When a once-beautiful piece of cloth has turned into rags, no one remembers that it was woven by a master weaver. ~ Igbo proverb
The first thing that comes to mind when anyone visits the World Vision Gulu Reception Centre for former child soldiers in Uganda is this: Big. The cement wall encloses at least 18 large buildings. Some buildings are set aside for counselling activities where children re-enact their experiences with the LRA, draw pictures of their abductions and life in the bush, and talk and dance and sing and play music. Some buildings offer rooms with beds for the children to sleep, safe, with new friends. There are, of course, a few latrines and some tents and the odd tree offering shade from the afternoon sun. But when a person walks through the compound a sudden realization occurs: If the centre is so big, just how many former child soldiers have had the good fortune to escape and come to this haven away from hell?
The answer? Some 25,000 children have made their way through this and the Gulu Support the Children Organization (GUSCO) centre since 1994.
But now the number of children who receive counselling has dropped. Not because there are no longer any more child soldiers, but because many of the children who were once abducted are now adults and are now managing to escape. After 5, 10 or more years as a child soldier these adults, deprived of their childhood, now come to the recovery centre and learn ways to return to a normal life and leave the past behind them.
One of these adults, a woman I will call Amani which means “peace” in Swahili, was abducted when she was sixteen years old and forced to be a child soldier for eight years.
Now imagine it: eight years. What would a typical girl be doing for those eight years? Going to High School, hanging out with her friends, going to University or College, starting a career, finding the love of her life, getting married, starting a family …
But what was Amani doing? Looting the homes and properties of her fellow countrymen, being forced to kill innocent civilians, ambushing vehicles and burning them, abducting other children (seven per week or there would be dire consequences), and walking for long, long distances without any rest. She was also forced to “marry” an older man, a soldier in the LRA and give birth to his children.
Not your typical teenage years, are they?
When I asked Amani what regrets she had she said it hurt her to think about the things she was deprived of: her chance for an education, her chance to have a normal childhood and the love and care of her parents. She also said she is traumatized for having witnessed the brutal killing of many abductees. But her biggest hurt? Being forced to marry at such a young age and bearing the children of a man she could only fear and hate.
It makes you wonder how a person like Amani can move forward. But she did. And I’ll write about that next time.