It's not easy being a child anywhere, especially in northern Uganda, where thousands of children are forced to flee their villages every night to avoid capture by the Lords Resistance Army, an elusive and deadly rebel group that reinforces its ranks with abducted children. With Uganda's army stepping up its pursuit of these rebels, children are being rescued, or are escaping, at higher rates than before. Now, many of them face difficulties returning to the communities they once were forced to terrorize.
These are among the tens of thousands of children who, at night, commute from outlying villages in Uganda's far north to the relative safety of larger cities, in places like this one, called Noah's Ark, in Gulu, about 350 kilometers north of the country's capital, Kampala.
They are here to escape the grasp of a shadowy rebel group known as the Lords Resistance Army, or LRA, which wants to topple Uganda's government and replace it with one based on the biblical Ten Commandments. For nearly two decades they have wreaked havoc in this region, killing as many as 100,000 people and displacing about 1.7 million, according to U.N. estimates.
Most often the attacks are carried out by children like these, whom the rebels kidnap, brainwash and train to kill. Any resistance from the children is met with beatings, even torture.
Richard Kinyera is 15-years-old. LRA rebels abducted him from his village four years ago. Rescued by Ugandan army soldiers just two weeks ago, he began a rehabilitation program for former child soldiers and others abducted by the LRA, many of them forced to become wives of rebel commanders or used as human mules to carry equipment.
At first, LRA rebels trained Richard to dismantle and clean their weapons. Later, they taught him to fire an automatic rifle, and then forced him to carry out raids on villages, looting mainly crops and livestock. They beat him with sticks when he tried to escape. At times, he or other abductees were called on to kill. Richard recalls this incident, translated from his native Luo language:
"As we were moving we found footmarks of soldiers," said Richard Kinyera. "Then the commanders, under which we were, asked a woman who were those who passed through that road. And this woman said, for her, she didn't know. But they said that since she was not willing to tell them the exact people who had passed from there, one boy was called to kill this woman, and he had to do it."
During the interview, Richard is fidgety, always looking down at his hands, which seem to be wrestling each other, an outward sign, perhaps, of internal struggle as he comes to terms with some of the atrocities he was forced to commit. Atrocities he's still not ready to admit to.
Abducted children make up about 90 percent of LRA's fighting force, analysts estimate. A 2004 study in the British medical journal, Lancet, found that the vast majority of these former child captives in northern Uganda have experienced at least a half dozen "clinically significant" traumatic events by the time they turned 13. These events include beatings and torture, being forced to witness killings, even the murder of their own parents or siblings. According to the researchers, more than a third of these children were forced to kill.
Martin Workos, 48, is one of the counselors for a program run by the aid group, World Vision, that has rehabilitated nearly 13,000 former LRA child soldiers and abductees since 1995. He says most of the children, especially boys Richard's age, are likely to have committed multiple atrocities, but most of these children are reluctant to confess them, fearing arrest and imprisonment by Ugandan authorities.
The bigger hurdle by far, Mr. Workos says, is getting the local communities to accept them back into the fold. He explains why.
"Let us just imagine a group of rebels come to attack maybe a village," said Martin Workos. "They will be killing very many people. So, since they normally kill after having gathered people from the village. And when they are committing those atrocities they want members of the community to watch as they kill. So you find that the community has that bitterness in them. The community would be rejecting them. They would even revenge on them. They may even deny them any support."
Twenty three-year-old Pamela Amena loves to write and sing her own songs. This one is about a child who returns to her village and instead of being joyful at her return, her family and relatives are saddened.
For Pamela, a former LRA soldier and a wife to a rebel commander for most of her teen years, the song is autobiographical. When she left the rehabilitation program five years ago to return to her village, her family and relatives rejected her. Instead of welcoming her back, they stole the clothes, bedding and money given to her by the rehabilitation center to help restart her life.
It's not an isolated story.
Mr. Workos says that much of the work of the rehabilitation program is sensitizing the communities to the childrens' plight, explaining to them that the children were forced to carry out beatings and killings, often threatened themselves with beatings and death if they did not.
For now, LRA attacks have slowed in northern Uganda, causing some people to credit recent military successes by Uganda's army. Others say it's just the dry season, when the lack of water and thinning brush make it more difficult for the rebels to maneuver. Still, most in the outlying northern villages are not taking any chances. As night falls, they send their children away rather than risk their being captured by rebels.
But either way, aid workers here say, the children are being robbed of their childhoods.