Africa's child soldiers face their victims

Originally published
Johannesburg, South Africa. December 6 1999
A painful reconciliation process is under way after a brutal war.

BURHAN WAZIR reports from Uganda

How do you rehabilitate children brutalised in a bloody border war? The answer is slowly and with extreme difficulty.
In a camp about 80km east of Gulu in northern Uganda, more than 40 000 people are living in thatched huts in a complex that should house only half that number.

Three boys sit with their backs against a hut deep inside the camp. The afternoon sun punishes all those who wander into its glare. All three are "deprogrammed" child soldiers, rehabilitated by local charities.

The trio look around nervously as they describe their time in combat. As a crowd gathers the boys grow silent and look mournfully at their feet. The audience is inhibiting and adult minders drive the onlookers away with sticks.

"I was made to draw a picture when I went for counselling," Josef Opio, 15, says finally. He was kidnapped by the guerrilla Lord's Resistance Army at the age of nine, and returned to Gulu this year.

Trained as a frontline soldier, Josef escaped when Ugandan forces ambushed his team. As part of his rehabilitation, he was asked to confront and forgive his kidnappers - themselves boys once kidnapped by the LRA.

"The doctors asked me to draw my most horrific experience," Josef continues. "And I could remember one incident that really scared me. A boy had tried to escape but had been recaptured. As I watched, five other boys returned [with] bayonets and rifles. He later died. I just stood there, watching it all happen."

Since 1994 more than 10 000 children have been kidnapped by the Sudanese-based LRA. The girls are sold into sexual slavery in southern Sudan, the boys used for gun-running, kidnapping and combat. They have started to desert the ramshackle army: it has been inactive for most of this year as numbers dwindled.

Half of the child soldiers have returned to the makeshift camps around Gulu, but more than 5 000 remain unaccounted for. Most register their return with the army but others fear reprisals. Those who do register are offered trauma counselling and psychiatric help. Older children are taught basic trades such as metalwork and woodwork and are set to test their new skills in the camps.

"The army has made it clear that we are here to help these children return to their families," says Colonel JF Oketta, the commander of Ugandan forces in Gulu.

He admits the army has yet to inspire the trust of the local Acholi people: more than 150 junior officers have been condemned to death for crimes ranging from murder to rape. As recently as August a group of soldiers entered one camp and raped 10 women. None of the soldiers has been questioned yet.

At a council meeting on Thursday night, local politicians discussed the crises facing the region: joblessness, crime and Aids. Gulu has the highest infant mortality rate in the country - 700 deaths per 100 000 births against a national average of 507.

"The rehabilitation is hard," says the council chairman, Lieutenant-Colonel Walter Ochora. "The boys, especially the older ones, have a hard time. They have no jobs to go to, few have an education. So we have cases of fights breaking out, some stabbings even. In an area like this, where we have a huge shortage of investment, there is too little for the young adults to do."

All the Acholi leaders believe the wounds can be healed. "Reconciliation with no regret is an ancient Acholi custom," says Ochora. He insists that, if the LRA were to surrender unconditionally, there would be no retribution. One boy, Charles Oranga, 13, voices a similar view.

"I felt like killing my kidnapper when I first met him," he mumbles. "But then I was told that he had only done it because he was forced to - and I later did the same thing as well.

"That made me see the other side: it is not hard to forgive someone when they tell you that. We ended up playing football together. He's not a friend, but I have no hatred any more."

Back in Gulu on Thursday night, a group of Acholi men and women sit waiting outside a local health clinic. All of them bear repugnant injuries - their eyes, ears, legs or lips hacked out or off in warning attacks by the LRA.

"I can't live with my parents any more," says Angela Amin, 20. She and her friend were ambushed by an LRA convoy in 1994 and a child soldier cut off her lip with a machete. Now a skinless wound runs across the top of her mouth, which is crudely stitched over her teeth. "The people in my village are rude," she says. "They chase me sometimes, calling me names."

Unicef's representative in Kampala, Michel Sidide, says Uganda's woes can be blamed on the border conflicts. He cites disputes in the north and clashes between Ugandan forces and the Congolese-backed Allied Democratic Front in the west as evidence of the region's instability.

"Any of these problems could be solved by politics, but there doesn't seem to be a diplomatic will as yet. So, inevitably, all the solutions that present themselves are of a military nature."