National Geographic : 2005 Dec
NORTHERN UGANDA Milen Kidane, a 33-year-old Eritrean protection officer with UNICEF, held my arm firmly as we entered the Rachele Centre, a large walled compound with half a dozen dormitories in Lira, a bustling market town in northern Uganda. Kidane, an effusive woman with a warm smile, helps care for some of the score of children who come to the center every month, all former abductees of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), rebels in northern Uganda fighting to overthrow the Ugandan gov ernment in the name of strict Christian rule. For the past 19 years, LRA guerrillas have sneaked into villages at night, killed or mutilated people at random, and kidnapped children to serve as slaves and fighters. Some of the children are forced to kill their friends or families. Humanitarian workers like Kidane, working behind the scenes in conflicts mostly ignored by the rest of the world, represent, quite simply, hope in hell. Kidane has provided that hope for wounded and traumatized children escaped from or released by rebels. Some 2,400 of them have passed through the Rachele Centre since it was opened in 2003 by Belgian journalist Els de Temmerman. Funded by both the government and indi vidual sponsors in Belgium, the center provides psychological support and medical treatment to the young victims, preparing them to return to their families in IDP (internally displaced per sons) camps or villages to pick up the pieces of their lives. Those whose parents are dead go, also with funding from Belgian sponsors and local NGOs, to boarding schools or vocational training centers. In a whitewashed schoolroom, Kidane and I nodded a polite greeting to small clusters of children who sat at wooden tables drawing pic tures. Some showed memories of former lives -houses and families. Others showed match stick figures with dreadlocks hacking at men, women, and children with machetes, shooting them with guns, or attacking government sol diets. The drawings of helicopters, armored vehi cles, and trucks were astonishingly realistic. 42 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * DECEMBER 2005 "Most of these children have spent four or five years in captivity and have witnessed all sorts of atrocities," said Kidane. "But they have sur vived. The majority stay here for five or six weeks before returning to their families." Kidane explains how the Ugandan govern ment helps the rehabilitated children broadcast on local radio stations to the bush rebels, appealing to their former commanders to sur render as part of a government amnesty pro gram. "They also hope to let friends who are still captives know that they're alive." As I explored the compound, I came across Dick O. (last names are not revealed here), a 12 year-old boy with a cast on his leg from a gun shot injury. He had a dozen or so bayonet wounds, almost healed, in his chest. Dick told me a tale typical of the thousands of young Ugandans robbed of childhood by the LRA. He remembered the night he was kidnapped by the rebels. "I could hear them come into the village. There was a lot of shouting. They came to our hut and pointed guns at us. We were very scared." The men forced him and six other boys, including his brother, to loot the trading post. "We put everything on our backs. They beat us and pushed us into the bush. Then we had to walk." Once in the bush, the boys were distributed as personal slaves or soldiers to the commanders. As for the captured girls, they were offered to individual rebels as soldiers, sex slaves, or wives. Those who would not obey, or who cried, were beaten; some were killed. Dick received basic military training and was often forced to watch civilians being tortured and murdered. Sometimes he and the other boys had to stab or bludgeon people to death; other wise they, too, would be killed. "Then we had to drink their blood," he said, fidgeting with his fingers. "They made us drink so that we became part of the dead people. This way we all killed."