In Uganda, a Fresh Start For Former Child Fighters

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 13, 2006

GULU, Uganda -- The afternoon bell rang at the Children of War Rehabilitation Center, and a column of former child fighters filed stoically across a dusty yard, past blooming bougainvillea vines.

In silence, the children entered a thatch-roofed hut and sat on straw mats. Colorful murals on the walls depicted scenes from their lives in Africa's longest-running war: being captured by rebel fighters, training for warfare, escaping and finally reuniting with parents and beginning therapy.

"Tell us about when you were abducted and forced to walk for miles through the forest and under the hot sun," Christine Oroma, a honey-voiced counselor, gently instructed the children. "Or we can talk about how much you were hurting the first time you missed your parents, or when the rebel commanders forced you to kill or be killed."

The children nodded. Bloodshot eyes hinted at their suffering. When tears streaked down their cheeks, Oroma offered them a piece of cloth.

"When I'm here, I'm paining less over my terrible acts," said Richard Odong, 15, a slight boy with almond-shaped eyes who was abducted from his home five years ago and taught to fire an AK-47 assault rifle.

The children are victims of a 20-year insurgency waged by the Lord's Resistance Army, a shadowy rebel group that wants to overthrow the government and install the Ten Commandments as law. Since it was founded in the 1980s, the group has kidnapped an estimated 20,000 children to serve as fighters, porters and sex slaves.

Thousands of the children have escaped. When they return home, many suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, having witnessed brutal killings -- sometimes of a parent or sibling -- or having been raped, beaten, deprived of water and food or forced to kill, according to a study published in the Lancet medical journal in March 2004.

Therapy is a vital step in the children's readjustment to regular life, community leaders and counselors here say. Through projects such as the Children of War Rehabilitation Center, the boys with bullet and machete wounds and girls swollen with unwanted pregnancies feel less raw, less alone.

"It's very unusual for us quiet Africans to talk about everything so much," said Oroma, a former nurse who saw the need for therapy in northern Uganda and was trained for the job in Kampala, the capital. "But what are we to do? We have suffered for so many years now. How come no one helps us?"

Ugandans and human rights workers say the war in northern Uganda has received little international attention despite an estimated death toll of 200,000 from fighting and abysmal sanitation and health conditions, the displacement of nearly 2 million people and the abduction of thousands of children.

"The U.N.'s Kofi Annan went to Darfur," the conflict-torn region of western Sudan where the numbers of dead and displaced are largely the same as in northern Uganda, said the Rev. Carlos Rodriguez, executive secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission, an international body backed by religious groups.

Part of the reason for the lack of attention, Rodriguez and other experts on the conflict say, is that the region has no significant resources, despite its location along the border with oil-rich Sudan. It is also part of a country generally hailed as an African success story.

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