Children tell of abductions in Kenya

Dozens of children filed silently into the bare room.

One by one, they told of being tortured by the Kenyan army because they were suspected of aiding rebels. They told of being beaten and being forced to crawl through barbed wire tunnels.

Then the children took off their shirts. White scars crisscrossed the skin on their backs like grains of rice. Some were still bleeding.

These children are among hundreds in western Kenya who have been terrorized, many twice over, first by a militia in their villages and then by the army sent to fight it. The militia forced children as young as 10 to become soldiers. In a widespread crackdown, the army then rounded up the children and thousands of adults and tortured them, human rights groups say.

The Associated Press interviewed some of the children in a detention center, brought in by a human rights advocate without the knowledge of government officials or the military. The children have been held since April on charges of promoting warlike activities. Their identities and location are withheld to protect them from reprisals.

In March, the Kenyan government sent its army to crack down on the Sabaot Land Defense Force militia, which is named after the Sabaot region. But instead of hunting down militia fighters where they hide in the forests of Mount Elgon, the army swept up thousands of men and boys from the surrounding villages.

Since then, so many reports of murder and torture have emerged that Kenya's state-run human rights commission is calling for the prosecution of the defense minister and top army and police officials. There are also calls for the U.S. and Britain to suspend millions of dollars in aid and training to the Kenyan army.

Representatives of both governments in Kenya said they are deeply concerned over the reports of abuses and are calling on the Kenyan government to investigate. The militia flourished in the forests of Mount Elgon, where 166,000 people live in poor villages next to a dormant volcano. Some families encouraged children to join in the hope of securing land in the 370-square-mile district. Others were given a stark choice: pay the militia up to 50,000 Kenyan shillings (about $830) – far beyond the reach of most – donate their son, or die.

Some children simply disappeared. One 17-year-old girl was abducted by four men armed with machetes on her way back from school.

Her name joined a growing list of missing children in the battered notebook of Job Bwonya of the local Western Kenya Human Rights Watch.

The first kidnapping he recorded was of Joshua, 17, seized in July 2006. When word spread that he was recording cases of disappeared children, 24 families rushed forward. But four weeks later, Joshua's parents, brother and 9-year-old sister were gunned down, and the flow of reports slowed to a trickle.

So far, Bwonya has recorded 42 cases of missing children, and has heard of many more. A partial survey a year and a half ago found 650 children had disappeared.