For almost twenty years, a band of rebels claiming to have spiritual powers from God has terrorized northern Uganda. The rebels, the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), have abducted almost 20,000 children: boys to replenish their fighting forces and girls to be turned into wives.
Until recently, children who were rescued or escaped from the LRA faced retribution when they were returned to their communities. Some of their former neighbors sought revenge against the youths due to the crimes the LRA forced them to commit against their communities.
The situation is now changing; concerned parents have come forward to form specialized NGO’s that seek to provide counseling services to both children and their villages. Gulu Support the Children Organization (GUSCO), is one of these groups. It believes the rescued children need psychological treatment before they can be re-introduced to their communities.
Mr. Odokorach Francis is the advocacy and research officer with GUSCO and says the motivation to start the group came from local people.
“It was started by the local people in Gulu district. They saw the plight of the children. [They] were coming from the bush, but there was no rehabilitation center. [The children] would be brought to public places and given to their relatives…It was thought it was not a nice idea to do it that way. At least they needed to be cared for, they needed to be given some medical treatment and they needed to be psychologically rehabilitated, and basically that was why GUSCO was started.”
At the GUSCO center, the rescued children stay for at least six weeks, depending on their health status, trauma and level of recovery. The time is also used to find their parents. When the parents are found, they receive counseling and training on how to handle their children, before being reunited with them. Many do not understand what their children have been through:
“We support the parents by talking to them so that they are also aware of what their roles are because the rehabilitation starts here but continues in the society. So their parents have to know how to handle the children.”
Once the NGO believes the children are stable, they are reunited with their families.
Fourteen-year-old Wellborn Lubanga Kene is a former abductee who is about to return home. He was taken from school in 1998 and spent six years with the LRA rebels before being rescued last year. Wellborn appears withdrawn and speaks in monosyllables.
The Ugandan government Amnesty Commission provides him and other children with a seed package and rations before he leaves the center. For children who were abducted while in school, scholastic materials are also provided before they begin the journey home.
Mary Okee works with the Commission.
“We (pay) specific attention to the children who are going to school because according to our data they are the majority who have come from the bush or who have surrendered. So the specific program that the Amnesty Commission has put it down is one to see whether they can get a package that can make them reintegrated into the community.”
When they get home, there is a ritual cleansing called the Acholi Appeasement and Reconciliation Ceremony. As part of the ritual, the child must step on an egg before entering the home; water is then poured over the child’s head as he or she steps in. Afterward, the family celebrates.
This tradition is the last step before Lubanga Kene is able to step into the courtyard of his home to an emotional welcome from his parents.
With the help of both modern and traditional counseling, more than 18 thousand abducted children in northern Uganda have been successfully reunited with their communities.
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