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Last Updated: Monday, 5 January, 2004, 08:22 GMT
Uganda's haunted former child rebels
By Orla Ryan
Gulu, northern Uganda

Charles Ojok is studying to be a motor vehicle technician, as he struggles to drive away spine-chilling memories of being an abductee at the hands of Uganda's Lord Resistance Army (LRA).

Charles Ojok
Charles Ojok escaped from rebel camps
It all started with a cycling journey to his home in Odek from Gulu town in northern Uganda, seven years ago.

The 14-year old had been to Gulu to find a place at school.

On his way back, he met the rebels. His instinct was to flee, but he knew there was no point.

He ended up as one of the many children from northern Uganda captured by the rebels and told to kill or be killed.

When these abducted children escape after years of being forced to fight, they struggle to adapt to normal society.

"Many times I think of the past, but it is something that cannot help me now," he tells me through a translator in Gulu.

Reminders are however frequent - gunshots, "sad happenings - those kinds of things".

"I feel frightened, I feel very afraid, I have returned only once to my real home," he says.

His story is typical of thousands of children, who have been abducted by the LRA, led by Joseph Kony.

Recent months have been dominated by calls for international assistance to help stem the LRA attacks, which the Ugandan army has so far failed to contain.


Even as the war continues, abductees escape from the bush and try to rebuild their lives again at rehabilitation centres established by aid agencies.

Some are aggressive, others fearful but usually, these symptoms subside by the time they return to their villages
Aloyo Caroline Obonyo
A centre set up by the aid agency World Vision in Gulu receives about 20 children a week but the figure rises to 40 at times of intense conflict.

New arrivals are fed, bathed, clothed and their wounds are treated. But still they view their helpers with distrust and give them false names.

They learn to forgive themselves for what they have done.

Abductees - who themselves abducted and killed - find healing in the fact that others at the centre were forced to do the same.


"In our centre, we have children who are directly in contact with those who abducted them, sometimes they confide in staff that this is the person who abducted me," says the centre's psycho-social programme manager, Michael Oruni.

At another rehabilitation centre in Gulu run by the charity Caritas, Aloyo Caroline Obonyo explains that returnees have nightmares, flashbacks and do not relate freely with each other.

Some are aggressive, others fearful but usually, these symptoms subside by the time they return to their villages.

The community reaction to returnees can vary hugely, often sometimes neighbours and relatives come to welcome them.


But the returnees can be discriminated against and stigmatised, Ms Obonyo says.

The guns are still being shot, that complicates the situation
Michael Oruni
World Vision
"Everything is recurrent, the next day you are raided again, the wound is fresh, everything is vivid, at times you are provoked to say things [to the returnees] even if you didn't mean to," she says.

The fact that there are few jobs and many people live in camps also makes resettlement difficult.

The massive displacement caused by the war means that returnees frequently return to villages where they are no longer surrounded by relatives or they live in refugee camps where food is scarce.

Indeed, the idea of recovery can make little sense in a region still dominated by war.

"A child that has been abducted needs to be taken away from the situation of war. But the guns are still being shot, that complicates the situation," Mr Oruni says.

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