known religious fanatic who has called for the violent overthrow of the Ugandan government. His principal agenda is to create a theocratic state ruled by the Ten Com-mandments.
Keith Wright, a United Nations' Children's Fund official in Uganda, estimated that 2,000 to 4,000 children are still held by LRA rebels operating in the north of the country and southern Sudan.
The 13 to 15-year-old girls from St Charles Lwanga secondary school near Gulu were freed when government troops shelled rebel positions in northern Uganda. One of the rescued girls was seriously hurt.
Troops are also chasing LRA guerrillas who snatched 19 schoolboys and the headteacher of Gulu primary school on June 23. Military sources said the children and their teacher were abducted to carry medical supplies looted from a local hospital in Gulu municipality. The rebels had also attacked a seminary and several market centres and escaped with food which the pupils and the head were forced to carry to the bush.
Mr Wright said UNICEF fears for the kidnapped girls. "Some escapees tell despicable stories of girls being turned into sex slaves or murdered in ritual ceremonies."
United Nations officials in Uganda said that when children are abducted, they are daubed with wild shea nut oil and told this will purify and protect them from enemy bullets. They undergo brutal initiation ceremonies and are forced to maim and kill their fellow children or kidnapped relatives.
The recent increase of abductions of schoolchildren has become of major concern to aid workers and lobby groups working in northern Uganda. According to Sister Maria Rochelle working at St Mary's College in Apac where 35 schoolgirls were kidnapped by LRA two years ago. Cases of schoolgirls being raped have risen.
There are also fears that many of the abducted schoolgirls have been infected with Aids and other sexually-transmitted diseases by the LRA soldiers Nurse Angelina Atyam, whose daughter was one of 35 snatched from St Mary's College, said the LRA has resorted to abducting younger and younger school children.
Nurse Atyam, chair of the Association of Parents Concerned for Children, said most of thechildren are being used in ritual killings as some of them aretoo young to carry supplies or be recruited as child-soldiers.
UNICEF is using diplomatic leverage to try to secure the release of Ugandan children held by the LRA in southern Sudan to the Red Cross, World Vision or UN High Commissioner for Refugees. According to aid workers in northern Uganda, kidnapped school children are often tortured for days. "Those who finally escape are traumatised, malnourished and are bedridden for weeks," said a World Vision aid worker at a children's rehabilitation centre in Kitgum.
Some are imprisoned in trenches with the bodies of dead children, soldiers or victims of sexual abuse. Others are tied to trees and die of dehydration.