March 24, 1998

KAMPALA, Uganda -- For most Ugandans, the night of Oct. 9, 1996, marked the end of a day celebrating the country's Independence Day. For Angelina Acheng, it was the beginning of a nightmare.

That evening, her 14-year-old daughter, Charlotte, was kidnapped from St. Mary's School in Aboke, Uganda, by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a terrorist group based in Southern Sudan that abuses civilians in Northern Uganda. The kidnappers broke the windows of this girls' boarding school. They tied up the girls, all of whom were younger than 16. They beat those who dared to cry. And then they took away 139 of them -- 75 percent of the student body -- and sent them into a life of unspeakable horror. Many, like Charlotte, have not returned.

When I met with Angelina at the White House a few weeks before I came to Uganda, she spoke movingly about her daughter and told me about the organization she and other local parents had formed -- the Concerned Parents Association. They work to save their children and all the other children held captive by this group. Since 1994, with the shameful support of the Sudanese government, the LRA has kidnapped as many as 10,000 children in Uganda. These children are literally being snatched away from their homes. The boys are used in battle as human shields. The girls are sent into slave labor, raped and given away as "wives" to rebel commanders. They are often forced to kill other children who don't obey or -- worse yet -- who try to escape.

The LRA invokes the name of the Lord, but there is no greater sin than making children kill children or even the parents who brought them into this world. Followers of the LRA call themselves soldiers, but they are cowards. Only cowards would hide behind children in battle.

The plight of these children is part of a growing and alarming trend. It used to go without saying that innocent women and children were not supposed to be the targets of war; now, increasingly, they are not only targets but even compelled to participate.

According to a 1996 U.N. Report, "Impact of Armed Conflict on Children," war affects millions of children all over the world. It steals their lives, violates their innocence and destroys their families, leaving them to fend -- often unsuccessfully -- for themselves. Unaccompanied children are far more likely to be raped and assaulted. War forces vulnerable children as young as 8 to become soldiers. It deforms their sense of right and wrong, turning 12-year-olds into cold-blooded killers. It ends hope. More than 60 percent of Rwandan children interviewed in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide said they did not care whether they ever grew up.

One of Charlotte's classmates who managed to escape talked about what happened when another girl tried to flee: "The girl was brought in front of us, and the rebels told us to stomp her to death. We killed the poor innocent girl. ... If we did not kill the girl, we were going to be shot by guns. We prayed for that girl in our hearts, silently, and asked God to pardon us and forgive us because it was not our will to kill her."

Another rescued student from St. Mary's School said, "I saw people's legs being cut with either a panga or an ax. I saw a young baby of a few months held in hand and beaten to death against a tree. Innocent people were being killed in a way I never thought a human being could (act toward) another human being."

One girl simply wrote: "I'm pleading with you to find a way of stopping this rebel activity so that we children of Northern Uganda could also share in the peace that other children around the world are sharing in. ... We need peace."

I hope every citizen listens to these calls for peace and reaches out to Ugandans like Angelina who are answering them. Already, groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are shining a spotlight on this tragedy. UNICEF is helping to investigate child abductions and get assistance to groups working at the local level. And non-governmental organizations like World Vision and Save the Children are operating trauma centers to care for children who escape.

But we must join with the Ugandan people to do much more -- both to care for the victims and address the root causes of this tragedy. During a speech at Makerere University in Kampala this week, I was pleased to announce, on behalf of the President, new steps that the U.S. government is taking to provide assistance to local groups like the Concerned Parents Association to help them find abducted children and give them the medical care they need to heal. The United States will provide $2 million to help people plagued by rebel activity in Northern Uganda get jobs rebuilding roads, dams, schools, health clinics and ultimately their own lives and communities.

Finally, all nations should pressure Sudan to end its support for the LRA and its cowardly abductions of children.

Children should never be used as weapons of war. If we speak with one voice against these atrocities, then, next Independence Day in Uganda, parents like Angelina will be able to celebrate freedom in the best possible way -- surrounded by their children.