With U.S. forces now helping in the hunt for LRA rebels in Central Africa, closure may be at hand for thousands of former child soldiers. One estimate says the LRA abducted more than 20,000 children in Northern Uganda over 20 years and made them slaves and killers.
For Fred Bemak news of U.S. assistance in tracking down the Lord’s Resistance Army is very welcome indeed.
“The reaction is pretty clear and can be summed up in one word – finally!”
Bemak is a professor of education and human development at George Mason University in Virginia. He’s also a professional counselor, who works closely with the NGO Invisible Children.
“It’s so important that we are taking care of these issues of the LRA. This is an organization that has been committing atrocities for decades and not been stopped. I think it’s phenomenal that we are supporting this,” he said.
In the middle of the night
It’s believed that military offensives against the Lord’s Resistance Army has caused it to break up into about a dozen or so small groups. Northern Uganda is now rebuilding after years of conflict. However, those small groups continue to attack and kill civilians in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudan.
The LRA has repeatedly used children to do its dirty work. Professor Bemak has met many of these kids after they escaped or were rescued. He gives an example of how the horror usually begins for a child.
“One night suddenly at the door of his mud hut are three or four soldiers, who start yelling at people, who may kill one or two people in the hut to create fear and obedience. Who start to pull up the 12 year old or 7 year old or 8 year old, physically by the arm. Who force them out and they march them off to the bush,” he said.
During that march to the LRA camp, the children usually see someone killed.
“Just slaughtered or killed or maimed. Left to die. And that’s a very quick lesson very early on – you better shape up (be obedient) or this could be you,” he said.
Being obedient can mean taking part in brutal killings - sometimes being forced to remove bodily organs.
“Those rituals begin to desensitize the very impressionable and afraid youth to what it’s like to be in the Lord’s Resistance Army. That’s one piece of it. The second is they begin to build up a culture where the youth say this is what the norm is. This is what everybody does. When they come out they get hit with a tremendous shock, saying, my God, what did I do?”
That’s where Bemak and the counselors he trains come in. It’s their job to help the kids deal with the guilt, shame, confusion and helplessness. Without help, the former child soldiers are unable to re-enter society. They have trouble holding jobs or having relationships.
He said the counseling concentrates on dealing with what happened to them. Things they’ve refused to talk about for years. Bemak says one very successful method is what he calls “recovery tours.” He and a psycho-services expert from Invisible Children actually take the children back to the site where they were abducted.
“One on each side, we walk them through that site and they talk about every single experience that they had. We ask them what happened here. Where were you lying? Were you facing to the wall? Were you facing to the door when they came in? Where was your grandmother? And they talk us through that whole experience. Then we walk them, side by side, as they’re trembling, as they’re talking about it, walk them through the bush and the pathway that they took,” he said.
Bemak said every child who’s taken the recovery tour found it extremely healing. And he does believe they can be healed, but it may take a long time. Each child is different.
“I think it’s critical that these youth are healed because the long term cost to our society and our community is significant,” he said.
Professor Bemak said if LRA leader Joseph Kony is captured or meets the same fate as Moammar Gadhafi it will help bring closure to the former child soldiers.
The International Rescue Committee estimates there are 300,000 boys and girls around the world currently trained as soldiers or used as porters, spies or sex slaves.