Gulu – One-by-one the words, bizarre and horrific, spout from the mouth of Alice as she recounts the terror and abuse she suffered as a child slave for Uganda’s notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
“They cut off three (people’s) heads and I was forced to use them as stones to hold the saucepan,” the 17-year-old said, describing her punishment for trying to run away, back to her family from whom she was abducted.
“The eyes were looking at me,” Alice said, speaking quickly in a non-stop monotone that blurted out a shocking admission of what she was forced to do to another LRA child abductee who attempted to escape.
“I had to bite him until he died,” she said quietly, wringing her hands as she told a reporter of her eight-year ordeal with the rebels.
‘We ate leaves’
Forced into marriage with an older rebel fighter, she had a child who like her suffered from constant privation.
“We were hungry and thirsty. We ate leaves, even the leaves used to feed pigs,” recalled Alice, now at a rehabilitation centre for ex-LRA child slaves in this town in northern Uganda.
“I took my urine, I gave it to my child. My child urinated and I drank it.”
“I thank God for giving me the courage to tell all this.”
Alice’s story is as blood-curdling as it is common in this conflict-ravaged region where the LRA’s nearly 20-year war has killed tens of thousands and displaced up to two million people.
Since the LRA took over ownership of a regional rebellion in 1988, rights groups and relief agencies, like the international aid group World Vision which runs the Gulu rehabilitation centre, estimate at least 30 000 children have been abducted by the rebels to serve as fighters, porters and sex slaves.
Fearing LRA attacks and kidnapping, another 40 000 children have become so-called “night commuters”, fleeing their home villages each night to relative safety of the streets in larger towns, they say.
Life as a night commuter is difficult, but it is better than living with the brutal treatment meted out by the rebels whose gruesome and often unspeakable atrocities lead children to slide into a barbarity reminiscent of the young band in William Golding’s 1954 literary classic Lord of the Flies.
Rebels driven underground
The war, often described as the world’s worst forgotten humanitarian crisis, has dragged on despite attempts to rekindle peace efforts that broke down in late 2004 and Ugandan military offensives that have driven the rebels further underground and into neighboring countries.
But pressure on the rebels grew last year when fugitive LRA chief Joseph Kony and four top commanders were indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, among them the “brutalisation of civilians by acts including murder, abduction, sexual enslavement (and) mutilations.”
On Monday, the Ugandan army claimed that Kony, a self-styled mystic who claims that God speaks directly to him to order attacks, fled from a base in southern Sudan into the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
If true, the elusive guerrilla leader’s drawn-out campaign ostensibly to replace the government in Kampala with one based on the Biblical Ten Commandments may finally be dying out.
“From what we are seeing, this war is ending now that even Kony is running away,” said Lieutenant Chris Magezi, the army spokesperson in northern Uganda. “With Kony fleeing, the rebels have lost any capacity to regroup and what we have to do is to wipe out the remaining remnants.”
But a generation of children inculcated in Kony’s strange philosophy of brutality and religion will still need help.
Killing becomes normal
“Children are doing very dangerous things in the bush,” said Tony, a 17-year-old who was kidnapped by the rebels four years ago with his twin brother of whom he has heard no news since his escape.
“They have lost sense, killing has become normal, if you don’t kill, you will get the evil spirits,” he said, recalling what his captors drilled into the minds of their impressionable abductees.
At the World Vision centre here, children are “re-learning lost values,” according to director Michael Oruni who said one of the main aims is to cleanse them of guilt and reintegrate them into normal life.
“We explain to them that they were forced to do it,” said counsellor Christine Oroma. “They didn’t do it intentionally. We can’t blame them.
“By the process of telling, you can survive, you can heal,” she said. “If you keep it for yourself, you can become mad.”
Kevin is a case in point. The 16-year-old former LRA abductee escaped from the rebels in 2001 and made his way back to his village without any such assistance.
“I had suicidal thoughts, I used to have nightmares that I would die like them,” he said remembering a deeply disturbing incident in which his captors forced him to hack to death three people, including a neighbour and friend.
“I had to kill three people with an axe,” Kevin said. “They were tied to three trees. They could see how I was going to kill them.
“They were begging: ‘Don’t kill us.’
“I said: ‘I can’t, I am forced to. If I refuse, I will be killed with two members of my family.’
“So I started to kill the person I didn’t know,” he said.
Although Keven eventually ended up at the World Vision centre, many other ex-LRA abductees have not, and have become scarred for life with memories of unthinkable horrors.
“Some children have not recovered,” Oruni said. “They become thieves, they are very aggressive. I remember one case of a boy who killed his daughter. He didn’t go to a rehabilitation centre.”
“But for kids who spend some time here, the recovery rate is very high and they live normally,” he said. “The strength and the resilience of human beings never ceases to amaze.”