070826_africa_child.jpg By KATY POWNALL, Associated Press Writer
At 12, Lucy Aol was clutching an assault rifle and preparing to ambush government soldiers. At 13, a rebel commander a decade older made her his wife. At 16, she was a mother. At 21, fresh-faced and beaming in a clean T-shirt and neatly braided hair, Aol is studying environmental health at college in Uganda’s capital, and planning to use her knowledge to improve the health of her war-battered nation. Aol has made a remarkable journey from child soldier to young woman with a future, but millions of children across Africa continue to be victims of war — orphaned, forced from their homes, denied education and, like Aol, forced to fight in the conflicts waged by their elders.

But slowly, the world’s campaign against the horror of child soldiery, and its pursuit of the perpetrators as war criminals, has begun to yield results. Girls are an estimated 30 percent of the young fighters. They face challenges boys don’t, such as rape and the stigma it inflicts, making it harder for girls to return to their communities. Aol was 12 when she was abducted by a feared Ugandan rebel group, forced to walk hundreds of miles to a base in neighboring southern Sudan and taught to use a gun. “We were used like slaves,” Aol said, staring at the wall of the cramped student dormitory at Kampala’s Mulago Medical College. “We used to work in the fields or collect firewood from 7 in the morning until 5 in the evening and we were given no food. If you made a mistake or refused, they would beat us … the three girls who were taken from my village with me were beaten to death.” “We were always moving with our guns but when you are so young they are very heavy and difficult to carry,” she said.

Aol was snatched by the Lord’s Resistance Army, rebels based in northern Uganda who are estimated to have abducted 25,000 children during their 20-year anti-government insurgency. Peace talks are under way, but pleas to free the children meet with denials they are being coerced into soldiery. According to Human Rights Watch, child soldiers play various roles, including spies, porters, mine sweepers, concubines as well as active combatants, often serving on front lines and sustaining some of Africa’s bloodiest and longest running conflicts. The number of child soldiers — defined in international law as children under 18 — cannot be estimated, humanitarian groups say. And though most are forcibly recruited, many join out of desperation. For those separated from their families or orphaned, enlistment may be the only way to get shelter, food and companionship.

Children are easily manipulated and can be groomed from an early age to obey instructions unquestioningly. Child protection workers cite numerous tactics used by ruthless commanders to coerce their young captives into obedience. In Sierra Leone, child soldiers were given a cocktail of gunpowder and cocaine before battle. In Liberia, they were forced to do things that would isolate them permanently from the community such as murdering family members.(

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