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.
"The thing to remember is that there are two Ugandas," Rodriguez said. "One of relative peace, and then one where children suffer more than in any country on Earth."
The country boasts a lush and serene capital, and international tourism campaigns lure visitors with slogans such as "Uganda, Gifted by Nature." But in northern Uganda, most residents survive on food aid and live in congested camps for people displaced by the fighting; government troops patrol the desolate countryside.
The war was rarely mentioned during campaigning for elections last month in which President Yoweri Museveni secured a third term, said Philip Lutara, Gulu coordinator for the Concerned Parents Association, which was started after rebels abducted 139 young girls from a Catholic school in 1996.
The rebel movement is commanded by Joseph Kony, an elusive figure who has said in radio broadcasts that he has cut off the lips and ears of people who do not acknowledge him as a divine leader.
Children fill the ranks of his ragged army. Parents across this region are so terrified that the rebels will snatch their offspring from their beds that thousands of children are sent to special shelters each night.
The Sudanese government, which long backed Kony, recently allowed Ugandan troops to cross the border to pursue him. But Kony fled into lawless eastern Congo, and his army still sporadically launches attacks in northern Uganda. The International Criminal Court in The Hague issued warrants for Kony and his top commanders last year, but no arrests have been made.
"Here we are months later, and not a single arrest has been made," Lutara said. "There are still more than 5,000 missing children. Their parents are still distraught."
The Children of War Rehabilitation Center was started after a young girl escaped from Kony's army. She returned home but eventually killed her mother, thinking she was being attacked during the night, Oroma said. After that incident, community leaders realized that former child fighters were in dire need of help, she said.
World Vision International, a Christian charity, helps fund the project, which takes in about 100 children a month and provides them with medical care, fresh clothing and counseling sessions.
In the center's healing hut, Richard Odong said he hoped to see his family again. The center frequently makes radio announcements listing the names of children who have returned from combat, but no one has shown up for Richard. The counselors worry that his parents are dead.
When the therapy sessions end, the children play cards or kick an old soccer ball around.
Pamela Amena, 23, who also escaped from the rebels and completed counseling sessions years ago, frequently returns to the center to help younger Ugandans such as Richard.
"At first, Richard, I felt so short-tempered, and I wanted to hit someone," she told him, explaining that she had been raped by the rebels. She escaped, but learned that her father had been killed in the conflict.
"I would nap and cry in my mother's dark, hot hut all day," she said.
Then she began receiving therapy. The counselors told her to draw, talk, exercise or even sing when she felt angry. "Now when I lie in my bed, I sing quietly to myself nice songs I wrote," she said. "These small therapies help."
The two sat in silence, watching a soccer game and picking at the purple flowers that had fallen from the trees.