Abducted as a child and forced to kill, so now what? Exploring ways forward for LRA returnees in Northern Uganda

If you came to Gulu, Northern Uganda, unaware of it's harrowing past, you wouldn't have a clue a 30 year war had happened...at first. This energetic town has things to do, an array of different hotels, a couple of swimming pools, a reasonable sized supermarket, lots of second hand clothes shops, a UN presence and plenty of charities, plus happy, friendly people. It's only if you start speaking to people that you learn that nearly everyone here was affected somehow by the 3-decades-long insurgency involving the infamous Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), otherwise known here as Kony's Army, that raged here.

Gulu, Northern Uganda

Gulu, Northern Uganda

History

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The history goes that Uganda was largely divided between the Southern agriculturalists who were the Baganda people, and the Northern hunters and cattle herders; the Acholi people. This divide continued during British colonisation, with the Acholi making up most of the army and remaining separated, whilst the Baganda people were more involved in the development that was happening in Uganda. After independence from the British in 1962, the competing worsened as the Uganda Bush War began, and Yoweri Museveni's National Resistance Army (NRA) won control of the country. As victors, they retaliated against the Acholi they had been fighting in the north and Operation Simsim was deployed (simsim is sesame seed paste for those who don't know), with lootings, burning of villages and killing people.

Map of Uganda from the 70s showing the general divide of tribes

Map of Uganda from the 70s showing the general divide of tribes

In response to these acts of violence by the government, rebel groups were formed, the main one being led by a lady named Alice Lakwena, a spiritualist who refused to take arms against the government, but began a group of protestors who would take sticks and stones to fight against the Ugandan army. She said she was a messenger of the Holy Spirit and taught her troops to cover themselves in nut-oil as protection from the bullets. This confident “magic” won them many battles but they were stopped in Jinja, a town east of Kampala. Joseph Kony had a similar spiritual stance, but advocated killing, which included civilians. He associated himself with Lakwena and when she was defeated he recruited her spiritual force group and many other civilians; the government were still carrying out acts of violence and seemed uncontrolled, so recruitment to fight this was not hard. This was the beginnings of the worldwide known, Lord's Resistance Army, named after it's leader Joseph Kony.

The Lord's Resistance Army

The Lord's Resistance Army's (LRA) insurgency began in 1987 and was only officially declared to have left Uganda in 2006 after a truce with Ugandan government and its newly named NRA army; the Ugandan People Defence Force (UPDF). Over these nearly 30 years the LRA went from being supported by the population in the north, to being feared by them. The government played a big part in this as they had a heavy hand against anyone assisting the LRA. Also the abductions that had begun, mainly of children under the age of 15, obviously changed the nature of the LRA from a resistance rebel group, to ruthless child abductors; forcing children to fight, act as sex slaves, and harrowingly kill their families so that the chance of escaping the LRA and returning home would be impossible. The government created protected internally displaced person (IDP) camps, to house the 95% of the Acholi people that were displaced by the early 2000s. Tragically these camps were also attacked; there seemed to be no escape for these people.  The camps had the highest mortality rate of any camp before, with people dying of malaria and AIDs, as well as from the attacks, and nearly 2 million people displaced, this was a catastrophic problem.

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Gulu was the first town to be attacked by the LRA back in 1987, and was also one of the towns, as well as Kitgum to the north, hosting the famous child ‘night commuters’. Instructed by their parents and elders, 40,000 children walked from the surrounding villages at night to sleep in the towns, as they were deemed a safer place to avoid abduction, and then retuned at 6am. I’m going to let that sink in for a moment, 40,000 children walking alone to sleep on the streets or in temporary structures away from their parents, as this is more safe than staying at home?! If that doesn’t rein home the insanity of what this war was, and still is, I don’t know what will. And an even more shocking statistic? Over half of this number , 25,000, is the number of children abducted by the LRA between 1987 and 2006. The word tragedy doesn’t quite fit does it?

The LRA dressed in army uniform and had dreadlocks

The LRA dressed in army uniform and had dreadlocks

During this time of abductions and killings, the LRA had support from the Sudanese government in Khartoum. This government backed Kony because the Ugandan government had supported South Sudan in the war between the now separate countries of North and South Sudan, so in revenge, they helped Kony. This meant the LRA moved between Uganda, South Sudan, Sudan, Central African Republic (CAR) and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), gaining force and growing. Many of the child soldiers were now adults and had known only a life of killing, and had become commanders themselves, creating an immoral, confused force of leaders, led by a mysterious and ‘spiritual’ ruthless monster. This was not a good combination, and even the many who retained their ability to distinguish between what was right and wrong, had no choice; kill or be killed. Needless to say, the death toll was high.

Some of the lucky abductees managed escape and in response to this the Amnesty Law was granted in 2000 to allow them to return home without any retribution. This was part of much needed rehabilitation as thousands were escaping and needed to be able to return home and integrate back into  their communities and society. Some were fortunate enough to be given support and counseling from organsiations such as Gulu United to Save the Children Organisation (GUSCO), but many fell through the net and so had to continue life as normal, many having lost their family, and had witnessed and been forced to carry out heinous crimes; things that no adult should be subject to, let alone a child.

 

A truce

More abductions, more killings, some returning... and this continued for nearly 30 years, with peace talks failing each time they were attempted. Finally in 2006 a truce was signed and the LRA were forced to leave Uganda. Sadly this wasn’t so great for South Sudan, CAR and DRC, as to this day Kony and his now small group are still there.

In 2012 in the aftermath of the war, to add to the already chaotic (a stronger word is needed here) situation, the Amnesty Law was then removed, creating further confusion and seeming to almost advocate killings by the UPDF of those who were still escaping the LRA. So the abductees had the joy of escape and freedom met with violence and death from the people who they thought were sent to save them…thankfully the law was re-instated a year later in May 2013, but for many this was tragically too late.

 

Amnesty or prosecuted?

The ICC's issue for the  arrest of the 5 top commanders of the LRA remained after the war and resulted in Dominic Ongwen's arrest in 2013. The Amnesty Law however then presents a huge dilemma; that the people carrying out the atrocities could potentially come home and avoid any recompense for the atrocities that they had committed, particularly the commanders. This has been addressed by the Ugandan government saying that there is no blanket amnesty for commanders and instead, they explain that Uganda is working with a "dual conflict response model that seeks to pursue peace alongside accountability". If we take Ongwen, as an example, he is now being tried at The Hague by the International Criminal Court (ICC), but he was also a child soldier and was abducted at 10, so he is also a victim of the LRA, which makes it very difficult to deal with fairly. If these commanders who were also child soldiers themselves receive amnesty then a sense of injustice remains, but if someone themselves was abducted at a pivotal age in their development, and war and violence is all they’ve really known, how best can that person be dealt with? One of the many questions asked in Uganda during my interviews with children and adults alike. The world waits to see how the ICC will deal with Ongwen, and then this will pave the way for how commanders such as Thomas Kwoyelo will be tried at Uganda’s High Court. There is warrant still for the arrest of the other 2 top commanders who remain alive, including the infamous Joseph Kony.

 

Present

The present day picture is messy: tens of thousands of people brutalised by a war, now living in poverty; many children missed their education, and for those who lost their families, paying school fees as orphans or with one parent or guardian, is almost impossible; thousands of women with children as a result of being ‘given as a wife’ who have now returned and are single mothers struggling with the reality of what happened to them, as well as trying to provide for fatherless children; families missing members, with no justice having been served for those who are responsible for their loss; the list goes on.

 

REPARATION

There is little, if any, support from the government to reintegrate returnees back into society and ensure they are given the tools to be able to move forward and have a bright future. Children who have missed the basis of their childhood are not delivered counseling or any type of therapy by the government, in fact there is no support at all. Missing out on being a child, and instead having to be a soldier or a wife to someone at this vital time of growth, leaves a lasting trauma and change in how this person will then relate as an adult. We learn right and wrong and are nurtured by our parents as we grow, but if that time has been spent by a child fearing for  their life, not having any stability, and having no-one there for them because they were torn away from their family, plus add on not being fed or physically cared for either, and then being trained how to kill and brutalise, witnessing rape, torture and never-ending violence; how do you think that child grows? I think the answer is a complicated one but never a good one. I have interviewed now grown men who are 10 years or more out of the bush and still are haunted by what they saw or did; breaking down when re-visiting memories. It made my stomach turn witnessing this. They need to be helped to find the tools to let these things become part of them, but not dominate them and break them anymore. This is a hard and multi-faceted task, but an essential one.

This is part of what the charity I am Somebody’s Child Soldier and Be The Change are working to help with, predominantly in children but with an overall aim to have mental health as a more acceptable discussion and focal point. Using art therapy, we can try to find ways to allow children to access their feelings and the things that disturb them, and to then be able to express them. In doing so this can help make them more manageable, and a problem then shared with others, isn’t a battle they fight alone and hopefully then doesn’t cause more problems further down the line.

The Amnesty Law was created to assist with these processes, but obviously does not solve all reintegration problems, and still today there is a stigma and a separated feeling; one where those who have returned from the bush are judged as being different. There are nicknames used such as ‘Bush” and ‘Returnee’ to label them and a fear is had by many about what they might do if trusted. A headmaster of a local school in Gulu described the issues he sees where the returnees are thought to be bad and are not free people; they are restricted as to what they can do. Another issue is that they may not remember their origins and so have no-one to come home to. This means they have to rent a house, which is a financial impossibility for most if not all, plus they may not have education to get a job, and don’t even have a community to fit into. This results in many then living on the streets, homeless and outside of any community and care.

There is also a call for a financial aspect of help in the form of compensation from the government, for the land lost by many, and for those who lost family members. This would not make the loss any less, but would allow people struggling to get back on their feet. The mourning goes on without any justice delivered or acknowledgement by the government in the way of support. We are 12 years on from the truce and still no formal reparation process has been issued by the government, there has not even been a survey done to assess the actual numbers of people affected, and how they were affected. How can action be carried out to help with reconciliation and future-building, when there is still no measured idea of the scale of the issue?! A final draft of a transitional justice policy underlining the responsibilities of the government in providing reparations to the victims, establishing truth-telling mechanisms and accountability measures has been pending approval by the office of President Yoweri Museveni since 2013. That’s 5 years ago. And as time passes, the injustice lies  just beneath the surface, as does anger and deep damage to three whole generations, particularly the youngest, who were the stake in what the UN deemed “a war on children, fought by children”.

How does this time bomb ever get diffused if no-one leads the way through a formal reconciliation and reparation process?

 

Will President Museveni finally step up and start the healing process?

Will President Museveni finally step up and start the healing process?

Future

As we have established, there is a definite need for the government to take the lead on the healing of it's own country, helping lead actions and reform to bring everyone together and be able to move forward. This has to happen, not only due to the country needing a united, one-hand approach to the process of moving forward, but also because it is noted that the government’s NRA were the original spark that caused the flames; if they hadn’t been ethnically cleansing the army of its’ Northern people’s influence, this would not have started! It’s continued brutality also played a huge part! The NRA (now UPDF) are alongside the LRA in also being guilty of atrocities and there are many accounts of times that they dealt with situations in an uncontrolled and brutal manner, involving a lot of civilians and encouraging fear and confusion to reign. In the time that the amnesty was lifted for any of the LRA soldiers returning the UPDF made matters worse and threw many captive child-soldiers into further confusion, darkness and despair. Alex Olango's account in his book 'Scars of a boy soldier' recalls how many times they tried to escape but were actually more scared of what the government soldiers would do to them, than staying in the hell they were living in. They witnessed fleeing captive LRA soldiers being brutalized and tortured by the UPDF, which left them with nowhere to go apart from considering suicide, or awaiting their death from starvation, drowning in river crossings, being killed by bullets during fights with government soldiers or massacre by the LRA that they were forcibly part of. It is beyond belief, and my words don’t even glance a touch on the true horror that these young men and women went through.

 

Support from elsewhere

The lack of social support for orphans, former abductees and women who have come out of the bush with children after being raped by commanders, really shocks me. I know Uganda in general isn’t high up on the GDP per capita list, but there is far too much corruption and personal benefits taken by those in power for this to be used as an excuse for every place that social welfare is lacking. It’s a hard conversation to be had, but it has to continue and be bravely addressed for the sake of everyone.

Whilst waiting for the government to act, we mustn’t undervalue the benefit that comes from support and commitment from sources outside of the government also, and those from outside the country. Evelyn Amony talks in her book 'I am Evelyn Amony: Reclaiming life after the LRA', about her life as one of Kony's forced wives, returning from the bush, and the ways in which NGOs helped her to get where she is today. The positive effects of this kind of support that I have witnessed myself are wonderful and must be encouraged to continue. I know women who have been sponsored to do vocational training through an NGO and carry the letters from their sponsor around their neck in a pouch; children who receive a lunch every day thanks to their sponsor and have stopped stealing food because their bellies are full; and adults who now are successful in their careers who put it down to the fact that they had the backing of someone who cared, someone standing in their corner, especially after they had been through so much! Obviously sponsorship of schooling or training is not the only type of help that has a positive effect in building futures. Psychotherapy for those who have suffered trauma is essential, rehabilitation efforts, amplified discussions on mental health, housing assistance for single-parents and orphanage support for the many who lost their parents in the war (on top of the already high numbers of orphans from other causes such as AIDs, illness and accidents). A lot of these things are delivered through skilled NGO workers, which is not to say this could not be delivered by the government, and should be the aim going forward, but as of now, the huge gaps are there, and I worry what would happen if NGOs were not filling them. I also feel, and I am not alone in this, that due to the general lack of response that the world gave the war for the 3 decades it was running, we, as the rest of the world, have a responsibility to be doing something, albeit it tens of years too late. Yes there were efforts, but they paled into insignificance based on how bad things were here, how violent and how large a number of people were involved. How was it that a group can terrorise an area of a nation for 30 years, abduct 25,000 children, kill tens of thousands, leave tens of thousands more physically maimed, emotionally and mentally destroy generations, creating a wave of serious issues that will cascade into the future - and no country steps in with a heavy hand to stop it? Baffling and hurts my heart to think of it…

So NOW we must act.

I am fortunate enough to come from a safe background where I grew up worrying about menial things such as when I could go horse-riding, who fancied who at school, and how late we could stay out playing in the streets. This makes me and most of the people reading this, part of the lucky 1% in the world. I have always been concerned with social and environmental issues and animal welfare in the world; volunteering, fundraising, choosing a vegan diet to reflect my morals, and knowing that my life’s purpose is to help change the world and help alleviate suffering of all kinds. That’s why I am here away from home volunteering again and have started a charity. I shouldn’t stand in the minority though and there is always more we can do, and it doesn’t have to be so extreme as living out in rural Uganda and giving up all your savings; every compassionate action makes a difference. If we ALL realized how blessed we are and gave back to the world that we have been treated kindly by - it would be a better place. It is only by luck that we are born where we are born, any one of us could have been born in amongst a war, or a famine, or in a country fraught with poverty and corruption, so that fact we weren’t should be something that we utilise to our advantage to give back to help make sure that no-one else has to be the unlucky one.

Some of the returnee students at Laroo Primary School bond over swimming and games; we aim to build support networks and friendships

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volunteer work here in present day gulu

In future posts I will be writing about some of the amazing people I have met here in the last 7 months, specifically those here in Gulu who were affected by the war. My charity Be The Change sponsors some of these young people to be able to come to school and finish their education. We also partner with I am Somebody’s Child Soldier (IamSCS) to engage with the students to find out what they need for them to be able to heal, and allowing them to tell their stories. IamSCS will also be rolling out an arts therapy programme; teaching tools for rehabilitation and encouraging mental health discussions. Be The Change urges you to do just that, and be the change in the world by supporting our projects and the young people here that desperately need help, love and a hopeful future. Anyone can donate to the project here or message us for information on sponsoring a child or young women through their education - you wouldn’t believe how little can make a difference, but yet is so unattainable to them.

On a last note, please share this article and their subsequent stories widely, so that the world can no longer turn a blind eye to this deeply wounded nation; let’s show these children that someone somewhere is listening and cares.

 

Next post: 'Stories from the bush; real-life accounts that never should be anyone's reality'