For Abducted Ugandans, An Elusive Reintegration

To stay in the camps or to go home, for northern Uganda's displaced the wrong choice could mean the difference between life and death.
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 28, 2008

OCULOKORI, Uganda -- He had escaped alone, running for his life through swamps and grassy savannas, leaving behind seven years of captivity in one of Africa's most sadistic rebel groups, the Lord's Resistance Army.

But of all the horrors Samuel Ogwal endured -- being forced to teach children to kill and to watch them die, to deliver beatings and conduct ritualistic murders -- he was now facing a new kind of terror: returning home to the uncertain judgment of family and friends who had been brutalized by rebels like him.

"I was afraid they might kill me," Ogwal said, recalling the weeks he spent last year deciding whether to head home to his village or start an anonymous life someplace else. "I was ashamed of what I had done."

Thousands of other escaped abductees -- women coerced into sexual slavery, children forced to become soldiers and grown men such as Ogwal -- have faced similar decisions in the past couple of years, as life across this lush, green northern region of Uganda has slowly returned to some version of normal.

With a 2006 cease-fire holding, although peace talks between the government and the mysterious rebel leader Joseph Kony have stalled, many Ugandans are debating the question of justice: whether Kony and his top commanders, who still have a small army holding out in Congo, should be tried for war crimes at the International Criminal Court or in special Ugandan courts.

But for the rank and file, thousands of former abductees coerced into a brutal 20-year war with their own people, there are no courts or lawyers, no formal steps toward reconciliation. Instead, there is a certificate of government amnesty, followed by the long, day-by-day process of repairing relationships with parents and children, husbands and wives, friends and neighbors.

"Everybody talks about reintegration, but no one gets to the heart of the matter," said Joann Pacoto, a local commissioner, who was just last week dealing with a case of a former child soldier, a girl, who had returned home to her village, snapped, and killed her father with a machete. "It's very complex. To get people who've spent 10 years in the bush to come back to regular life and be accepted, that is a problem. It's not like 'Oh, Joann is back' and that's that."

At least 20,000 children, women and men were abducted into Kony's army over the years and forced to take part in horrific killings as a way of brainwashing them into a culture of violence. What began as a vaguely ideological war against perceived ethnic discrimination by the government degenerated into something close to madness under Kony, a former Catholic catechist who allegedly keeps 30 wives and claims to be God's spokesman.

Kony turned the rebels on the people he was supposedly trying to liberate, accusing them of betraying his cause, raiding villages for children and killing others at will.

The majority of surviving abductees have escaped, with most heading to camps or rehabilitation centers for psychological counseling and more recently, home. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people have also been returning to villages and towns across northern Uganda, where streets are crowded with bicycles and markets are once again full of buyers and sellers.

But as many aid groups pull out of the region, others say the real recovery has barely begun.

"To us, this is the most important stage," said Anthony Kerwegi, a coordinator with the Concerned Parents Association, a Ugandan group that works with former abductees and their families. "The most important part is to get people home and begin to normalize."

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