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Slavery steals Ugandan childhoods

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Not everyone in Lira, one of the larger towns in Northern Uganda, can afford a Christmas tree, but those who can place decorations in their living rooms and exchange presents. It is there, as it is here, a time for children.

Last year Angelina Aytum, a mother of six, sat down with her family to their Christmas lunch. Her oldest daughter, Stella, was back for the holidays from college in Kampala. Having been away from home, Stella was more struck than the others in her family by the absence of her 16-year-old sister, Charlotte, from the table.Upset, Stella left the table and took refuge in one of the children's rooms. It had been more than a year since Stella had seen Charlotte, who had been enrolled in St. Mary's of Aboke, a Catholic boarding school run by Italian nuns about a half hour from Lira by bus.

One night in October 1996, members of the Lord's Resistance Army, a cult group, had stormed the school dormitory. They tied 139 girls together and led them off into the bush.

It was not an isolated incident -- the rebels have been terrorizing the villages of the north for more than 12 years -- but because of the tenacity of Sister Rachele Fassera, the school's Italian headmistress, the events received worldwide attention.

Armed with a small pouch of money and a rosary, Sister Rachele set off in search of the girls. The next day, she caught up with the rebels and begged the commander to release them. Wielding a rosary of his own, the commander allowed 109 girls to return with their teacher. But 30, he said, would remain with him. Faced with the agonizing choice of complying or getting nothing, Sister Rachele left the 30 behind. One of them was Charlotte.

Led by Joseph Kony, a megalomaniacal religious fanatic who hears voices, the Lord's Resistance Army raids villages, killing adults and kidnapping their children, whom they then enslave as soldiers.

In recent years, the Sudanese government has supported the rebels with arms and provided them with camps across its border. Nine-year-old children are taught to shoot AK-47s, kept undernourished and made to walk hours a day as roving soldiers. Girls are given as "wives" to commanders.

Last winter during a trip to East Africa, I drove to Uganda with some friends from Kenya. I had met Angelina just before that in New York and was moved by her story and wanted to write about it. I visited some of the rehabilitation centers set up for children who have escaped their captors. They are taken in for several months by nongovernmental organizations that are understaffed and can provide only a few counselors for nearly 200 children.

When I visited, the children sat, dazed and relieved and haunted. Their faces were unmoving and without the usual animation one sees on children's faces. For therapy they drew sketches of their experiences in the rebel camps.

I saw pictures in colored pencil, done in a child's hand, of people on fire, axes chopping off legs, ambushed buses and bleeding heads.

One small girl, who was crocheting a doily -- part of her therapy -- described in a sweet, dull voice how the rebels cut off people's mouths if they were suspected of informing. Another boy showed us the bullet wound that had warped his shin like a violin bow. An older girl told how as she was escaping through the bush, she had come upon other children who had been tied to trees and shot.

Linda, a 16-year-old girl wearing a pink chiffon dress, was seven months pregnant with a rebel's child. If she gave birth to a boy, she was going to name him Komakech, which means "I am unfortunate." If a girl, Alimochan, which means "I have suffered on earth."

After the abduction of Charlotte and the other girls of St. Mary's, Angelina Aytum helped form a group named, with considerable understatement, the Concerned Parents Association. It has hundreds of members. More than 10,000 children have been abducted in the last dozen years in Uganda; half of them managed to escape.

The kidnappings at St. Mary's have received some attention. Journalists have written about the incident. Elizabeth Rubin did a strong piece last spring in The New Yorker. Christiane Amanpour did a segment on the children for "60 Minutes." And Human Rights Watch has taken up the cause, bringing Angelina to the United States a few times.

Last year she even met Hillary Rodham Clinton, who mentioned her in a speech when she accompanied President Clinton on his trip to Africa last April. Organizations have received donations to treat the traumatized children who have escaped. But none of this has had any effect on stopping the Lord's Resistance Army. The group is still at large, and Charlotte is still missing.

A couple of weeks ago I saw Angelina again in Washington, where, courtesy of Human Rights Watch, she was speaking to a group brought together by Sen. Paul Wellstone, one who has taken up the cause of children soldiers. It was a frigid day in the capital as I rode downtown in an overheated cab.

The driver's radio was broadcasting the House Judiciary Committee hearings. A voice droned on. "Perjury . . . obstruction of justice . . . Ms. Lewinsky's statement." In the wood-paneled "briefing room" of the Senate building, there were more chairs and desks than people.

Angelina told her story to an audience of about 30 people who seemed familiar with the situation. Most of them were women. Afterward, people made inaudible remarks. One man spoke with his back to the room. A woman mumbled what sounded like words of admiration and commiseration.

From where I sat I could see Angelina watching them. Her eyes were weary and a little hard, and who could blame her?

She has devoted a great deal of time and energy to exposing this horror to the world. That she is less interested in chewing on the "complexity" of the situation, or in analyzing Uganda's attitude toward the Sudanese, is not surprising.

At this point she is suggesting that the president of Uganda, Kaguta Museveni, who has been decidedly indifferent to these crimes, offer immunity to Kony. Angelina is willing to accept anything, she says, to get back her daughter.

Ten thousand children abducted and forced to become killers: The numbers are staggering. True, there is no great power threatening the military balance -- this has instead to do with far more vulnerable and far less vocal creatures: children.

At the end of the meeting, Angelina thanked the human rights representatives who were present. "The more you rally behind us, the more we get strength, and the strength keeps us going," she said.

I asked her if she had any news of Charlotte. The escaped children bring back news of those in captivity, and Angelina continually checks at the centers for information from the returnees. The latest word, in July, confirmed one of Angelina's greatest fears: Charlotte was heavily pregnant with a rebel's child. She was said to be looking poorly.

Last Christmas, after Stella left the table, her sisters and brother looked at one another, and soon they too had dispersed. Two days later, it was Angelina's birthday. The children tried to make it up to her by giving her a big party.

"I played my role very well," she told me. "How it will be this Christmas" -- she smiled sadly -- "that I do not know."

Susan Minot is the author of "Monkeys" and, most recently, of "Evening," a novel.