The Lost Children Of Uganda

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If a child is kidnapped in the United States, the parents begin to look for their child. They alarm the police who start running what is known as the Amber Alert: TV stations as well as electronic billboards in the missing child's state begin showing pictures of the missing child and radio stations start broadcasting descriptions to alert the citizens that a child has been abducted. In addition, the police may even move out in helicopters to bring the missing child safely back home to their family and put the abductor in jail, so that he or she cannot harm anyone anymore. ("Another town in Africa - "Lira"", „AMBER Alert - Guidelines")

If a child is kidnapped by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda, none of this happens. In the last 20 years, about 15,000 children have been abducted; however, just few of them could escape on their own. ("Children in armed conflict 3") If these children come home, most of them cannot return to their families as their parents are dead - killed by their children members of the LRA. ("Child Soldiers- Changing a Culture of Violence") They are feared by their community for the crimes they were forced to commit and they are psychologically traumatized. ("Afrika news")

For about 30 years, the civil war in Uganda has been going on now. For over 20 years, LRA lead by Joseph Kony who claims to be a prophet has been engaged in an armed rebellion against the Ugandan government. ("Ugandan civil war") During this time, they have not just been killing, torturing and raping civilians but also abducting large numbers of children to force them to fight in their army.

Working on a field with his cousin, 17-year-old Richard Opio was abducted by LRA members 10 years ago. Going back to Richard's house, they also abducted Richard's parents and forced Richard to kill them. Knowing that they would also kill Richard if he refused, his parents begged him to follow the Rebels' will. So Richard killed his parents. Now a new part of his life began. His life has now been forever changed.

What is life like for those children once they are in the army?

After being abducted, Richard was immediately trained and taught how to use a gun. Discipline was brutally enforced and a failure resulted in a beating. If they were on a raid and came back empty-handed, they would get beaten. "The only way to avoid punishment was to raid civilians!" said Richard. Most part of his life in the bush was killing people like Richard told; he killed seven of them personally, with every available tool, many others with skirmishes and ambushes. He was a member of a unit that included about one hundred people and took part in attacks on towns, villages and travellers.

Richard's story is similar to the story of the numerous child soldiers used as spies, messengers, guards, porters, cooks, sex slaves and recruits. Twenty-five percent of the abducted children are girls. (Eichenstaedt "First kill your family")

These children walk for miles everyday with just little water and food. "I could not even eat the food." said Ojok, another former child soldier, "I was just thinking of all I left behind.

Beyond that the children have to complete training exercises that often result in death and they are forced to kill civilians. ("Will northern ugandan child soldiers get another chance?")

The girls under them are often soldiers as well as they are forced to become the LRA soldiers' wives. Some of them get pregnant and or become infected with HIV. ("The unknown war")

Child soldiers are forced to kill others or being killed. Although they are victims, a lot of them don't escape and change to offenders as they lose the track of personal lives, family culture and even moral code. ("Children in Armed Conflict") They learn indifference and brutality and are transformed into brutal killers. ("Former child soldiers undergo rehabilitation")

One day after two years, Richard tolcd the commander that he was leaving. The commander didn't believe him; however, Richard was so afraid of what he had done that he didn't fear for his life anymore. He just walked away. The other soldiers waited for the order to kill Richard but the commander believed Richard would give in and come back.

Richard didn't. "If they followed, I was ready to kill," he said. After walking for two days, he finally reached a national army unit where he thought he might find his uncle.

Then "he applied for and received amnesty." The worst time of his life was over.

But what happens to those children when they escape? Is there a way of rehabilitation?

After one month of staying with the military, Richard was moved to a reintegration centre in Gulu for former child soldiers.

The years after his escape have been difficult for Richard. People reject him because of his past and he dreams of the people he killed: "… They are crying for mercy. When the nightmares come, I end up feeling I should go back to the bush because there's nothing left [for me]. "When he tried to make friends with other people his age, their parents prevent that as they are afraid he could influence their children. "They call us killers!" he said. His only company are other former child soldiers but he finds little comfort in that. "Many say that they feel like going back to the bush," he says, because they face a future full of alienation and distrust. Few of them received the resettlement packages promised by the Ugandan government."

But even with his relatives he barely talks. When he shares memories with his uncle the bush comes back to his mind and his younger brother and two younger sisters rarely talk to him because of what he did to their parents. So he stays alone most of the time. (Eichenstaedt "First kill your family")

Being alone is something Ojok also experienced when he escaped. He returned home to discover that his parents had been killed by the LRA. . ("Will northern ugandan child soldiers get another chance?")

A lot of the child soldiers share their stories. If their parents or relatives are still alive, they say: "We lost a child and got back a murderer!" ("The childsoldier-projekt in Paule")

The rehabilitation for those children is very difficult. A lot of these kids have traumas. So the rehabilitation centers don't just try to teach them the subjects they have to know but also use art, music and drama as a therapy. Even after they escaped, most of the children are still emotionally isolated. So the main idea of the rehabilitation centers is to make them social again. ("Former LRA soldiers undergo rehabilitation")

Besides, they have to take care of another subject: Not only that the children are traumatized: Some of the escaped girls are even pregnant. So they are taught basic parenting skills.

Even after the rehabilitation, it is difficult for the children as they have had fewer opportunities for their education and development. Therefore a lot them are drawn back into the conflict although they escaped because they don't have any marketable skills. ("Children in armed conflict")

In addition, they have learned indifference and brutality. The children have only known violence, so they are tending more likely to solve their personal problems with violence. ("Former LRA soldiers undergo rehabilitation")

However; a lot of them hope to finish their education and to start a normal life. (Eichenstaedt "First kill your family", "Will northern ugandan child soldiers get another chance?")