1 - 2005 Winter - Children at War
By Nigel Marsh
Annette*, 12, sweeps around the packed-earth compound. Priscilla*, 11, straightens out their few possessions and tidies up the reed mats on the floor of their mud-and-thatch hut. Constance*, 5, stands at the door and watches, wide-eyed, clutching a thin, gray blanket.
The girls hate to go, but a tense knot in their stomachs urges them to join the Pied Piper’s procession into the town of Gulu, a bit farther than a mile away. It has been more than a year since they dared to sleep at home.
The girls finish. They close the rough wooden door, bid goodbye to the aunt who has cared for them since their parents died of AIDS, and briskly kiss their sickly baby sister.
Annette leads Constance by the hand down the dirt road. As they walk, red-stained cumulus clouds flicker menacingly with rain-season lightning. The girls soon become anonymous, swallowed up among dozens, hundreds, and finally thousands of other children, all walking into Gulu.
These are the “night commuters” of northern Uganda, a generation for whom “safety” means leaving adults behind and spending each night under canvas, in rough shelters, or on the verandas of schools and hospitals. They get little sleep on the hard, bare floors, and no food. What they seek is proximity tosoldiers—any hint of protection from the child-stealing rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), who have terrorized this region since well before the girls were born.
Annette, Priscilla, and Constance arrive at Noah’s Ark, one of 20 organized centers for night commuters in town. Volunteer staff lead the children in singing and prayers, doing their best in the dark. There is a power cut, and their generator broke down long ago.
“Two weeks ago, we had 2,000 children a night, but at the moment it’s less than that,” says deputy manager Juliet Cherukut, watching as Annette and her sisters find floor space in a bare classroom. “The number depends on the security situation. Last year we had 300 children packed in each classroom and tent every night—7,000 children in total. They slept in rows, packed like sacks.”
One of the adult volunteers, Christine Ajok, has personal reasons for being there. “I do it because I think all these are our children,” she says. “My own children come here as well—I have nine, and it’s not safe for them to sleep at home.”
But the trek poses its own risks. Girls on their way to the center have been raped, Christine says. “There is another big problem. Some of the older girls walk to town and find someone to sleep with, for money,” she explains. “And that’s going to lead to the spread of HIV/AIDS.”
Sometimes the children play games at the center, but not tonight, not in the dark, with the lightning-lit rain clouds looming. Instead they quickly fetch water in plastic basins and use the concrete-walled washrooms recently installed by World Vision.
The excited chatter will stop when the downpour comes, says Juliet. “When it rains, the children really suffer,” she says. “They stay standing all night long because the water comes in the sides of the tents.”
Haunted by the Past
In the 19 years the LRA has been fighting against the Ugandan army, many children have died horrible deaths in the vast savannah that stretches unbroken from northern Uganda into southern Sudan. An unknown number—hundreds, probably thousands—are still living as laborers, fighters, and sex slaves for merciless rebel commanders.
After being forced to take part in horrible crimes against their own communities, many children escape or get captured by the Ugandan military and then are entrusted to World Vision for rehabilitation. Another center cares for young girls who were raped and impregnated by rebel commanders, while a third handles male adult returnees.
“In 10 years of operation, we have helped reintegrate nearly 11,000 children with the community,” says Michael Oruni, manager for World Vision’s rehabilitation center.
The rebels tell the children they will be killed by the Ugandan army or by World Vision should they escape. So the effort to help the new arrivals understand they are safe begins the moment they turn up at the center. A bell tolls, bringing forth all the children from the center. They gather at the assembly hall, singing in the Acholi language, Cwinywa yom, ayoma— “We are so happy to receive our friends.”
“When they see their friends singing, they say to themselves, Well, this one has not yet died,” Michael says.
The children are assessed by a full-time nurse. Some have serious injuries and will need time in the hospital. All are malnourished and suffering from scabies, worms, and damaged feet. Most are scarred from past beatings and battles. The children arrive with nothing. The staff give them clothing, a mattress, bed clothes, washing kits—everything they need to feel comfortable.
“The idea they will be poisoned [at the center] stays in their minds for a time, and they may be reluctant to taste food at first,” says Michael. “We encourage them, eat with them, and serve from the same plate.”
Children are also hesitant to give up their bush clothes. “We tell them they need to separate themselves from the old life. These are clothes they may have removed from the body of someone they’ve killed, or taken from a rape victim—it holds them back to the past,” Michael explains. Eventually, the clothes are burned in an informal ceremony.
Helping children to the point when they can go home safely can take at least a month. The process begins with a personal interview with a counselor. Then the child is placed in a small group with similar histories. Children grieve what they have lost, pass through denial and anger, and find themselves withdrawing into states of depression.
Children may not want to talk at first. Counselors have become adept at using drama, dance, song, Bible stories, and art. “On arrival, the child will draw what is most painful—the abduction, fighting, killing a relative,” Michael explains. “After two or three weeks, if that child is recovering, most likely he will draw a staff member he likes, a motorcycle, or whatever he likes about the current life. Later the child will draw pictures of the things he liked about home. You see a progression.”
“The rebels took us and gave us beans to carry, a very heavy load. We had to walk nearly 10 miles that first night,” he says. “They beat me a lot in those days. Anything wrong we did, anytime we got tired, they beat us. There was never a single happy moment during my time in the bush.”
Like all survivors, Stephen had to pretend willingness to join his LRA abductors. An initiation ceremony in which he was nearly beaten to death with the flat sides of machetes was followed by anointment with oil from a local nut. He was given a gun and forced to participate in attacks on villages.
Stephen’s unwanted career came to an end when a Ugandan army unit ambushed his raiding party as they prepared an attack not far from his home village. From the army barracks he was taken to the World Vision center. (Oliver, who had also been freed, returned home several weeks before Stephen.)
Now preparing to leave, Stephen checks his belongings—the mattress he has slept on, a hoe head, seeds, food, and various items from World Vison that will make his homecoming smoother. He says farewell to friends who are staying behind and climbs into the vehicle.
His parents now live in a camp for displaced people, like hundreds of thousands of others who have been uprooted by the fighting. Koro camp is a maze of round mud huts with overhanging thatched roofs. There is hardly room to move, yet scores of children quickly appear, congregating around Stephen.
His 5-year-old sister, Lily*, wide-eyed, grabs his hand as soon as she sees him. She doesn’t want to let him go again. Stephen likes the contact; he holds her hand, touches the head of his baby sister, and shakes hands with his ecstatic parents.
His father, Kenneth*, smiles, remembering the day they learned Stephen was free. “Our happiness was so great, the people around here came out to share it, we were thanking God so loudly.”
Stephen hopes that he can return to high school in Gulu. “People will receive me well there, I think,” he says. He admits that school fees might be a problem. Kenneth cannot farm his distant land, so he tries to earn money by working in other people’s fields.
But no one wants to dwell on negatives right now. “There is nothing worse that could happen to a parent than to lose your sons and fear them dead in this way,” Kenneth says. “We only thank God, and World Vision, for their successful return to us. We are all here now. We are together.”
*Names changed to protect identities.
© 2015 World Vision Inc.
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