NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Fourteen-year-old Betty Ejang was at her desk studying her lessons when Ugandan rebel soldiers charged into her school and rounded her up at gunpoint along with 83 of her classmates.
It was 1996, and tensions were running high between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan government the rebels were trying to overthrow. Shivering with fear, the children, from Uganda’s northern district of Apac, were taken to a camp in Southern Sudan.
There, the Lord’s Resistance Army spent two days teaching its newest pawns to use guns. On the third day, the girls were distributed to male leaders to serve as slaves.
Over the next three years, Ejang would be forced repeatedly into sex with rebel leader Joseph Kony (pronounced “Kohn”) and ordered to kill. Of the approximately 12,000 children abducted between 1986 and 2000, Ejang is among the fortunate: After a harrowing escape, she is now free. And last month she was in New York for the United Nations special session on children, hoping to encourage international leaders to determine what has happened to the estimated 7,000 people who remain unaccounted for.
“Almost every day I thought of escaping and I prayed that God would help me to escape,” Ejang said in an interview after five days of back-to-back meetings with various officials. “Now, I want all the world to know what’s going on and to help all of my friends who are still suffering in the bush.”
Escape is especially treacherous for the captive girls, a recent report by the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children found, especially those who have borne children. They must make a terrible choice–leave their children behind or increase the danger of their escape by trying to bring them along. About 40 percent of those abducted are female, according to a State Department estimate, but only 10 percent have escaped and an accurate number of how many children remain in captivity is unknown.
Ugandan Ambassador Acknowledges Government May Be Killing Child Soldiers
The urgency of the situation has intensified recently. In March, Sudan, which once supplied the rebels with military and financial support as a way of undermining Uganda, struck a peace deal with its former foe. Sudan agreed to allow the Ugandan army to cross the border in order to carry out a military operation against the rebels. Since then, the Ugandan military has dedicated 10,000 troops to destroying the Lord’s Resistance Army in Operation Iron Fist.
But none of the captured children have been returned.
“This is the longest-running hostage situation in the world,” said Jane Lowicki, senior coordinator of the Children and Adolescents Project at the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, which sponsored Ejang’s visit. “If the LRA is suddenly on the run, than the people who have been abducted will be prone to increased dangers.”
The Women’s Commission fears that the rebels may have abandoned their captives in dangerous and rugged terrain as they fled the encroaching army. Advocates for the children say that the Ugandans, viewing the abducted youngsters as indoctrinated soldiers, may have killed rather than rescued them.
Semakula Kiwanuka, Uganda’s ambassador to the United Nations, did not disagree with this assessment.
“The purpose of the LRA is to turn them [the captives] into child soldiers, so if they have been turned into soldiers, they are the ones doing the fighting and when they fight they get killed,” Kiwanuka said.
“How is the Ugandan army going to know the difference between the abducted, the Sudanese, the Konys?” he said.
‘Since He Can Kill You, You Must Do What He Says’
International aid workers object to Kiwanuka’s position, saying that children who are abducted to fight should be freed because they never chose such a path. Some local and Ugandan activists are calling for immediate action to ensure the safe release of any person who was captured by the Lord’s Resistance Army, but the request has resulted in little action.
“People are not grasping how dire the situation is,” said Angelina Acheng Atyam, Ejang’s chaperone in New York and the mother of a 14-year-old daughter who was captured by rebels in 1996 and has never returned. Today, Atyam runs the Concerned Parents’ Association in Lira, Uganda, which supports parents in similar situations and raises awareness globally about the abductions.
Sipping a cappuccino in the lobby of the upscale Mansfield Hotel in New York, Ejang seemed light years away from the hell she narrowly managed to escape. With Atyam by her side, Ejang, now a shy 19-year-old with cropped hair and a bashful smile, described in a near whisper the horrors she lived through as Kony’s “wife.”
Trained to fight, Ejang said daily life for the captive girls and boys often consisted of raiding villages and battling the Ugandans. Some girls, having become pregnant through forced sex with their captors, fought with their children strapped to their backs. Caught in the crossfire, Ejang wears the scars of battle on her leg and back.
Life in the camp was not much better than on the battlefield. Unlike the verdant landscape of Ejang’s village, Iceme, the rebels and their abductees lived in the desert. There was little food or water and the children often resorted to eating leaves and drinking their own urine.
Children who came from the same village were forbidden to speak with one another for fear that they might conspire against the leaders. Anyone who tried to escape was murdered. At any time, Kony might force Ejang to have sex, always with his gun by his side.
“He would force you to have sex with him, even though you are too young,” Ejang said as Atyam gave her a supportive caress. “But since he can kill you, you must do what he says.”
On one particularly grim day, Kony brought into Ejang’s hut a man who had tried to escape and ordered her to kill him. Believing she had no other option, Ejang fired a bullet into the man’s head.
“I had no quarrel with the man. I didn’t even know him,” said Ejang, averting her deep brown eyes.
A Chance Moment, and Ejang Escapes
Although not a day passed when Ejang did not think of escaping, it took three years before the opportunity emerged. One night, while the rebels and their captives were on the road heading back to the camp after a looting rampage, Ejang suddenly found herself alone in the middle of a long line of soldiers. She quickly snuck off to the side of the road and hid, and immediately strangled the two hens she had been carrying to make sure their squawking would not betray her.
Ejang waited eight hours in the rain for the soldiers to pass. At one point, a soldier came over to the side of the road and relieved himself on her. She did not move and he did not notice her.
Then she found her chance to run. Leaving behind her weapons and the other items she was carrying, Ejang headed deeper into Uganda until she came upon government troops. She told them she had escaped the rebels, but they asked her to take them back to the place she had escaped from. When they arrived at the spot where she had hid, the soldiers saw the guns and the other equipment. Not believing that one young girl could carry so many things, they began to think she had set them up.
Crying, Ejang promised the soldiers she had no intentions of hurting them and they eventually brought her back to their barracks. Three weeks later, Ejang’s father, who had held a bodiless funeral for the eldest of his nine children, arrived to take her home. Upon seeing Ejang, he broke down.
“He saw me and he began to cry,” Ejang said, smiling shyly.
Freed Girls Return to Where They Carry Social Stigma
After years of psychosocial support provided by various non-governmental organizations, Ejang said her nightmares have receded. Now, she concentrates on not thinking about the past as she puts the pieces of her life back together. She will complete high school this year and hopes to study medicine.
But some scars remain. Like many of the thousands of other abducted girls, Ejang said the only man she trusts is her father. She says that she has no intention of marrying, but the reality is that the social stigmas abducted girls carry stick with them for life, making them by and large unmarriageable in a society that expects women to marry and raise children.
Ejang plans to keep sharing her story with anyone who will listen in the hope that the children being held against their will by the Lord’s Resistance Army and the approximately 2,000 babies born into captivity will be rescued.
“I was brought here to talk,” Ejang said. “People should do something to help those who remain behind in the bush.”
Jennifer Friedlin is a freelance writer based in New York.
On our Website today:
Photos courtesy of the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children: Children playing in a displaced persons camp in Northern Uganda, in which over 75 percent of the population lives in a state of destitution.
For more information:
Human Rights Watch
THE SCARS OF DEATH: Children Abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army
Human Rights Watch Condemns Abduction and Killing of
Children by Ugandan Rebel Group:
Children As Peacebuilders (CAP) International
Action Alert: petition for return of child soldiers:
Justice Review Stalls Women’s Rights Treaty
By Peggy Simpson
WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–The Bush administration’s support for a global women’s rights treaty is on hold because the Justice Department has launched its own review of how the treaty would affect American laws, Sen. Joseph Biden announced Thursday.
The State Department recommended ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women last February, telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that it was “generally desirable” and “should be approved.”
Since 1979, a total of 169 countries have ratified the treaty. President Jimmy Carter signed it in 1980 and sent it to the Senate for ratification, but it has been in limbo since then.
Biden, a Delaware Democrat who chairs the committee, told an overflow crowd at a hearing on the treaty Thursday that he was disappointed by the administration’s actions since February.
Biden was told of the review in a letter from State Department officials and had delayed May 15 hearings at the Bush administration’s request. However, Biden decided against a second delay, even after the State Department declined to send a top policy official to testify, saying the Justice Department was just starting its review of the treaty.
Conservatives recently began urging President George W. Bush to “unsign” the treaty, as he did a treaty signed by President Clinton supporting a United Nations human rights court.
Biden told the hearing that he was surprised to learn that the Justice Department was initiating its own review of the treaty and said he asked State Department officials if the review meant the administration was backing away from its support.
Biden said State Department officials told him that the administration was not renouncing its position. Biden added he would give Bush more time to take a position, “but then we’re going to move on this treaty.”
Two-thirds of the Senate must approve the treaty for ratification. The president then must sign off on any changes the Senate has made for it to take effect.
There appears to be growing support for the treaty, including several Republicans. Major women’s rights groups have issued statements in favor of its ratification, as have many legal groups, including the American Bar Association.
Biden and Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, alternated in chairing the hearing, which was led off by testimony from five congresswomen, four of them in favor of the treaty, including Republican Rep. Connie Morella of Maryland, who said U.S. refusal to sign the treaty “was nothing short of embarrassing.”
Opponents offered a variety of arguments against the treaty. Former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, a Republican, said she was outraged by abuses against women across the world. But she said she opposed the treaty because she didn’t think U.N. treaties were effective “and I don’t want people to think we’ve solved the problem by passing the treaty.”
Kirkpatrick then added that she didn’t think U.S. ratification would threaten American laws. “I don’t think if we ratified the treaty there would be any harm done, either,” she said.
The U.N. treaty was introduced in 1979 as a blueprint of “best practices” to expand women’s rights. Women in dozens of countries use its models in pushing governments to outlaw abuses and expand their legal rights.
The treaty was approved by the Foreign Relations Committee in 1994 but Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, a leading Republican conservative retiring this year, blocked it from being taken up by the full Senate.
The treaty got new salience this year after much attention to Taliban abuses against Afghan women, which drew condemnation by President Bush and Laura Bush. Two Afghan women, and two women from India and Egypt, were at Thursday’s hearings.