United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Ann Veneman today visited Ugandan youngsters who had been abducted by rebels in a brutal but largely ignored civil war in which up to 40,000 children flee their outlying villages to the safety of towns every evening to avoid being kidnapped.
"The circumstances that children are facing here are disgraceful and outrageous," Ms. Veneman said during a visit to a shelter in Kitgum, northern Uganda, where for almost two decades the Government has been fighting the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which is estimated to have abducted 20,000 children during night time raids to use as combatants or sex slaves.
Later, she was visiting a centre for so-called 'night commuters,' the estimated 30,000 to 40,000 children driven by fear of abduction to seek nightly refuge in towns, often on instructions of their parents. Many sleep rough on the streets, and UNICEF is committed to creating a safer environment for them.
Among them is 11-year-old Vicky, who has been told by her family that she must sleep in town, but does not know why. Nine-year-old Andrew has been given a blanket and a sack to carry it in on his nightly journey into town; he returns home at six in the morning.
During her visit to the Kitgum centre, Ms. Veneman met with 40 children who had been abducted. She sat down with four of them to hear their personal stories at length. "It was very moving," she said.
The former abductees were fortunate enough to escape from the LRA rebels, but most of these boys and girls are still haunted by their experiences as combatants or sex slaves. UNICEF is providing assistance through the centres, to help them return to their normal lives.
The conflict has forced 1.4 million people to flee their homes. Around 80 per cent are children and women. Since 2002 alone, almost 12,000 children have been abducted.
In April last year, these child soldiers topped a list of "Ten Stories the World Should Know More About" compiled by the UN Department of Public Information (DPI).