Picking up the pieces after abduction

By Vision Reporter

Florence Amito remembers clearly how to shoot and kill. With her one-year-old child in her arms, the 21-year-old Acholi woman recalls the processes of assembling and dissembling a gun and the best ways to pack bullets.

By Alexis Okeowo
Florence Amito remembers clearly how to shoot and kill. With her one-year-old child in her arms, the 21-year-old Acholi woman recalls the processes of assembling and dissembling a gun and the best ways to pack bullets.

Abducted from her home in Kitgum district at the age of 15 by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels, Amito is a ‘child mother,’ forced into marriage by the soldiers while still a youth.

She is one of the over 20,000 children who were abducted from their homes and schools during the ongoing 20 years of rebellion in northern Uganda.

Thousands of innocent civilians have died as a result of the conflict, while 1.5 million people live in desolate camps for displaced persons.

A new truce has been signed between the LRA and the Government, who have been engaged in negotiations in southern Sudan. As part of the truce, the LRA would have to release all child soldiers, porters and sex slaves in its possession.
If the children are released, however, the question is whether they will be able to re-integrate into society and pick up the pieces of their interrupted lives.

“I think the war is not intended to overthrow the Government, but to finish the Acholi,” Amito says of the dying youth in her community.

Living next door to LRA leader Joseph Kony for over six years, Amito became used to a daily routine of digging, child-rearing and battles. After escape, her only worry is being able to provide for her children.

“I still think of Kony’s words: He said that when he had to leave the country, those who will remain will suffer – and we are,” Amito says.

A bright-blue scarf is wrapped around the young woman as she talks in front of her modest hut and a small crowd of captivated young children forms around her before she sends them away. She does not want them to hear her story – though it is a story being told by different children all over the north.

Charles Okwero, 17, and Nicky Odongo, 14, are both from Gulu and the two want to become engineers. The only difference is that Odongo, the youngest, has a head start. In P7, he has always attended school regularly, unlike his counterpart Okwero, who was abducted by rebels at the age of 10.

“We were forced to join their troops,” Okwero says of himself and his elder brother, who died a year later. As his pained, shy eyes gaze into the distance, he recounts the heavy labour and weapons training he endured until it became second nature to engage in battles and raids.

After six years with the LRA, Okwero does not know – and does not want to know – whether the bullets he blindly shot ever killed. Commanders drilled into him the lessons of warfare, yet the lessons the teenager desired most were never available.

“What hurts me most is that I wasted time in captivity when I could have been going to school and living with my family,” Okwero said. He trekked through the mountains to Sudan when he should have been in P.5.

Fourteen-year-old Odongo, a student at Gulu Prison School, has not experienced the scope of the horror that confronts an abductee. He moved to Gulu town after his sister was abducted from his family’s home in the village.

Through the years, several of his friends would also be taken. “But I am even able to forget them,” the Acholi boy says of his peers in captivity.

Now that his sister has returned and his life stabilised, Odongo feels ‘secure’ and distant from the recent terror in his town. Secure enough to become an engineer – which Okwero will also do, if he is lucky.

In Okwero’s compound and others, there is a quiet peace to the air that is both becoming and unsettling considering the past. There are many Non-Governmental Organisations in Gulu town, including World Vision Uganda, which in 1995 opened one of the first child combatant rehabilitation centres in the country.

The Children of War Rehabilitation Centre, which has seen nearly 15,000 children pass through its doors, had Amito and Okwero as patients for counselling.

“We tell them to draw whatever they want,” says Christine Oroma, a centre counsellor who has worked with over 100 children over two years.

“The art therapy functions as a way to build trust between the child and counsellor,” she adds. While Oroma admits that it can be difficult to break through to patients with a high level of trauma, she remains optimistic.

The Gulu-born therapist recalls her most difficult case, when she managed to counsel the wife of LRA deputy leader, Vincent Otti.

With the peace talks still underway, the tasks of the centre have doubled. “In case the talks are fruitful, we have a very big challenge of creating environment-friendly areas where the children will be accepted,” David Orome, centre administrator, says.

World Vision works with community residents to implement workshops designed to increase sensitivity to the returnees.

UNICEF, which provides World Vision with tents and auxiliary services, says it is expecting 100 to 2,000 released women and children and that it is prepared for either a slow trickle or a large rush of returnees.

Picking up the pieces after abduction