A young girl in front of her recently burned hut

KAMPALA, Uganda (WOMENSENEWS)–Like most of the female residents of Awere Internally Displaced Persons camp in northern Uganda, the girls rose at dawn that morning in 2002. They set out on foot, with their mother, to harvest crops several kilometers away.

The two sisters, both teens, had called the camp home for most their lives. Along with about a million and a half of their neighbors, they were moved from their village to the camp by the Ugandan government in the mid-1990s to protect them from a murderous rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army.

For two decades, the rebels have been terrorizing the arid region south of the Sudan border, murdering villagers during night raids, kidnapping thousands of children and turning them into soldiers and concubines.

For nearly as long, the Ugandan government has been trying to crush the LRA, which is led by a self-proclaimed mystic named Josephy Kony, who wants to replace the government of President Yoweri Museveni with one based on the Ten Commandments.

Assailants Were Soldiers

But the two men who attacked the sisters that morning as they walked to the harvest were not rebels. As the girls later told authorities, they were government soldiers.

Human rights groups say that sexual abuse–by husbands, strangers and soldiers–is rampant in the camps. Such incidents are seldom reported and rarer still is justice sought for the accused or the victims involved.

But last month, in an unusual ruling, a judge ordered the Uganda People’s Defense Forces to compensate the girls a total of 82 million Uganda shillings (about $45,500). The girls said the two soldiers threatened to shoot them and then took turns raping them as their mother looked helplessly on.

The eldest sister, who was 18 at the time, later tested negative for the HIV virus. But her sister tested positive. She was 13.

"They should have gotten more money," said James Otto, executive director of Human Rights Focus, based in the northern Ugandan town of Gulu, which monitors abuses in the camps and was responsible for bringing the 2002 rape suit against the army. "These soldiers were supposed to protect these girls and instead they ended up being their assailants."

Advocate Turns to Civil Courts

Frustrated by what it says is the unwillingness of Ugandan military authorities to prosecute soldiers for such abuses, Otto’s organization is trying to win justice for victims via another avenue, the civil courts. The group has sponsored some 18 cases on behalf of victims of alleged human rights violations that range from torture to unlawful arrest. The strategy is likely to be an important test of the independence of the judiciary in Uganda.

The case of the rape of the two girls has also highlighted the problem of sexual abuse by soldiers in the camps in northern Uganda, which a number of human rights groups say are on the rise. A June 2005 report by UNICEF found rape to be the most common form of violence in the sprawling Pabbo camp, with some 60,000 residents, the largest of the "protected villages" that were set up by the government at the height of the conflict. A Human Rights Watch report in September 2005 found that "soldiers prey upon women and girls they find traveling outside the camps out of necessity–to collect firewood or water or to sow, tend or harvest crops. In such situations they are risking not only an attack and abduction by the Lord’s Resistance Army but also rape and physical abuse by the army."

The army vehemently denies that it is lenient with soldiers who abuse civilians.

"We do not condone such behavior and we are very harsh to army personnel who are found to be abusing girls," said Maj. Felix Kulayigye, the army spokesperson, who explained that there is a clear and strict policy of automatic court martial for soldiers who are found to have committed abuses. They are subject to much harsher punishments than civilians would be, he said. The usual penalty for a soldier convicted of rape, for example, is death.

Sex Traded for Necessities

In the camps, which are filled with poverty, disease and overcrowding, however, human rights groups say that young girls frequently trade sex with soldiers in exchange for a little money or protection. Parents sometimes even "marry off" their daughters to soldiers as concubines in exchange for such favors. AIDS rates in the camps are among the highest in the country. Health workers have estimated that about 12 percent of camp residents are HIV positive, twice the national rate.

People wait for food rations in the Anaka IDP camp.

The root of the problem, say critics, is the lack of accountability in the Ugandan military. When complaints are filed against government soldiers, they are rarely followed up and investigated, according to the Human Rights Watch report. Even when a victim identifies her violator, it said, in many cases, nothing happens to him or he is transferred elsewhere.

That is what happened after the 2002 rape of the sisters in Awere camp, according to Donge Opar, the Kampala lawyer who represented the sisters in their suit against the government. Though the girls identified the two soldiers who attacked them soon after the incident, to date, neither has been charged with any crime, he said.

"There is a complete culture of impunity," said Olara Otunnu the former U.N. Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict and an expatriate Ugandan who has become one of the most outspoken critics of Museveni’s policies on the conflict in the North. "The soldiers feel that they own the women in the camps; that they can do anything with them."

— Elizabeth Dwoskin also contributed to this report.

Rachel Scheier is a freelance writer based in Kampala. Elizabeth Dwoskin is a writer and radio producer based in New York.

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For more information:

Human Rights Watch report:
"Uprooted and Forgotten Impunity and Human Rights Abuses in
Northern Uganda":

IRIN Web Special on the crisis in Northern Uganda:

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