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Former child soldiers

Voices of Child Soldiers:
The Road to Recovery

by Mary Westring

Around the world, 300,000 children participate in wars. For those who survive, other difficulties await. They often have little or no education or skills and are stigmatized because of their participation in the war. In most places, no help is available for these young people.

In northern Uganda, however, several organizations are working to rehabilitate child soldiers and to reintegrate them into their communities. Mary Westring shares stories and photos from her recent visit.

Former child soldiersThe children in Gulu Town bend over their drawings with solemn and thoughtful expressions on their young beautiful faces. They draw as part of their healing, as a way to express in images what is sometimes impossible to convey in words.

They have come to two rehabilitation centers, World Vision and GUSCO (Gulu Support the Children Organization), in this bedraggled war-torn town in Northern Uganda. Since 1994, these centers have opened their doors to approximately 7500 children.

Former child soldiersThe children have been rescued or have escaped from captivity in the Lord’s Resistance Army, a group that abducts children and uses them in its struggle to gain control of Uganda and to fight in Sudan’s civil war.

When the children arrive at the center they are often unable to walk on their swollen and bleeding feet. They have been shot, stabbed, tortured. They are ill and malnourished. They have endured forced marches, carrying heavy loads on their heads and on their backs.

They have been forced to kill, trample, and drink the blood of their fellow captives. They have been made to burn down their villages and murder their elders. The girls have been forced into "marriages" and often have children in tow and have contracted sexually transmitted diseases.

Former child soldiersThese children have seen horrors and committed atrocities that cannot be imagined and that no child should have to endure. Each of them has a story. One of these children, Okello, age 12, spent one month in captivity. "I was abducted and taken to Lira. The rebels collected more children and lots of goats from the villages. We passed my house again and went to Kitgum district. We came to tall hills. My feet were swollen and I could not walk so I gave my luggage to someone else."

"One of the soldiers pierced my brother with a bayonet. Blood was coming out. He was crying, ‘please kill me.’ The soldier told him to lie down and told one of the captives to kill him. He killed him and we started moving. I was crying. They said ‘what are you crying about? You should laugh.’ So I started laughing."

Former child soldiers"We walked and my feet were swollen. I said, ‘I cannot walk.’ They beat me with a wire lock so I started running. Then we marched and I got slow again and broke the line. They said, ‘who broke the line?’ I remained behind when they were walking."

"We went to a homestead. I asked the lady to hide me. She hit me and told me to run. I said, ‘I escaped, please hide me.’ So she put me in a bush and fed me. I could not walk so they put water on my feet. I slept with them until the morning. Then they took me to the barracks. That is how I escaped."

Former child soldiersAt the center, children such as Okello begin the process of re-entering civilian life. They receive education or vocational training (depending on their age), medical care, and counseling (including the drawing work). Employed at the centers are 425 "monitors" who go to the child’s village to prepare it for accepting the child back. When the child is considered ready to return in body and spirit and the village is ready to have the child return, the monitor lives with him or her for as long as it takes for the reintegration to occur.

The monitors also tell children that if they are captured they should not try to plan an escape, but that if they see an opportunity, they should just "quietly walk away." The success of this advice is evident in the many children I saw who have been in captivity for a very short period of time, like Okello.

I was privileged to spend time with the children at the centers, and they provided me with their drawings, stories, and trust. I came away with a deep respect for the work that is being done for the children at the centers and for the people who are working to bring these children back into society.

Former child soldiersI have been invited to return and help the children produce murals telling the story of their shared trauma. Their individual drawings depict one of four topics: life in the village before capture, the actual abduction, life in the bush, and their plans for the future. I hope to be able to help the children create a painting in which the horrors of capture and captivity are bracketed by peaceful times in the village.

About the Author

Mary Westring was in Gulu in December 2000 and January 2001. She will go back to help with the murals. Drawings, photographic portraits of the children, their recorded testimonies, and the murals will form an exhibit that will travel to raise awareness of the situation in Northern Uganda.

Learn more

Soldier Child International: an organization aiding war-affected children in northern Uganda

Press release from Amnesty International on LRA abductions

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About child soldiers

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