Freed from LRA Captors, Former Child Soldiers Struggle to Find Peace

As the first indicted Lord’s Resistance Army commander awaits trial at the International Criminal Court, victims of the rebel group’s atrocities are recovering from war trauma with the help of nonprofit organizations and the Ugandan government. Those who were abducted in childhood and forced to fight often seek counseling and support as they wrestle with depression, guilt, rage, substance abuse and stigma. Still, some of the civilians who lost loved ones in the long rebel war demand the prosecution of conscripts who, like the officer charged with war crimes, grew to embrace the cause.

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Freed from LRA Captors, Former Child Soldiers Struggle to Find Peace

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GULU, UGANDA — Filder Lakot, a cook, wishes she could work more to earn extra money. She’s willing to hawk goods in Gulu, a town in northern Uganda, or wash clothes for students at a nearby university. But a 16-year-old gunshot wound, from her days as a soldier in one of the world’s most brutal militias, hobbles her.

She stretches to display a scar that starts a few inches below her knee and extends across her leg. Her face turns ashen as she recalls taking that shot.

“The fighting was intense,” she says. “I was still learning how to use a gun.”

It has been nearly a decade since Lakot was rescued from the Lord’s Resistance Army, an armed group that abducted her and thousands of other children and young adults, but that gunshot – and the terrors she experienced as a forced fighter for a militia that routinely sliced off the noses, ears and limbs of children – haunts her every day.

Tears well up in her eyes. At first she lets them flow freely; then she wipes them away with the back of a hand. Silence reigns in the room at the Gulu War Affected Training Center as Lakot regains her composure.

As a child, Lakot dreamed of becoming a nurse, like an aunt who worked at a local hospital. Lakot admired her crisp white uniform.

But one day in 1996, while her parents were away at a funeral, LRA soldiers raided the family’s home. At gunpoint, they ordered Lakot and her two brothers to follow them. She was 22.

Lakot and her brothers underwent two months of military training.

The LRA often required new guerillas to murder relatives, making them less likely to escape and return home. Fighters made Lakot to kill her uncle.

Lakot’s brothers managed to escape and return home safely, but Lakot was forced to fight. After she was shot battling Ugandan forces in 1999, she was taken to Sudan with other casualties.

Old women at the LRA camp in Sudan treated her wound with honey. Lakot stayed there, healing from her wound, until 2006, when Ugandan soldiers raided the camp and rescued her and others.

Lakot was taken in by Gulu Support the Children Organization, where she received post-trauma care for seven months before being reunited with her family.

Now 41, Lakot works as a cook at the Gulu War Affected Training Center. There, she receives counseling to overcome fear, bitterness and suicidal tendencies.

Traumatic experiences in northern Uganda’s battlefields have left countless former guerillas, many of whom were abducted and forced into battle, with serious psychological problems.

Nonprofit organizations and the local government provide post-trauma care and vocational training, but some local people want former soldiers to be prosecuted for their actions, regardless of whether they were forced to fight.

Meanwhile, at the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands, Dominic Ongwen, the first indicted LRA commander to be brought to justice, is awaiting trial for crimes the group committed in Uganda and neighboring countries.

The Gulu District in northern Uganda was the epicenter of a war that started in the late 1980s. LRA leader Joseph Kony sought to overthrow the government of President Yoweri Museveni and establish a state based on his interpretation of the biblical Ten Commandments.

Ugandan officials and LRA delegates worked out the terms of a cease-fire agreement. However, in 2008, Kony failed to appear to sign the agreement. He went into hiding. Sporadic battles continue today as international forces chase LRA ranks that burrow deep into central Africa.

The LRA raided villages in the region, abducting children and forcing them to fight. Almost 90 percent of LRA soldiers were children, according to “Ten Stories the World Should Hear More About,” a U.N. publication.

From the mid-1990s until its waning years in the mid-2000s, the LRA movement abducted 66,000 young people between the ages of 14 and 30, according to a 2008 UNICEF-sponsored report, “The State of Youth and Youth Protection in Northern Uganda.”

More than 100,000 people died in the conflict, according to the U.N. The fighting displaced more than 1.7 million people in Uganda.

The LRA ultimately retreated from Uganda and seeped across borders into the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, where it continues to commit crimes.

As recently as March, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported that 15 Congolese refugees and 1 Congolese national were kidnapped by the LRA while tending their fields near a refugee camp in CAR. Thirteen were later released with evidence of rape and beatings. Three are still missing.

LRA fighters have also internally displaced more than 180,000 people in CAR and DRC and forced more than 30,000 people to flee to neighboring countries, according to UNHCR.

Ongwen, a top LRA commander indicted in 2005 by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, was taken into U.S. custody in January 2015 and subsequently flown to the Netherlands. Ongwen, who began fighting for the LRA at age 10, is expected to appear Aug. 24 at a confirmation of charges hearing – a preliminary step to decide whether the case will be referred to trial.

Many former child soldiers and other LRA abductees have serious psychological problems. Twenty-four percent of the people who fought with the LRA as children have suicidal tendencies, according to a 2014 study.

Most former child soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a 2008 study. Nearly 90 percent struggle with depression.

Starting life over again is painful.

When Lakot emerged from her time with the LRA, she couldn’t find a job. At one point, she considered turning to prostitution to earn a living.

With such a past, finding a spouse can be difficult.

“I had a boyfriend, and when he learned that I was with LRA, he left,” Lakot says.

Being childless, she says, is heartbreaking. Seeing it as a curse for her actions in the LRA, she seeks deliverance at a local church.

Lakot’s recovery has been more difficult than some.

Monica Auma, a former soldier, is now a catering student at Gulu War Affected Training Center. Counseling helped her forgive herself for killing people, she says. And interacting with other former soldiers at the counseling center has helped her to see that she is not alone.

Auma, 24, is often in a jolly mood, says Betty Lalam, the center’s executive director. That wasn’t so when Auma first came to the center last August.

The LRA abducted Auma in 2001 along with her brother and 14 other children from the village of Acet, in the Gulu district. She was forced to undergo three months of military training at age 10.

“We only used to eat in the evening, and we carried heavy guns all day,” she says.

Many of Auma’s friends died fighting Ugandan troops. Those who survived risked being killed by their captors. Auma’s 16-year-old brother was fatally shot when he and two friends tried to escape. The worst moments, she says, were when she was forced to shoot her relatives and neighbors in the neck.

Auma surrendered to Ugandan forces in 2006 as a way to escape. The Uganda office of World Vision, a Christian aid agency, linked her with post-trauma care for eight months. She then returned to her family.

Nancy Lamala, another former child soldier, says she feared being alone after escaping from the LRA. She could only sleep when she was near her mother. She hated people. She cried when she remembered those she killed.

Counseling helped her recover from the psychological effects of the war, she says.

Lamala was kidnapped in 2003, when she was 11 years old. She and six other children were taken from the village of Petek in Gulu District. The LRA forced the children through four months of training. Armed with sticks, the children were ordered to clobber people to death.

“They told us to kill our relatives,” she says, cracking her knuckles. “I killed my cousin in Nwoya.”

The Nwoya district neighbors Gulu district to the west.

Lamala and three friends escaped in 2012. They hid in a thicket for 12 hours. In the early morning, they ran through the forest until they found a house. The family there took them in and gave them directions to the office of the resident district commissioner, about 5 kilometers (3 miles) away. Lamala and her friends stayed there and received counseling for two weeks.

Her brother was not as lucky. LRA guerillas killed him when he tried to escape.

Some who escaped physically, like Lakot, find mental escape elusive.

“Lakot and all these formerly abducted children are short-tempered, sometimes,” Lalam says. “They don’t want to talk to anybody. They have mood swings. But Lakot likes me. She likes to be around me.”

That’s unusual for Lakot. The former soldier rarely smiles or laughs. She spends most of her days, which begin in the kitchen at 5 a.m., quietly washing dishes and preparing meals. When she’s not working, she sits alone, staring into space, cupping her chin in her palm. When she is angry, she shouts insults.

Some nights, if she is very tired, she gets a good night’s sleep. But other nights, she is restless. She dreads her future as a single, childless woman.

Most returning soldiers suffer from anxiety and hallucinations, and many are vengeful, says Godfrey Canwat, executive director of Hope and Peace for Humanity, another organization in Gulu district that provides post-trauma care. Drug and alcohol abuse is rampant among former abductees, he says.

Canwat’s organization has rehabilitated about 600 former soldiers, he says. Most of them are now leading productive lives, working in small businesses, as vendors or on farms. Some are in vocational training.

The war has traumatized many people in the region – civilian survivors as well as former soldiers, Canwat says. It’s not uncommon to see people in Gulu talking to themselves, he says.

“Many people have mental problems because of the past traumatic experiences,” he says.

The local government wants to integrate former soldiers back into their communities, says Patrick Otika, a council chairman in Lakwana subcounty, Gulu. At one time, government reception centers provided returning abductees with counseling as well as food, bedding, soap and 200,000 Ugandan shillings ($65). Lacking the funds to continue, those centers closed in 2012 and 2013.

Some people ridicule former soldiers, exacerbating their mental health problems, Otika says.

“A former LRA soldier came to me telling he wanted to kill people at home and commit suicide because they were teasing him that he eats a lot,” he says. “I counseled him, and he did not kill anybody.”

While nonprofit organizations and the government see rehabilitation as the solution for former LRA fighters, some members of the community, still embittered by the atrocities LRA committed, call for the prosecution of former conscripts.

Paul Okot, a 52-year-old church elder and member of the Local Council of Lakwana subcounty, says all abductees who became brutal murderers should be charged.

“We can sympathize with a few who were abducted while young, but there are some who became successful at the game and killed people,” he says, contorting his face. “Those people, including Ongwen, should pay for their sins.”

Okot lost three sons and four nephews in the LRA war. He wants justice.

“We have buried so many innocent people as a result of this Kony war,” he says, looking at the far end of his compound. “There are so many graves – the young, the old. Many others have been disabled; they have one ear, no mouth. Those who have served Kony loyally should not go unpunished.”

He says former LRA soldiers should not blame the locals for discriminating against them, as they are also struggling with bitterness over the killings of loved ones.

Full recovery after being a forced soldier is difficult, Canwat says. Memories of brutal murders, torture and other horrific incidents often flash in one’s mind.

“Children who were abducted when young and came back and found their siblings and parents had been killed still feel the loss,” he says. “You hear them say, ‘My parents died and I was not there for them,’ or ‘The last time I saw my family members was the day I was abducted.’”

Children born in captivity suffer stigma and ridicule, he says.

For Lakot, loneliness is a deep struggle. She believes she would recover more quickly if she had a husband and children.

For as long as she remains single, she looks to God for comfort.

“God can do anything,” she says. “Even if I fail to have children or get married, God will comfort me.”

Apophia Agiresaasi, GPJ, translated some interviews from Acholi.