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In Uganda, Former Child Soldiers Struggle to Overcome Horrors of War

November 16, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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A rehabilitation center in Gulu, Uganda, provides a haven for former child soldiers who were abducted into Joseph Kony's "Lord's Resistance Army" during 20 years of civil war. More than 30,000 children are estimated to have been kidnapped and forced to fight. Tom Bearden profiles a group trying to heal the wounds of war.

JIM LEHRER: Next tonight: former soldiers in a children’s army that has wreaked havoc in Uganda and Central Africa. Some of the one-time child soldiers are now talking of their horrific experiences.

And NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden narrates this report prepared in partnership with HDNet.


TOM BEARDEN: Morning breaks with prayer at World Vision’s Children of War Rehabilitation Center in Gulu, Uganda. Counselors here are helping rehabilitate people who were abducted as children and forced to serve as soldiers for a guerrilla force known as the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA.

Sarah Amolo was 16 when she was kidnapped and forced into service by the rebels.

SARAH AMOLO, former child soldier: They divided work among the groups. Groups for killing people is there. Groups for beating people is there. Group for burning houses is there. And other group for abducting children also is there.

TOM BEARDEN: More than 30,000 and perhaps up to 60,000 children are estimated to have been kidnapped by the LRA during 20 years of civil war in Uganda.

While, initially, the LRA fought on behalf of tribal people who felt owe prose oppressed by the government, the LRA’s leader, Joseph Kony, quickly became a brutal terrorist and began killing the villagers themselves.

Michael Anywar was just 13 when the rebels took him.

MICHAEL ANYWAR, former child soldier (through translator): I was abducted with my brother. And they told me I had to kill my brother and other people. If I didn’t, I would be killed. They also told me to give them some money. But I didn’t have money, so I was forced to kill my own brother — my own brother.

TOM BEARDEN: Now that the war is mostly over, the young soldiers of the LRA have been granted amnesty, which means they won’t be prosecuted for crimes they committed.

Centers like this one are trying to help the soldiers heal their emotional wounds, so they can reintegrate with society. Christine Oroma is one of the counselors.

CHRISTINE OROMA, counselor: The child could have been abducted when he was 9 years old, but now here is coming back home when he’s 25 or 30, meaning that, most of the time, most of his lifetime is spent in captivity. So, we see that, really, they have challenges in coping up with life in the community.

TOM BEARDEN: Oroma holds group and individual sessions and art therapy to get the former soldiers to work through their feelings. Studies on child soldiers in Uganda who return from the battlefield show they have a wide range of problems, like post-traumatic stress and depression.

WOMAN: This is the grave of our sister.

TOM BEARDEN: According to research by the University of Hamburg, half these children have killed someone, and more than a quarter have been raped.

Getting the right care is tough. There is only one psychiatrist for every 1.3 million people in Uganda.

JUSTIN ODONG, former child soldier (through translator): I feel, even still, I am so weak because of what happened to my mind and my body. I feel like I’m not going to be able to do anything in the future. I don’t see any good thing in my future.

MICHAEL ANYWAR (through translator): What can I say about the rebels and the bitterness I have with them, forcing me to kill my own brother? Really, this pains me a lot. And I feel I have no hope for the future.

TOM BEARDEN: One of the first steps for the former soldiers is to get them to forgive themselves for what they have done.

CHRISTOPHER OYAT, former child soldier: I have apologized to myself for having — participate in doing the wrong thing.

TOM BEARDEN: But Christopher Oyat says he’s still in the process of apologizing to the people in his community for the crimes he committed.

Oroma says, even when the soldiers have made progress during the therapy sessions, returning to their villages can still be difficult.

CHRISTINE OROMA: Not everybody in the community has already forgiven them, the rebels. There are others who are still very bitter with the rebels. Even those who have already returned back into their community, there are other community members who are still bitter with them, because they see that: Now my child is not back. And, for you, you are back at home. My child died from captivity. And now, for you, you’re still back at home.

So, they still find it really very hard to forgive.

TOM BEARDEN: While many of the former soldiers continue their therapy sessions and struggle to return to civilian life, others have been hired by the Ugandan government to track down their former leader, Joseph Kony. In recent years, he’s been responsible for massacres in the Congo, the Central African Republic, and Sudan.

JIM LEHRER: By next week, the Obama administration is to report to Congress on its plans to protect civilians in the region from attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army.