It’s rather quiet at the Uganda Gulu Recovery Centre for former child soldiers. The three large tents, that housed thousands of children who escaped from warlord Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, are empty; the children having moved on, either to return to their families or to start a new life on their own. The kitchen that fed the workers, counsellors and the formerly abducted persons (FAP’s) is empty except for a pile of ashes left in the cooking pits and the only sign of life at the centre is a group of men sitting under the acacia tree, talking and enjoying a respite from the afternoon sun.
But don’t be deceived. Although Kony is long gone, hiding in the Congo or somewhere in Central Africa, and his army is greatly diminished, the effects of his twenty years of terror on Northern Uganda are still being felt. And although many of the children have undergone counselling and been reunited with their families and returned to school or developed a vocational skill, there is still much work to be done.
The time spent recovering after years spent in captivity is difficult. Families, who abductees were eager to be reunited with, often refused to see their children, thinking they were possessed by evil spirits or still capable of violence and committing other atrocities. Horrid canings and torture endured in the bush by the children were revisited in flashbacks that came as visions to the former child soldiers during the day and as nightmares during the night.
Though many children may now be free from the terrors of being a child soldier, they are not able to take up where they left off. There is no childhood to return to when your school books have been replaced with an AK-47.
That’s why it’s important to continue with the therapy, the gatherings around the acacia tree with a group or one-on-one with a counsellor, the vocational training, and sessions that create awareness within the community to develop an understanding of post-traumatic stress and encourage new beginnings.
And then there are the children who were born in captivity, children whose mothers were made to be “wives” of the generals and commanders in the LRA, who do not have an identity. They lack a recorded birth date and therefore a birth certificate. They are ostracized from the community, labelled as “Kony’s children” and teased and taunted by their peers.
There is still much work to be done at the Gulu Recovery Centre. Schooling, vocational training, counselling: all offer these children and adults hope, an opportunity to move forward and a chance to prove themselves. And that is why we must continue with our efforts to help the former child soldiers in Uganda. We can’t give them back their childhoods but we can give them a more promising future.