Uganda's child soldiers return home
Published Wednesday, June 30, 2010 4:46PM PDT
GULU, UGANDA -
Twenty-two-year-old Denis Wera is going home tomorrow. He hasn't been there in 12 years. The native of northern Uganda was abducted from his village when he was only 10 years old. He lived with, and fought for, the Lord's Resistance Army -- or LRA -- for more than a decade in the remote bush lands of Uganda, southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The sectarian Christian military militia group is responsible for scores of human rights atrocities across the region, including the murder, rape and sexual slavery of thousands in terrifying massacres over the past 23 years. The conflict, the longest running in African history, has seen tens of thousands of children stolen from their families and recruited as soldiers, used to ransack and burn their own villages and use violence to stop anyone in their way.
But through more than 10 years of stalled peace talks and failed assassinations of the group's leader, Joseph Kony, there is renewed hope to dismantle the group. In May, U.S. President Barack Obama signed a law that commits the country to help bring an "end to the brutality and destruction" caused by the LRA, calling their actions "an affront to human dignity." The International Criminal Court has outstanding warrants for five of the group's leaders.
Denis escaped from the LRA rebels in the DRC only three months ago, returning to Uganda to find out both of his parents are dead and the small plot of land he inherited is unusable for growing crops. He is one of 12 Formerly Abducted Persons -- or FAPs -- currently living at the Children of War Centre in Gulu, a charmless city situated a bumpy six-hour drive north of the capital city of Kampala.
The centre, a walled compound just outside the city, is intended as a place to heal -- to gauge the trauma of men emerging from the bush after years of captivity under the rebels and, hopefully, help them make a smooth transition back to their old lives.
But it isn't easy.
"Some [FAPs] had to kill their parents. Some must kill their friends as a lesson to others," explains Joseph Akol, who runs the centre.
"Even one day in the bush will change your views about everything. Everything."
The LRA often targets children because they are easy to tame and are easily replaceable if they die in conflict.
"Anyone who defied was killed," Akol says.
Former child soldiers started pouring through the facility's doors in 1994, the height of the conflict with the LRA. Since then the centre, funded through World Vision Canada, has treated more than 14,000 former soldiers. I stayed at the compound for three days in hopes of understanding what these young men go through as they return to homes that may no longer exist.
The sounds of settling
The compound quickly became known as a safe haven where child soldiers could come to get help to return home to their communities and be reunited with their families. The former soldiers, often arriving with nothing but the tattered clothes on their backs, receive what's called a "resettlement kit" filled with the basic necessities of survival -- a few t-shirts, a blanket, plastic sandals and soap.
Soldiers entering the camp after often combative, Akol tells me. They have armed fights, brandishing smuggled machetes, sometimes attacking staff or other children during the night. Many are hospitalized. Some die. In some cases in the centre, children come face-to-face for the first time with the rebel commanders who killed their friends, forced them to rape family members or kill their own parents.
At first only boys under the age of 18 were welcomed, in what Akol describes as an effort to keep the war atrocities from repeating themselves once the boys left the bush.
"We wanted to keep them separate from child mothers and soldiers -- to end the rape, the commanding of the young ones. The behaviour present in captivity."
When the men arrive they are usually suspicious, scared and extremely malnourished. Some haven't eaten in a week. Others have untreated gunshot wounds and landmine injuries.
Akol says the staff allow the youngsters to watch from afar to acclimatize and never single them out in order to make them feel more comfortable. One of the first tasks is to heal their physical wounds and win their trust. It's a slow process, but one he insists works.
"This is the first place they find love," he says.
There is much stigmatization against Formerly Abducted Persons once they leave captivity. Many have never lived in a real community since they were young children, and they return to find themselves adults -- without ever receiving proper schooling or being taught how to live peacefully among others. Many of the men suffer extreme self-confidence problems.
"In the bush, commanders say no one likes them -- and they start to believe it," Akol says.
"They had killed people, taken food, made them suffer. They are like ticking time bombs if you don't help them."
Healing and forgiveness
The walls of the cramped treatment centre in a small outbuilding beside the dorms are lined with vivid depictions of war experienced by the young men who live in the camp. Soldiers are seen torching huts while villagers run away screaming. Tiny children are forced to march for days carrying heavy packs on their back, prodded in the ribs with AK47s if they slow down or complain.
"This is what life is like for these children," Akol says. "They are terrified; they are always in fear they will be killed."
With rehabilitation a primary focus at the centre, counselling, both individual and group, happens daily. Counselling is based on three main tenets: befriending, listening and encouraging child soldiers to talk about the experiences that have affected them the most.
"By reflecting on these events and starting to understand them, the healing process begins," Joseph Akol says.
"There is new hope for the future and there is willingness to forgive."
The forgiveness he speaks of can sometimes be overwhelming. He points to a picture on the wall of his office of a former FAP who came through the centre a number of years ago. It is a woman dressed in traditional wrap. She is seated with a small child on her lap and she is shaking the hand of a man seated opposite her. Her nose, ears and lips are missing. Akol says the hand she is shaking belongs to the rebel, yet another abducted person, who almost murdered her in the bush.
"She was one of five women walking together. He killed them all except for her. She was pregnant."
I asked how someone could possibly forgive someone for doing that to them.
"Love is a powerful tool," he says casually.
In Pictures: Child soldiers head home
Escape and the dream of life
At 25 years old, Patrick Okello is like most young men in Uganda. With a bright smile he tells me about his love for football, American music and hanging out with his friends. But there is hidden sorrow behind his big brown eyes. Like all of the other young men at the centre, his life was changed forever after being kidnapped and turned into a violent fighter.
Okello was asleep at home with his family when rebels stormed his village, capturing him and four other children. The rebel commander told Okello, the eldest of the group, that he would kill the younger children if he dared try to escape. He quarreled often with the rebels, resulting in frequent and severe beatings at their hands. He did win some fights: After four days in captivity, the commander allowed him to release four children deemed too young to recruit into fighting. The oldest was 12 -- only two years younger than Patrick. The youngest was only six.
He marched for a month after his abduction.
"We were always moving," he told me, casting his eyes down to the ground. "Food and clothes were not there."
The LRA leaders kept a close eye on Okello because they knew he was in school and wanted to finish his education. His superiors repeatedly called for him to be killed for refusing to murder others under orders. But somehow he survived.
Okello said even after eight years in captivity, escape never crossed his mind.
"It felt like a normal place," he said.
And for a time it was. After years of marching through the jungles of the Congo and Sudan, his group erected a community in the southern DRC during the peace talks of 2007. He began farming produce and, for a time, says he was treated "like a normal human being."
But when negotiations broke down later that year, the group was back on the run from the military. At best, they would fill their stomachs raiding villages for food. At the very worst, they would go hungry for days, sometimes forced to eat the leaves from plants in the forest. Okello stayed in the woods alone for one week after a gunfight between Sudanese soldiers and rebels turned into a bloody massacre. Shortly after finding his commander he was shot three times in the hip. The violence left him partially paralyzed for months.
Okello escaped, along with 11 others, in November 2009. He now lives at the centre and is attending classes in high school. Okello feels his old peers have excelled and his childhood -- and the opportunities of his youth -- were robbed from him during his abduction.
"I have such a pain in my heart," he says.
His brother died in an ambush on his way to Kitgu, a neighbouring district, in 2002. His mother passed away from an illness three years later.
Okello says the war has left him with nothing.
"How would you feel if you went home and your entire family was dead?" he asks.
In the hot afternoon sun, five young men sit under the shade of a canopy tree in a courtyard drawing pictures. The group is so intent on drawing they don't see me take a seat among them.
The canvases show depictions of families, musical groups, stereos. But this artistic pursuit isn't play time -- it's therapy.
Their counsellor, a grinning, high-energy woman named Concy Awoto, sits cross-legged on a blanket on the ground.
She explains that art therapy is an easy way to gauge the trauma levels of young people entering the centre who are otherwise extremely emotionally guarded.
After years of living in captivity under rebels, the young men are taught to suppress their emotions. Any sign of weakness could be a death sentence. So coaching the FAPs out of their shells is not an easy task.
The drawings are a starting point into conversation, often unearthing painful memories pushed deep inside on the battlefields. The art is the first step into seeing what's really happened to the youngsters -- what is really going on in their heads.
Slowly, Awoto says, the young men start expressing their experiences through art.
"They draw what is in their mind," she says, holding up a photo of a young boy holding a gun.
When the child soldiers first arrive at the centre they often draw battle scenes, or murders involving machetes, guns, or both. As the men become more comfortable with the centre, their counsellors and themselves, the pictures begin to change.
"After a while they begin drawing their villages and homes and the schools to which they hope to return," Awoto says.
"The pictures trace the healing process."
State of Grace
Wearing a tightly wound red wrap dress with long black braids twisted into a bun at the nape of her neck, you would never know that Amoro Grace Arach was a highly skilled soldier. But that's exactly what she is, and what every day she strives to forget.
Soft spoken, the 25-year-old was raped many times when she was abducted by the LRA rebels, used for their sexual pleasure while she was just a girl -- terrified of what they would do if she refused.
"If you shout they will shoot you," she tells me over a dinner of goat stew and plantain one warm evening. "I always thought my mother would come rescue me, but she never did."
Trained as a soldier, Grace was shot once on her breast during a firefight against government soldiers. Her hair was burned from marching with hot pots of stew atop her head, often not stopping for hours in the sweltering heat of the Sudan -- most times with no water and no option of stopping.
"You have to drink people's urine," she says. "People would shoot you if you didn't drink it."
It was Grace's perseverance that helped her escape. She went without food or water for four days after escaping from the rebels in 2001, staying in hiding. She says there was nothing that could have made her go back.
"I'd rather kill myself than surrender."
Grace was taken to the Children of War Centre in Gulu, where she received psychosocial rehabilitation and helped to overcome her trauma. Like other displaced persons, support staff helped her find and reunite with her family, tracing her back to her loved ones and helping to prepare them for reunion.
But counselling did little to alleviate the trauma of going home. Her mother had remarried and she wasn't comfortable being around her new father.
"I was scared to be home," she says. "I just cried and cried."
Grace insists part of the problem was the lack of acceptance she found from her mother, who was scared the rebels might follow her to her home and kill her family for escaping. It's a fear she says all families have once their children come home from the jungle.
"They don't feel safe," she says.
"No one wants to die. They think you might kill them."
She says the difficulties she encountered coming home inspired her to help others and become an advocate for human rights. With the help of World Vision, Grace is completing a degree in Development Studies at Gulu University.
Joseph Akol says Grace is one of the centre's biggest successes. He calls her a credit to the community and an inspiration to the young men and women still entering the doors on a weekly basis.
"She has achieved what we hope everyone coming through here can achieve. Peace. Love. Acceptance. Not just with herself, but with her family -- her life," he says.
Grace now speaks internationally about the war atrocities in Uganda in hopes people will understand the need of the people here and do what they can to help the resettlement of millions of people affected by the violence.
Akol says one of his biggest difficulties is convincing people that the violence of the Lord's Resistance Army is far from over. This spring, more than 300 villagers were killed in a bloody and violent ambush in the DRC. Some 250 people -- including at least 80 children -- were kidnapped for recruitment.
On my last day in Gulu I stop at the centre to say goodbye to Joseph Akol, Amoro Grace and the young men living at the centre. My eyes immediately train on a young man sitting by himself at the back of a row during the morning community meeting. His hands are clasped firmly in his lap. His eyes locked to the floor.
Joseph tells me he just arrived the night before -- transported to Gulu after a decade kept in captivity.
Akol says the nervous young man is proof that just because the war is ending, his work is far from over.
"As long as the rebels continue their violence our work is never done."
Darcy Wintonyk travelled to Uganda on a fellowship funded by the Canadian International Development Agency and administered through the Jack Webster Foundation.