Uganda: Child Soldiers Fight for Fresh Start

Some of the children have yet to reach puberty. But they are fluent in rattling off the acronyms of war (RPG, LMG, SAM, SMG) and explaining just how these weapons work. Ranging in age from 7 to 18, they acquired their grim expertise as a result of being kidnapped and forced to serve as soldiers and sex slaves for the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda. Still, says a social worker who identifies himself only as Tom, these are the lucky ones.

The children are among the few who have managed to escape captivity and seek a new start at rehabilitation clinics like this one, the Rachele Center, in the northern town of Lira. The war they were forced to fight in is complex, political, tribal and extraordinarily brutal even by African standards, led by a mystical rebel who inflicts grotesque carnage in the name of Jesus Christ and for the cause of the Ten Commandments. Over the last 20 years, the LRA has played a role in one of the continent's longest and least-known conflicts. The fighting has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced as many as 1.7 million, about the same as in the more talked-about hostilities between a fundamentalist Muslim government and tribal rebels in the Sudanese region of Darfur. But the particular horror in Uganda's war lies in the fact that children are both victims and perpetrators of atrocity.

Among them is Nancy, who was 9 when she and her sister were kidnapped by the LRA from their home in the Gulu district of northern Uganda in December 2002. She was beaten, tied and given a heavy load to carry on her head. In her 20 months in captivity, she was rubbed with shea-butter oil. Her captors told her two things about this supposedly magical concoction: it would stop bullets and it would prevent her from finding her way home if she tried to escape. Nancy was taught to shoot and dismantle a machine gun and forced to fight against the Ugandan Army (UDPF). Every order was a do-or-die ultimatum. She was made to loot, abduct other children and burn down houses in displacement camps. In an ambush by the Ugandan Army, Nancy was rescued, but her sister was left behind in the south Sudanese bush.

It's impossible to purge such a past, but to start the process of healing, scarred children need to open up and tell their stories. "If it makes them or us vomit, it's all got to come out somehow," said the Rachele Center's Belgian founder, Els De Temmerman. Her book, "The Aboke Girls," whose profits have helped fund the center, chronicles the abduction of 137 girls from a Ugandan boarding school and the daring rescue efforts of the school's principal, Sister Rachele—the center's namesake. For some of these kids, expressing their experiences through drawings comes more easily than talking. It's a way to begin a dialogue with outsiders and also within their own minds. Their images scratch through the savage surface of this complex crisis.

The conflict they have fled is rooted in a colonial-era divide, when the British chose the bulk of their civil servants from Uganda's south and most of its soldiers from the tribes of Uganda's north. The Acholi and Langi, the dominant tribes in the north, comprised the country's military elite. When current Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni came to power in 1986, the Acholi in the north feared retribution and a loss of influence without their traditional power base in the military. The Lord's Resistance Army, led by an illiterate former altar boy and self-professed fundamentalist Christian "prophet" named Joseph Kony, soon became one of the many armed militias and rebels fighting in Uganda. Lieutenants from the regimes of the dictatorial Idi Amin and his successor, Milton Obote, provided the military experience and firepower to make Kony's ragtag rebels a capable and cruel insurgent force.

In waging its guerrilla war, the LRA found children useful as pliant slaves in camp and remorseless fighters in the field. More than 30,000 have been abducted since the late 1980s. In the Ugandan countryside, fear of LRA raids after sunset forced thousands of besieged children to make "night commutes" from rural villages and internal displacement camps to bigger towns in hopes of finding safe shelter. In recent months, however, the prospects for an end to what residents of Ugandan's calm capital Kampala see as the war in the north have improved. The LRA once counted on the backing of the Sudanese government, which was fighting a war in southern Sudan, near the Ugandan border, against rebels of Sudan People's Liberation Army. In the cynical calculus of unconventional warfare, Kampala would back Sudanese rebels while Khartoum supported Ugandan ones. But the long-running war in southern Sudan ended with a peace settlement in 2005, even as the war waged by other groups in the west of the country—Darfur—heated up.

At the same time, the Sudanese government, under increasing pressure on other fronts, started to find its alliance with the LRA in Uganda a liability. The group's bizarre and horrifying zeal massacring the very people it claimed it was fighting to protect became known to the outside world. Sympathy for its cause among the northern tribes of Uganda dwindled, eventually leading to peace talks between the LRA and the Kampala government in the southern Sudanese city of Juba last year. Inevitably, the road to a lasting ceasefire has not been easy. The ongoing Juba discussions stalled and remained at an impasse until last month, when an agreement was reached to extend a truce forged last August and return to the negotiating table. However, sticking points remain, among them the LRA's insistence that the International Criminal Court drop outstanding charges against Kony and his commanders.

While the negotiations stop and start, the children at the Rachele Center are enjoying their chance to act like kids again. Social workers try to remove some of the most tangible reminders by encouraging the children to turn their backs symbolically on the past by throwing their clothes into a bonfire. Their painfully innocent drawings were also on the way to the trash until case workers casually showed them to a visitor during an office clean out. Though critical to therapy, most are discarded after the child starts to function again. Yet some, like one 15-year-old who had his fingers chopped off for refusing an order to kill while captive, have begun to dream of more idyllic pictures. Heralded as Rachele's most talented artist, the lanky boy stands proudly amongst a few of his colorful canvases outside of his dormitory, his smile revealing not a shred of self-pity. He's safe, free and able to go to school—and he knows that this indeed makes him one of the lucky ones.