GULU, Uganda — Grace Aciro was 13 when rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army roaming the countryside abducted her from her village near here in 1995. After several years as a foot soldier, she was chosen by a commander named Opiro to become one of his 10 “wives.”
She bore three children with him. The first was handed over to the commander’s family; the second died of meningitis. When she fled the rebel militia last September, she took along her last child, 18-month-old James Origema. Now 23, she looks after James and two other children whose mother, another of Opiro’s “wives,” was killed.
“I am not sure I will be able to live a normal life and that someone will take care of me,” Grace said, creasing her forehead over dark, sad eyes.
Grace is among the estimated 6,500 girl soldiers in the Lord’s Resistance Army, about one-third of the militia’s ranks. They are part of a “hidden army” of more than 120,000 girls around the world, according to a report, “Forgotten Casualties of War: Girls in Armed Conflict,” issued last week by the London-based Save the Children U.K.
The use of child soldiers, once rare, has exploded in the past two decades as a result of the proliferation and increasing ferocity of civil conflicts in places such as Afghanistan, East Timor and Liberia, coupled with the growing availability of lightweight, easy-to-operate weapons. Journalists and human-rights groups have documented armies of youngsters abducted, drugged and trained in killing and torture.
All told, there are currently some 300,000 child-soldiers under age 16 in the world today, according to the United Nations.
The recent study in England found that girls seized at ages as young as 8 are forced to work as combatants, porters, cleaners and cooks for armed groups in countries from Colombia to Sri Lanka. They all serve additionally as sex slaves.
When it comes to the problem of child soldiers, Uganda is one of the worst places, most experts agree. During the last 15 years more than 12,000 children have been abducted into the Lord’s Resistance Army, constituting at one point as much as 90% of the militia, according to a 1999 Amnesty International report.
“Northern Uganda is probably the worst humanitarian and human rights catastrophe in the world,” said former Ugandan foreign minister Olara Otunnu, who currently serves as U.N. undersecretary general for children in armed conflict.
The growing attention to the problem has led to some action by world bodies, and the number of child soldiers around the world is believed to have dropped significantly in the past two years from an estimated high of 350,000.
The progress is fragile, however. Aciro, the former child “wife,” said she would consider going back to the Lord’s Resistance Army if her former commander would take her, since she lacks other prospects. “Maybe I will go back with Opiro if he shows me and my family that he wants me,” Grace said.
“If he does not come back, I will keep the three children and start a business to sustain them,” she added with little apparent conviction.
Encouraged by the initial progress, human rights activists are now focusing efforts on a U.N. Security Council initiative spearheaded by Otunno, a Harvard-trained lawyer who has held the U.N. post since 1997.
“We need to see tangible results on the ground,” Otunnu told the Forward. “We need to transform deeds into words.”
The Security Council has adopted five resolutions in the past five years on child soldiers. Otunno hopes to turn a corner this year by enacting a mechanism with teeth, including mandatory sanctions for nations, groups and even individuals guilty of abusing children in war. His draft is currently being negotiated by member countries, and the council is expected to vote on it later this month.
In addition to child soldiers, the new council measure addresses other abuses of children in war, including rape, killing, maiming, abduction and deliberate attacks on schools and hospitals. Some 2 million children were killed and 6 million injured in armed conflicts in the last decade.
The new mechanism would include an enlarged “naming and shaming” list of offenders — including governments, armed groups and individuals. Such a list has existed since 2003, but until now it encompassed only conflicts already on the agenda of the Security Council. Moreover, it dealt exclusively with the use of child soldiers.
This year’s list names armed groups in conflicts across the globe, whether or not the Security Council has begun debating the conflict. Among the 54 groups on the new list are the notorious Janjaweed militia in western Sudan, the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka and no fewer than 10 parties in war-torn Congo.
Otunno’s proposal entails a detailed monitoring and reporting mechanism and calls on the Security Council to take concrete steps against perpetrators. The actions begin with ultimatums and eventually include sanctions such as arms embargoes, financial restrictions and personal travel bans for militia leaders.
“The new resolution will lend new legitimacy to our effort,” Otunnu said. “On the ground, it will a very important tool for us to put the heat on violators.” He said it was important that the issue be seen by member nations as “peace and security issue,” and not merely “a soft issue to be dealt with on the side.”
The fate of the plan is uncertain, however. The list and the reporting mechanism will likely be adopted, but the council remains divided on how and when to apply sanctions. Some countries believe sanctions should be imposed once a perpetrator is identified; others see the threat of sanctions as leverage in negotiating for compliance.
Diplomats said the council might compromise on a plan to issue ultimatums with firm deadlines leading to mandatory sanctions.
A larger disagreement concerns the scope of the new regime. While most countries favor applying it to all conflict situations, some want it limited to conflicts already on the council’s agenda. Washington is said to prefer the second approach, limiting the regime to known Security Council targets, because of its traditional reluctance to grant too large a mandate to the U.N.
In addition, some observers say, Washington is hesitant because its close ally Colombia is among the nations listed as offenders.
Otunnu said he was hopeful an agreement would be reached for across-the-board implementation. The first action is expected on Congo and Darfur, since both situations are already on the council’s agenda.
Otunnu said that child soldiers were mostly seen in long-lasting local conflicts, in which adults are no longer willing to fight and youngsters are forced to take their place. The abuses are worst, he said, in conflicts in which “the objective is not so much fighting the enemy army as defeating the enemy community.”
The conflict in Uganda evolved during the late 1980s out of a civil war between the central government, under President Yoweri Museveni, and a rebel militia founded by a Christian mystic named Alice Lakwena. Under her nephew, Joseph Kony, her Lord’s Resistance Army has evolved into what is widely regarded as one of the world’s worst human-rights offenders.
“Abduction, killing, maiming, rape — the sheer magnitude and the duration of the conflict is mind-boggling,” said Otunnu, who was raised near Gulu.
Otunnu acknowledged that his efforts to mobilize governments have been hampered by disclosures that U.N. peacekeepers were themselves involved in child abuse in Congo and Liberia.
His effectiveness reportedly has also been hampered by Israeli-Arab diplomatic sniping. His stinging denunciations of suicide bombings have incurred the wrath of Arab countries, without reducing Israeli suspicion toward him as a U.N. official. Israelis are particularly irked at his calls for better protection of children in the Palestinian territories.
Otunnu said he has never visited Israel or the territories because Israel has never responded to his requests to do so.