Almost nothing is known about life in the ranks of northern Uganda's cult-like rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), but their track record of violence and abduction is no secret.
Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
|Ida Akongo was abducted by the LRA when she was 12 years old
In the Acholi region, boys are recruited as soldiers and forced to commit vicious crimes, often against their own families, while girls are used as domestic slaves or forced into sexual slavery as the "wives" of rebel commanders.
Given Acholi's high HIV prevalence of nine percent - one and a half times the national average - there has been speculation that infection is rife among the rebels.
A 2003 report by Human Rights Watch, an organisation working to protect such rights internationally, reinforced the notion by pointing out that reception centres for former abductees in the Gulu district, in northern Uganda, had recorded HIV rates as high as 15 percent.
However, most theories about HIV infection in the LRA remain just that. Only a small fraction of the abductees returning from the bush have been tested for HIV, so an accurate measure of prevalence would be difficult. What is becoming clearer is that the rebels, fighting to impose a government based on the Biblical 10 commandments, are aware of HIV, and have tried to limit transmission of the disease.
According to the LRA's Lt-Col Ray Achama, HIV is extremely low among the ranks. "Our leadership is very aware of HIV and we are informed that it is spread through sex," Achama told IRIN/PlusNews.
"In order to avoid it, strict instructions have come from above that soldiers must not rape women; although you hear it often, the LRA does not rape women - that is a lie," he said. "We also do not allow our women to sleep with other men; they must remain with their husbands. This is another way we keep HIV away."
Justin Okot, who was abducted from his home in Gulu and spent seven years with the rebels, said the LRA's HIV policy boiled down to one main practice: abducting young girls who were unlikely to have contracted HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases.
"AIDS is not common in the bush. The rebels know about it and they abduct very young girls; when they [the girls] reach the age of 15 or 16, they are given to officers as wives," he told IRIN/PlusNews.
Grace Onyango, a psychosocial specialist with World Vision, a Christian relief and development organisation that assists returning abductees, confirmed Okot's statement.
"According to the returnees, there is a lot of sensitisation in the bush," she said. "Any suspected HIV/AIDS [positive] girl or boy is prohibited from engaging sexually with others; it is rumoured that it the reason behind abducting young girls."
At the Kitgum Concerned Women's Association, which runs a reception centre for abducted children in the town, centre manager Christopher Arwai said that, based on anecdotal evidence from girls and boys who passed through his centre, the number of HIV cases in the LRA was "minute" and when they occurred the rebel leadership dealt with them decisively.
"In 2005, when an LRA commander named Mawa died from HIV-related causes, all his eight wives and the other women he was known to have slept with were released by the rebels," he said. "Usually, when a commander dies of illness or in combat, his wives are given to other commanders but, in this case, none of Mawa's wives were reabsorbed."
A June 2007 report by the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Tulane, estimated that as many as 38,000 children had been abducted since the start of the conflict two decades ago.
At reception centres across northern Uganda, returning abductees are given the option of voluntary HIV counselling and testing, and are informed about HIV before being reintegrated into the community.
Health workers in the region say that as the peace talks in Juba, capital of Southern Sudan, bring the prospect of peace nearer, and more abductees return to the general population, such efforts will need to be stepped up.
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In the wake of the LRA: HIV in Uganda and Sudan