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Wounds of War Haunt Uganda's Children

One year ago, southern Sudan ended a two decade civil war with the ruling northern Islamist government. But one conflict in south Sudan persists. The Lord's Resistance Army, a band of rogue Ugandan rebels intent on toppling the Ugandan government, is kidnapping and enslaving children in southern Sudan and Uganda. The rebels often retreat to southern Sudan when Ugandan police close in. Children who escape the clutches of the rebels are traumatized by the things they have seen and done.

The southern Sudanese capital city of Juba has become something of a way-station for children who have escaped from the Lord's Resistance Army. Children who have been forced into combat and sex slavery, attempt to rehabilitate at the Toto Chan Child Trauma Center before returning to their families. But they will live in fear of their former captors, years after their experiece.

The Lord's Resistance Army is led by Joseph Kony, a mystic who calls himself a messiah. Most refer to Kony as a madman who claims he wants Uganda to be run under the governing principal of the 10 Commandments, but his forces are guided by the principal of "kill or be killed."

The rebels are known for terrorizing villages and taking captives. Their tactics include forcing kids to kill their families before they are spirited into the bush, enslaving kidnapped girls as soldiers "wives," and hacking off the lips and ears of those Kony believes have betrayed him.

Jim Long John is Director of the Toto Chan center, an international organization for children. In south Sudan, children who have escaped from the rebels are sheltered at Toto Chan, while officials try to get in contact with their families. Since 1997 the center has helped rehabilitate and return about three-thousand abducted children.

Long John explains that children are Kony's primary target because of their youth.

"He uses children, especially illiterate ones, for one good reason," said Jim Long John. "They can desperately fight, because once they are horrified by him, killed and brutalized, the rest will not want to die. So they will seriously fight for him for protection. If any of them is captured they will not expose anything. Simply, with the belief that if they do, if Kony meets them again, he will kill them."

Long John says that because children are superstitious and easily bullied, Kony considers them a perfect fighting force.

Angela Achero is a social worker in Toto Chan. She says trust is incredibly difficult for children who come to the center.

"These children, they come traumatized, they come wounded, malnourished, naked; they come in rags," said Angela Achero. "They do not want to talk. They keep on changing names. They give different names. Then after two or three days when they see you are the real person that can really help them, they come to you, they say, you know, the name I have given to you is not my real name. My real name is so-and-so."

Achero says she does her best to make the children at Toto Chan feel safe, but she believes they all need a lot of counseling.

Twelve-year-old Elobo Estella was snatched from her family's hut at night. She was given to a rebel's so-called wife to help with the young woman's children. The wife too, had been kidnapped as a young girl.

After Elobo was rescued by Sudanese soldiers on Christmas Day she came to Toto Chan. There, she tells visitors of the day when she saw Joseph Kony finally trapped by Ugandan forces.

"They had captured him in the bush," she said. "He fell to the ground and turned into an old man. The police looked at him and did not know what to do with this old man. So they let him go, she says. When the soldiers had left, Elobo says, Kony turned again into himself. "

Social workers at Toto Chan say Elobo insists that the story is true. They say the tale illustrates the hold that Kony has over the minds of his young captives.

Thirteen-year-old Ayom Helen does not remember how old she was when she was taken, but she does remember the day the rebels raided her village.

"I and the other children were grinding flour on the mountainside," said Ayom Helen. "They took the children to the village. They took the villagers and brought them back up to the mountain. All the boys were taken away and shot. Then the rest were shot, even the elderly people, and the mothers. All but a few girls. We got to a stream and they told them to wash, but not to talk or they would be killed."

Ayom, too, was enslaved by an LRA soldier as a babysitter because she was too young to be a wife.

The children at Toto Chan are forthcoming with visitors. But there is one question none of them will answer. What do they want to do when they get older? There is always a minute of strained silence after the question is asked.

Social workers here say it will take time for the children to realize that they are safe and that they have a future without terror to look forward to.