Children are being savagely victimised in the world's dirtiest war. Reporting from Uganda, Paul Harris tells their tale and meets a survivor of one of the most brutal kidnappings
On December 11 schools in northern Uganda were closed following a threat from rebel leader Joseph Kony that pupils would be abducted or killed by his so-called Lord's Resistance Army.
The statement was issued on the Thursday evening and by Friday afternoon all schools in the region were shut. Many parents fled taking their children out of the area.
The threat was not new to the people of this part of northern Uganda known as Acholiland. Over the past decade more than 14,000 children have been abducted from their schools, fields or villages in a campaign of terror launched by Kony against his own people from bases in Sudan.
The largest and possibly most dramatic of the abductions was at St Mary's College in Aboke. The LRA came on the night of October 10, 1996. Every detail is etched on the memory of Sister Rachele, the college's deputy (see story right).
That evening 215 girls went to bed. By 5.30 am, 152 girls had been seized.
Remote Aboke is not the place of newspaper headlines or media interest. The Comboni Sisters - an Italian order dedicated to service in Africa - came here in 1956 and set up a girls' boarding school. For 50 years it turned out well-educated young ladies from modest backgrounds, enabling them to escape the social restrictions of their village backgrounds.
In this backwater, the school survived the corrupt and brutal eras of Idi Amin and Milton Obote but, in the late 1980s, Joseph Kony emerged. His mission, he said, was to ensure that Uganda would be ruled according to The Ten Commandments. He then broke virtually every one of those commandments. Since 1987, from his bases across the border he has murdered, raped and pillaged his way through his own homeland of Acholiland.
The children he abducts - some as young as six or seven but more usually teenagers - are raped and brutalised into submission: the girls are parcelled out to officers in the Lord's Resistance Army as sex slaves and the stronger join the boys training to be soldiers. Then, in a self-appointed mission of perversity, Kony brings these children back across the border to loot and murder in their own villages.
I have covered wars in more than a dozen countries over the past decade: but this conflict is the most savage imaginable.
Unlike classic politically-motivated guerrilla movements, the LRA has little in the way of philosophy or intellectual motivation. Accordingly, it finds it difficult to recruit cadres and has discovered the easiest route is to capture children by the thousand.
Of those taken from St Mary's more than two years ago, 21 are still missing. As I leave, Sister Alba hands me a scrap of paper. On it is written: "Please, kindly keep in your prayer our students still captive in Sudan."
And there are their names: Janet, Grace, Palma, Agnes, Catherine, Janet, Miriam, Sylvia, Jacklyn, Jeska, Caroline, Angela, Brenda, Charlotte, Susan, Judith, Rebecca, Agatha, Louiza, Victoria and Jackline.