Abducted children, forced to fight, dream of a home that for them exists only in the past, STEPHANIE NOLEN reports
ANAKA CAMP, UGANDA -- When they put her into a pit underground, when they beat her for hours every day, when they passed her around for sex though she wasn't yet 10 years old -- through all of that, Lucy Lanyero dreamed of going home.
She learned to survive with the Lord's Resistance Army, to obey and to fight. In fact, she developed such military prowess that the rebels promoted her to the rank of second lieutenant and gave her a small unit of her own to command. But throughout 10 years of fighting in the bush, Ms. Lanyero thought every day of going home. Back to her parents, back to school, back to a quiet life in Lacor in northern Uganda, where a girl her age might have a regular meal every day and a pump from which to draw clean water, a pair of flip-flops and easy visits with the neighbours.
Her chance came in 2002. Her rebel "husband" was suddenly accused by the bizarre self-styled prophet Joseph Kony, who leads the LRA, of treason, and executed. Ms. Lanyero and his other child concubines were first shoved into a rough wooden cage and beaten, then released into the bush outside their base in southern Sudan and told simply to go. Mr. Kony, she says, was banking that they would run into Ugandan army troops who would shoot them as rebels, saving him the bullets. She gathered the two small children she had borne in captivity, and ran for home.
"I knew I would be killed but that was the best way of dying, because then my body would be returned to my parents. And that torture, the beatings, were terrible; I couldn't stay."
They did indeed encounter the army, but the soldiers didn't shoot. Ms. Lanyero lied about her rank as commander, claiming she was used only for sex and domestic work, not for fighting, and so the army took her on to a reception centre for child soldiers run by World Vision, which notified her family. Her parents and siblings rushed to the centre, and wept at the sight of the little girl, now 19, for whom they had long since held a funeral.
Home was wonderful, in many ways: She ate well; the sores and cuts from the bush began to heal. A local organization gave her some basic training in tailoring, and she set herself up as a seamstress.
But no one bought her clothes; no one wanted a dress made by an ex-rebel. Many people, in fact, weren't welcoming at all.
"It was terrible then; they call you chen. . . . They say: 'You are useless, you are inhabited by the spirit of Kony,' " she recalled. Chen is a word in Luo for a sort of demon spirit that many people here believe comes to occupy the rebel children. As many as 30,000 of them have been abducted since Uganda's civil war began 20 years ago.
"The community thinks, 'Many atrocities have been committed and these are the kids responsible.' " Just one night in captivity is enough to implicate you, she said, but if a person stays with the rebels for a long period, everyone knows he or she will have participated in atrocities.
The hostility was so great that Ms. Lanyero began to think almost wistfully of her life back in the bush, to wonder whether she could ever live at home again.
In the fractured misery of northern Uganda -- one of the world's largest humanitarian crises, which has dragged on for decades with none of the attention now focused on more fashionable causes such as Darfur -- this question of homecomings is beginning to assume new importance as there are sudden signs of change in Uganda's north.
On an immediate level, the government and LRA leaders are to meet for talks Tuesday mediated by the South Sudanese government, their first serious meeting in more than 10 years. Last Tuesday, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said he was willing to consider granting Mr. Kony amnesty if the talks were successful.
While no one wants to pin too much hope on talks that involve as quixotic, vicious and unpredictable a quantity as the LRA, there is a sense that forces have finally lined up in such a way as to compel real negotiations between the two sides.
And should the talks fail, an array of other factors -- the LRA's loss of its former sponsor, the government of Sudan, which no longer needs it as a proxy army in its war in the south of the country; increased isolation; pressure from the International Criminal Court; and especially, new attention from the United Nations -- hold the possibility of bringing, if not an end, at least a significant winding down to the conflict.
Certainly the Ugandan government asserts as much, insisting that 100,000 people will be moved out of the squalid displacement camps (which house 90 per cent of the people of the north) and back home by the end of July because the area is secure enough for them to go home, although this will leave a further 1.7 million people in the camps, where 3,500 people die each month of violence and easily preventable diseases. Most of the LRA has been driven over the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo, and attacks on civilians in the north have been fewer this year.
But as there begins to be the very first conversations about what a post-combat scenario might look like here, the picture is grim: Northern Uganda's war is built on a strange, terrible intimacy. The LRA has chosen to visit virtually all of its savagery on its own people, and it has used the children of the communities it attacks as its soldiers, abducting them and then rapidly indoctrinating them into barbarism before sending them back to pillage and murder in their own villages.
When children escape from the LRA, or are freed by the Ugandan army, they come home to the same little grass huts where they may have looted, or threatened their elders with machetes and AK-47s the week before. They move in beside neighbours whose relatives they killed or whose children they stole. And after months or years in the bush, armed with grenade launchers and with small divisions under their command, they are expected to go back to colouring maps and doing sums at school, or hoeing in the garden with other children.
"No one is looking at this. People are just expected to be able to live together," said Erin Baines, who heads the conflict-and-development program at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia and who is working on reconciliation in northern Uganda...
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