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Northern Uganda, particularly the Acholi society of Gulu, Kitgum, and Pader Districts, has historically been a land-based, prosperous culture. Families practiced agriculture and livestock production and had their own land. Education was always part of the value system; children attended well run schools, and some went on to higher education. But for the past 21 years, Northern Uganda has been plagued by a tragic war in which the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has continued to abduct children, attack civilians and government forces and destroy infrastructure. Communities were further torn apart by atrocities that the children were forced to commit. A top UN official described the rebel war in northern Uganda as “the worst forgotten humanitarian crisis on earth.”
In Pader District, a new district carved out of Kitgum District in 2000, the situation is particularly dire. Pader Town Council has an IDP Camp with more than 45,000 people, situated in the town. Additional IDP camps exist, and in 2007 the World Food Program was feeding a total of about 349,000 IDPs in Pader. Until just a few years ago the larger, better known international NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) did not venture into the district. It was too dangerous. But now that the war has ended, relative peace has followed, which has created an opportunity to make progress on the many issues that face this post-conflict, war-torn area.
Testimonies from Former Child Soldiers, Abductees and Orphans
Okello Morris, 14 years old, was abducted a year ago at his home in Lalogi. “I witnessed the killing of my father before we finally left to Sudan. I was brutally beaten, trained and forced to kill. While in Sudan, we were forced to dig in and out of season. If you refused, you are killed! During engagements with U.P.D.F, I witnessed many of my age mates perish during cross fire. I was shot twice on my leg before I was eventually rescued by the U.P.D.F. I was in the same camp with Kony himself. I thank God, that I am alive!”
William, a 15-year old student in a wheel chair had the following to say: “At last my bones shall be buried in my mother land! I was shot twice in the legs – see for yourself! When we were defeated by the U.P.D.F, I was in total pain! I tried to roll, but by then I had lost a lot of blood! I was lucky that among the U.P.D.F who were pursuing us, there was an Acholi soldier who was kind enough and ordered his colleague not to shoot me again or else he would have shot. That is why you are seeing me here!” he said confidently.
Abalo Mary was a single mother of three children, one boy and two girls- ages 11, 8 and 4. On the night of 22nd April 2001 a group of solders putting on mixed clothing’s both civilians and army uniforms came and woke us up in the middle of the night from home. They asked me for money and food. I didn’t have either, so I told them that I am just a single mother with nothing, and I am poor. They misinterpreted me to be proud of my children. They first told me to kill myself. I failed to start dying. I asked myself, how could I start it, but I failed to get the answer. The dog was barking at them seriously. There were 11 people in number. One ordered me to kill the dog, which I did by squeezing its throat till it died, but it left me with scratches all over my body. The clothes I had on were all torn. They ordered us to join them so my children and I walked for about two kilometers. I was made to kill my own children, all 3 of them. I was then left some few kilometers away. I joined the army with the psychological and physical torture I had sustained.
About our Partner Friends of Orphans
In addition to working closely with Free The Slaves, Xslaves.org’s partner organization on the ground in Uganda is Friends of Orphans (FRO). FRO’s mission is to rehabilitate, reintegrate, and empower former child soldiers, abductees, child mothers, orphans and other people impacted by conflict and by HIV/AIDS in Northern Uganda. FRO focuses on meeting needs in the areas of education and training, health, human rights, psychosocial and cultural healing, agricultural and other economic development, and peace-building activities.
FRO was founded by Ricky Anywar Richard and other former abductees and child soldiers in 1999 when pursuing degrees at Makerere University, in Kampala, Uganda. Many of them had lost family members, friends and neighbors, had suffered displacement, and were continuing to suffer those losses. Ricky never had any organized help rejoining society. He had to deal on his own with the memory of seeing his family burned to death by the rebels and by his own actions as a child soldier. He knows the nightmares that interrupt the sleep of children. Ricky believes trust allows for the most targeted, effective help. FRO offers the children a way to find hope once again. Click here to view a recent Internet radio interview with Ricky.
FRO’s Help for a Former Rebel
Kopkulu, a former rebel recently surrendered under the Amnesty Law and is undergoing counseling and rehabilitation at FRO’s rehabilitation center in Kitgum after spending 11 years in the bush. “I have one disease though; an urge to kill,” says Kopkulu. “My heart wants to kill all the time or the nightmares won't go away. I wake up at 11 p.m., and all I see are the people I have killed and then I want to kill again.”
Abducted at the age of 20, from Wal in Pader District in 1992,Kopkulu was one of over 40 people who made up Kony's core killing brigade. "Our job was to kill; nothing else," he said. "There was a brigade for fighting, for ambushes, etc., but ours was to kill." Speaking a mixture of Acholi and Swahili, Kopkulu spoke about his years in captivity through an interpreter. Kopkulu said he spent the first two months of his captivity with over 40 other people in a dirty swamp. "It was the beginning of our training," he narrated. "We were told we had just been chosen to join the killing squad. For four days we were not allowed to step out of that water." They were later allowed to answer nature's calls and go for physical training in the mornings, but they would be required to return to the water afterwards. "We did this for two months," he said.
Then they went for a chilling initiation. "We were told to abduct two people each, a man and woman. We tied the men kandoya (arms tied closely behind their backs) and the women's hands in front, and we separated them. Each of us had an axe and a panga. We made the men lie down, and we hit their heads with the axes. Then we scooped out their brains and ate them. You had to eat the whole brain matter even as it spilled; if you didn't you would be shot," Kopkulu said. That is what they had for lunch that day. On the second day, they cut the women's throats and collected their blood as it oozed out while they held the women down to their last kick. "We had to drink that blood. Everybody who joined the killing brigade had to go through the same ritual. After that, killing became natural." After their initiation, Kopkulu and his colleagues were released for duty.
"We raided villages and killed people," he said. "I developed an urge to kill. It is something I feel like doing all the time. Even as we are sitting here, mostly I'm thinking about killing." Kopkulu says he was involved in killings in Acholi, Geregere, Muchwini, Lira and Soroti. His body bears further testimony to a violent life; he has scars everywhere. It was when they raided his village in Wal sub-county, Pader, that Kopukulu was faced with the prospect of killing his own father. "When I got home, I found my father, and he cried when he saw me. He asked me to use the amnesty law to surrender. I told him I was here to kill him and not to talk about my life." But his father then told him, "My son, I'm already a dead man. You can kill me now if you want, but it will be a more painful death if you leave me alive and go back to the bush." Kopkulu ended up not killing his father and returned to the bush where he continued his gruesome job.
But, he said, "My father's words haunted me." He asked his colleagues what “amnesty” meant. Some of them told him it “was about surrendering.” But rebel leader Joseph Kony had told members of the group that if they surrendered, President Museveni would kill them. By now, Kopkulu seemed to have reached his turning point. "For some days, I thought about my father. Then I started having nightmares to do with the people I have killed. I would see them all the time as they pleaded for mercy or cried. This really disturbed me," he said.
On December 16, 2003, Kopkulu made up his mind. "I decided I wanted to go back home and see my father," he said. He escaped from rebel ranks in Pakudu-Lagoro sub-county in Kitgum at 4 p.m. and reported to the UPDF barracks. He was briefly interrogated before he was handed over to FRO’s center for counseling. But even with the amnesty, Kopkulu’s troubles are far from over. When FRO’s counselors notice his restlessness, they talk to him and some pray with him. On the advice of the center administrator, Kopkulu wrote a letter to his father who lives in an internally displaced people's camp in Kitgum. His father came to see him. "I told him what I was going through," Kopkulu said. "He told the center administrator that we have to perform some traditional rituals to stop the nightmares. He said it would involve a bull, two goats and other things like pots and brooms." The administrator asked his father whether he could raise those things. But the old man could not. Kopkulu said: "My father just looked at his torn old clothes, raised his trousers up and looked at me with sadness and then looked at the administrator. It was a shame. My father just said, 'let me cry for my child now in front of you. That is all I can do.'"
Kopkulu is still at FRO’s rehabilitation center. He still gets the nightmares. But Dr. Juliet Nakku, a psychiatrist with Butabika Hospital said Kopkulu might be suffering from one of the various psychological problems that usually affect people in his kind of situation. "He could be suffering from psychotic hallucination, as he experiences hallucinations all the time. However, he could also be having an obsessive compulsion disorder in which he feels the kind of things he does, like killing," she said. The doctor said Kopkulu's situation could be reversed if he got proper mental health treatment. Hundreds of miles away from Butabika in Kitgum, Kopkulu trusts that a solution will only be found in what his father proposed. He hopes that someday his old man will raise the money to perform those rituals and then he will be normal again. But Dr. Nakku said, "The rituals that the father wants to perform may be fulfilling only if he believes in them. This is a psychological feeling. If he believes he can be cleansed, he may experience some relief, but he is still better off if he was thoroughly examined.