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Child soldiers wake up from a nightmare

- The Washington Times - Monday, July 31, 2006

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.

An estimated 1,000 children die each month at the more than 200 refugee camps in northern Uganda, mainly from malaria, malnutrition and diseases spread through poor sanitation.

"One day recently, six children died. It's now 11 a.m. and already two children have died, so by the time the sun sets, you can imagine how many more will be gone," said Chief Rwot, whose village includes four camps with about 33,000 displaced people.

How could something like this go on for so long?

"The [Western] audience doesn't attach an economic value to the issue, probably because we don't have any diamonds or oil," said Nahaman Ojwe, the top federal official in Kitgum, a town 50 miles from Gulu.

"Look at all the attention paid to Sudan," he added.

The United States, Europe and the United Nations are heavily involved in attempting to end a civil war in Sudan's western province of Darfur, where an Islamist Arab government in Khartoum is fighting nomadic tribes. Before that, the West engaged in a major effort to broker a peace treaty in another civil war between Khartoum and the partly Christian south.

Though the two conflicts are usually depicted in terms of ethnicity and religion, oil drove the North-South war and Darfur is thought to contain large undeveloped oil reserves.

"It is hard to convince the West [that northern Uganda is important] because this is the way the audience has been brought up," Mr. Ojwe said. "Still, the international community is not so green about the issue. They've broken the ice."

Not on the agenda

"I was quite distressed because of the crimes [against children] when I met with the abductees -- and young kids. It is outrageous. It is inhuman. It is unacceptable," Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Jendayi E. Frazer told reporters after a recent visit to Gulu.

Mrs. Frazer toured a rehabilitation camp for escaped children, which is run by the international Christian charity World Vision. There, she listened to accounts of two escaped LRA fighters.

Nicholas, 12, and Ninety, 15, each described being forced to kill other children, with one being forced to join a group of five that was ordered to bite off the skin of a child until the victim bled to death.

Mrs. Frazer asked the children whether the United States could do anything to help. An uncomfortable silence followed as neither child had an answer.

Since that visit in late June, President Bush has met separately at the White House with the presidents of both Sudan and the autonomous region of southern Sudan, which was created with a January 2005 peace agreement.

In a July 20 meeting at the White House between Mr. Bush and southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir, the LRA conflict came up briefly because Mr. Kiir is mediating peace talks between Kony and the Ugandan government.

However, Darfur dominated the discussions, as well as the questions and comments by both leaders at a subsequent press conference. The LRA-Uganda negotiations received only passing acknowledgment in Mr. Kiir's public appearances that followed.

Fixing things

World Vision has operated a rehabilitation center in Gulu since 1995. A separate facility, run by Save the Children Uganda and known by the acronym Gusco, opened a year earlier. The United States is the biggest source of funding for both facilities.

Together, both organizations have returned nearly 20,000 escaped LRA soldiers to their families.

The first stop for an escaped child is the Ugandan army's Child Protection Unit in Gulu. Each child receives a bar of soap, toothbrush, toothpaste and a set of clothes and then is sent to either Gusco or World Vision.

There, he or she receives a minimum of six weeks of individual and group counseling. Parents and family are contacted, and arrangements are made for the child's return. Child mothers spend three months or more at the centers, where they are trained to use sewing machines and make handicrafts or taught other means to support themselves.

In both centers, the atmosphere is relaxed, and the children are given plenty of time to relax with other escapees. They eat three times a day and sleep in beds, usually for the first time in their lives.

At the World Vision center, each day begins with a Christian worship service.

"The Bible speaks a great deal about reconciliation and forgiveness," said David Orone, administrator of the World Vision center. "In dealing with a war, you are trying to cause a healing of a hurting heart and also to get someone to acknowledge what they have done.

"The hardest thing is for someone to forgive themselves. It's a gradual process. It is not one 'boom,' and everything falls into place. It is a healing process that can take a lifetime."

Children arrive at both centers expecting to be killed, which is what they have been told repeatedly by LRA overlords. They are instead greeted with a traditional Acholi song and dance that depicts centuries-old rituals used to reconcile feuding clans.

The fear quickly begins to dissipate as they meet other children, some of whom they've known from life in the bush.

Kony's shadow

Yet Kony casts a long shadow over the escapees, as if he is somehow watching every move. Whatever may have happened in the bush, few escapees are willing to speak ill of Kony.

"People say Kony is a devil or a wizard, but when you meet him it's different. He knows what will happen in the future," said Catherine, 20.

Catherine spent 10 years in the wilderness with the LRA. Now she is preparing to move, with her daughter, Harriet, 6, into a hut where her mother now lives.

"What happened is nobody's fault. He was abducted, too," Catherine said of Harriet's father, a senior LRA commander who was also abducted as a child.

"He was forced to do everything. Someday he'll go back to his home, I'll go to mine. I don't want to see him again. The only thing I want is for my daughter to go to school, to study, to become someone."

A reunion took place the next day, with three generations of women embracing.

After a short prayer service, joined by some neighbors, Catherine's mother, Mary, said, "God has a plan for [Catherine]. That plan is still there, and I'm just waiting for what will happen."

After years of silence, Kony surfaced in April on a video with leaders of the autonomous southern Sudan government, offering peace talks with the Ugandan government.

The talks have begun and taken on a surreal quality, with Kony, a former altar boy, claiming that he never hurt anyone and that every atrocity ever blamed on the LRA was committed by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

"Let me tell you clearly what happened in Uganda. Museveni went into the villages and cut off the ears of the people, telling the people that it was the work of the LRA. I cannot cut the ear of my brother; I cannot kill the eye of my brother," Kony told the British Broadcasting Corp. in a rare interview last month.

Not welcome

The feeling of comfort and safety in the World Vision and Gusco rehabilitation centers -- after horrors of life in the bush -- seems too perfect to last. For many, it ends all too quickly.

Sam, the 12-year-old rescued in April, was one of eight children being driven to new homes in a Toyota van. Each wore a set of new clothes. Bags of corn meal, high-protein flour, long-bladed hoes, packets of seeds and other supplies for each child were lashed tightly to a roof rack. Supplies include a few dollars in cash, so the children will not be looked on initially as a burden.

During the drive, someone commented that Jennifer, 15, had been lucky because she escaped after two days.

"Those two days will be 10 years in my life," Jennifer replied. "I was forced to beat someone to death, to bite off their skin. I'll never forget spitting out the flesh and blood."

She said she will never be able to eat meat again.

"I also participated in killing somebody," said Tony, 16. "That is the first thing they make you do [after being kidnapped], to remove the fear."

"I had to bite someone to death, too, and it was more than once," Sam added.

A few minutes later, Sam was dropped off.

There was no sign of his parents, or any relatives, even though Sam's father had told World Vision to drop his son off at the site with an older sister.

When reporters came back the next day to check on Sam, neither parent had arrived.

"I expected them to be here," Sam said, bursting into tears.

Sam was later driven by reporters to his parent's new home and was taken in -- at least for now.