Child soldiers wake up from a nightmare

GULU, Uganda — When he was 6, Sam was kidnapped.

He spent the next six years as a captive of a rebel army, where he was forced to kill other children, sometimes by biting the skin off a screaming victim who would slowly bleed to death.

For nearly two decades, northern Uganda has faced the terror of an army of child predators. The children live in a wilderness of towering elephant grass and attack at night. They have been known to attack villages — killing all but the children between 6 and 15, whom they take away.

The abducted children either face a horrible death or end up like Sam, now 12, who was rescued in April by the Ugandan army.

Girls have the added burden of being assigned as “wives” to senior commanders of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Its leader Joseph Kony, is said to have about 50 wives.

Northern Uganda is like the Darfur crisis in slow motion — a tragedy that is too tiny to attract the attention of movie stars and others with the ability to focus international outrage.

Sam’s rescue has given him a fleeting chance to recover a tiny piece of a stolen childhood. But as he enters his teen years, and his dimpled soft features begin to harden, he faces a new hurdle: His parents fear him and were reluctant to take him back.

Like nearly 20,000 other children who have been rescued or managed to escape their captors, Sam has gone through a brief period of rehabilitation with trained counselors.

Yet the program is too short to deal with what often becomes a lifetime struggle with nightmares, flashbacks, fear and unexpected mood swings, known in the West as the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Kony, 46, a self-proclaimed prophet with a lurid interpretation of the Ten Commandments and a goal of “purifying” the Acholi ethnic group of northern Uganda, leads this army of children along with four top lieutenants.

All five recently were charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, an indictment backed by the Bush administration. It also backs “peace talks” between the LRA and the Ugandan government, which began in the southern Sudanese city of Juba earlier this month with the apparent aim of persuading Kony to retire, go into exile, or both.

“If Kony stays in the bush, he will finish off a whole generation of Acholis,” said Paul Oryem Rwot, 68, a traditional Acholi chief in the northern village of Atiak.

A slow death

Founded in 1987, the LRA has forced nearly the entire Acholi population of about 1.5 million to seek protection in squalid refugee camps, far from villages and land that provided food for past generations of farmers.

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