01 Feb 2000: ACT Against Child Soldiers in Africa. A Reader, E Bennett, V Gamba, D van der Merwe (eds)


The Reintegration of Child Soldiers and Abducted Children:
A Case Study of Palaro and Pabbo Gulu District, Northern Uganda
Stavros Stavrou and Robert Stewart with Amanda Stavrou
February 2000

The abduction and forced conscription of child soldiers have been shocking features of the insurgency war in northern Uganda since the early 1990s. Rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have abducted some 14 000 children, of whom about 5 000 have escaped or have been liberated from captivity. The ongoing abductions, destabilisation of local communities and the reintegration of traumatised abducted children represent a critical humanitarian challenge to the international community, to the Ugandan government and to aid agencies working in the field.

This article will attempt to contextualise the issue of former child soldiers with the aim of fostering a real understanding of the victim in relation to the broader networks of family and community. Hopefully, it will raise awareness of this outrage against children’s rights and promote realistic and effective interventions – which can be implemented in an abnormal society where militarism and social dislocation have become a part of everyday life.


The research in Uganda was conducted during a two-week period from 16 to 29 October 1999. Nine days were spent living with the communities of Palaro and Pabbo. In both communities, prior to and after the field visit to Gulu, time was spent interviewing stakeholders in Kampala.1 The researchers conducted 42 face-to-face interviews with individuals and participated in thirteen focus group discussions, involving a vast array of constituents from the communities of Pabbo and Palaro.2

The aim of the research was to:

Palaro has a constituency of around 2 000 people and is located approximately fifty kilometres north-east of Gulu Town. Currently proclaimed as a ‘protected area’, it is made up of two distinct residential areas spread along a six kilometre stretch of road. Until about September 1999, a radius of two square kilometres surrounding each settlement was allowed for agricultural activities. Anything beyond that was treated as a danger zone in which the Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF) could not guarantee the safety of the villagers. Today, this zone has been extended and the road leading to Gulu Town, which was previously traversed only during daylight and under military escort, is open. It has been estimated that since 1990, over 300 local people have lost their lives to the conflict and that there are over 300 children currently held in captivity by the rebel LRA.

Pabbo is a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) containing approximately 40 000 people drawn from over one dozen villages in the Pabbo Parish. Approximately forty kilometres along the main road from Gulu Town to Jinja (Sudan) is a permanent UPDF military camp. Like Palaro, it is only in the second half of 1999 that the people in the refugee camp have been able to venture further than one kilometre from its boundary. The road both north and south of Pabbo, although severely potholed and littered with bombed vehicles, is safe for travelling. Like in Palaro, it has been estimated that over 1 500 people from this area have lost their lives to the conflict and over 700 children are currently in rebel captivity since 1990. Unlike Palaro, Pabbo is one of the centres of aid activity both by the government and by non-governmental organisations (NGOs).


Current work in the development of reintegration strategies for former child soldiers and abducted children in Uganda has largely focused on individuals, with few resources available to target families and communities where they originated. While this work has shown that it is possible to make a number of constructive interventions, these have mostly been issue-based, lacking a strategic component in terms of an holistic perspective, the reintegration of the village. Experience in other fields, such as AIDS programmes, has illustrated that, in order to develop and implement an integrated strategic programme that has the capacity to transform people’s lives, corrective strategy needs to be targeted both at individuals and their environments. It is therefore necessary to develop an understanding of how the children, their families and communities feel about certain issues. These issues relate to all past experiences and present attitudes, including indigenous traditional methods that can transform people’s lives and enable them to reintegrate these children into their society.

Political and aid agencies therefore require information that depicts or outlines the attitudes, needs and priorities, as well as general development variables of all affected stakeholders, in order to devise and implement appropriate strategies for reintegration. The challenge of developing an appropriate research process in evaluating the impact of proposed reintegration strategies was to evolve a methodology that would achieve an objective set of opinions carrying community legitimacy, while not being swamped in political and process paralysis.

At the core of the research framework was the acknowledgement that the communities being researched, were not homogeneous, but complex and constituting a sum of diverse interests that reside in a particular defined area. Prior studies have tended to define affected communities in northern Uganda as fairly analogous, and too often analysed them as if there is a homogeneity of needs, constraints and resources. Certainly, Palaro could be said to be composed of a number of heterogeneous communities: families who have been directly affected by abductions as opposed to those who have not, families with income earners, families selling cash crops and families relying entirely on subsistence. This process enabled both points of common discourse and interest to be identified and evaluated against the impact (both positive and negative) of any of the programmes being presented to each generic category of recipients. It was therefore critical to incorporate mechanisms to identify the dynamics and needs of all people and their households. In order to achieve this, the relevant communities were involved in a process of consultative research, which allowed for the evaluation and varying impact of current strategies and service delivery, on each generic grouping. This was the only way to determine the root causes of either successes or failures. As such, it was possible to lay the solid foundation for the understanding of issues at hand, and the impact on future delivery. In addition, it is hoped that the recipient communities were empowered with the means to measure any future implementation strategies. It is also hoped that the research process enabled points of common understanding and concern to be identified, and thus the means by which bridges can be built between the affected communities and external delivery organisations.

Ultimately, the aim of any planning process is to unlock current constraints by promoting an alternative strategy that is focused towards improving the quality of life of the people concerned. In doing this, the approach to planning and research should be built on a strong commitment to an inclusive process. There is no single methodology that was used that could claim precedence over another; thus any approach to this type of research necessitates a mutually reinforcing schedule of different research tools. Two processes, however, lend themselves best to such research: participatory focus groups and structured observation schedules. It is these research methodologies that were utilised in Gulu Town, the administrative centre of Gulu District, and the two communities of Palaro and Pabbo.

Participatory research is by nature dynamic and adaptive. It is difficult to pre-determine the type and sequence of the research exercises exactly, particularly as this may change once more is known about the research area and issues, and even during the research exercises. As such, technique selection was not concluded beforehand, but rather adapted to the interactive process, as the various focus groups progressed. It was crucial not to allow a prescribed technique choice to direct the research process. Instead, the required research objective and type of information formed the basis upon which the selection of methods was made. This may seem an obvious point to state, but many of these techniques are used simply because they exist, rather than because they are relevant. Another point to take note of is that many of these techniques involve the generation of visible information of a public nature, and more sensitive information may therefore be kept hidden. Consequently, it was necessary to allow for fluid processes so that hidden information could be drawn to the surface.

It has been noted from past participatory research that a significant portion of the information gained from visual exercises is derived from the discussion around the exercise – both during the exercise and once it has been completed and is being analysed. It was therefore necessary to take care to always ‘interview’ exercises, as well as to take note of the discussion while the exercises were unfolding. This enabled the researchers to avoid being left with impressive diagrams of which the categories and context were not understood. Although the research was geared towards understanding current trends and expectations, it was always conceivable that ‘shopping or wish lists’ would emerge during participatory research exercises. As some communities have become dependent upon institutions for development aid, it was necessary to pay particular attention to the interrogation of these lists. This is not to say that the communities do not require what is listed, but to establish priority and investigate options related to the issue at hand – reintegration strategies. Unfortunately, a significant portion of the research undertaken in Pabbo ended up being a ‘shopping list’ of requirements, and as such meant that its relevance to the research was limited. However, the remaining interviews and participatory research groups in Pabbo, as well as the activities in Palaro produced rich data and therefore made a significant contribution to the analytical process.


From the beginning of time, children have actively served their nations or communities as soldiers in armed conflict. Perhaps one of the earliest eulogies of child warriors is found during the Spartan era where, at the age of seven, boys were taken from their homes for military training. Throughout Africa’s history, young men have played prominent roles in taking up weapons to defend their villages, just as young women provided both material and physical support for their tribal armies. During peacetime, the same adolescents worked alongside their elders in constructing homes, hunting animals, herding livestock, tending fields or rearing younger siblings. The distinction between adolescence and adulthood has often been blurred and has largely been dictated by survival strategies. Among the Masai, Xhosa and Zulu initiation ceremonies for both male and female adolescents, the transition to adulthood is celebrated on their reaching the ages of twelve and fourteen. Hence, if adolescents were capable of bearing arms, they were recruited as warriors.

During the latter years of the twentieth century, adolescents have become ‘principal’ participants in most of Africa’s wars. Whether their participation was through armed conflict – as in most civil wars in West, Central and East Africa – or through sustained civil unrest – as in Southern Africa – these combatants have become increasingly youthful over the years. Pre-adolescents as combatants are no longer the exception, but have joined their older comrades in becoming the norm. Moreover, the introduction of girls alongside boys as soldiers has become more prevalent.

In the past, however, children were usually enrolled in the armed forces when the reserve of adult soldiers ran short, whereas the youngest are today often the first to be recruited. In Africa’s remaining wars, many ‘rebel’ militias or movements comprise almost entirely adolescents and pre-adolescents – sometimes as young as eight years old. If it is considered that over half of Africa’s population is under the age of eighteen years, it is not surprising, however, that there has been a proliferation of children in the various armies.

Rebel or anti-government forces are not alone in their use of child soldiers. Government forces are also prone to recruit young adolescents into their ranks. Moreover, under international law, it is not illegal to recruit fifteen-year old children for training as soldiers for active combat duty. According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child signed in 1989,
3 and ratified by all members except the United States and Somalia, ‘childhood’ ends at the age of eighteen years. Although forbidding the death penalty for all children under eighteen, as well as setting a host of other standards for their protection, the UN sanctions the right of a fifteen-year old to kill or be killed ‘in the line of duty’.

There is more to this than purely the need for conscription: life in the army often offers the only alternative to subsistence survival. The promise of training and a sustained livelihood is a powerful lure in regions where poverty and population pressures overwhelm education and jobs. Nevertheless, the move to recruit younger combatants, either voluntarily or through force, reflects the age-old discovery that children who are dislocated from their family and social networks are easily transformed in fearsome and uncompromising soldiers. When they cannot be enticed into the ranks voluntarily, children are more easily coerced than adults. Once enlisted, they can be facilely moulded into unquestioning fighters. Within the military ranks, young adolescents often develop the sort of loyalty towards their ‘superiors’ that they would have, in a ‘normal society’, towards older family members.

Confusing war and play, child combatants minimise the dangerous environment within which they survive, often becoming oblivious of boundaries that separate fantasy from reality. Isolated for lengthy periods at a time, while being left to their own initiative in spatial and social surroundings that are alien to those they have left behind, socialisation skills break down and a new abstract sense of ‘reality’ emerges. When transformed into military codes of conduct, these rules are invariably more violent and therefore more effective than those of their older predecessors. Without fully developing and comprehending fear as an emotion, they are frequently less terrified of death than adults.

Child soldiers are also easily co-opted into undertaking extremely dangerous tasks associated with combat that older companions often avoid, such as infiltrating villages that have been targeted for attack, serving as spies or messengers, acting as decoys or being suicide bombers. With no dependants of their own to consider, they are not burdened by the liability of obligation, and because they consume less food and have yet to comprehend fully the value of waged labour, children are an economic addition to whatever force they serve.

If one factor can be singled out as being the catalyst for the exponential increase in the use of child soldiers, it has been the proliferation of small arms in military conflicts throughout the world. For much of the twentieth century, weaponry was both too expensive and heavy for children to handle. However, during recent decades, technological development has enabled the manufacture of simpler and lighter weapons – thereby creating the potential for their use by pre-adolescents. Moreover, the post-Cold War period has resulted in the wholesale flooding of redundant, cheap but efficient weapons in Africa. "An AK-47, firing thirty bullets per trigger pull, costs the equivalent of the price of a goat."
4 In South Africa, an AK-47 can be illegally purchased for a price of approximately US $12.5

In Uganda, the phenomenon of child soldiers first gained prominence after 1981, during Milton Obote’s second ascendance to power following the disputed 1980 elections. When the current government of President Yoweri Museveni was still a resistance force, there were an estimated 3 000 kadogos, or child soldiers, under the age of sixteen among its ranks. Of these, approximately one-sixth were young girls.
6 It is estimated that, since 1992, anti-Museveni rebels have abducted approximately 14 000 children (mostly from the northern Acholi people) with the intent of turning them into child soldiers and sex slaves.7


A political history

Uganda lies towards the centre of the Great Lakes Region, surrounded by Kenya to the east, the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west, Sudan to the north and Rwanda and Tanzania to the south. The area is characterised by a subtropical climate in the south, which draws ample water from Lake Victoria, to a more arid region in the north towards southern Sudan.

In 1962, under the direction of Milton Obote, Uganda gained its independence from the United Kingdom. Thereafter, Military Commander Idi Amin ousted Obote in a coup d’état in 1971. After a reign of terror that lasted until 1979, Amin was finally removed by a coalition of forces from Tanzania and Ugandan opposition groups. Idi Amin himself was from northern Uganda, a fact which has contributed to negative perceptions of the northern tribes among those living in the south of the country. Furthermore, many of the southerners in the military were purged and replaced by individuals from the north, who participated in the atrocities committed during Amin’s reign.

After a transitional period, Obote was reinstalled in 1980, only to be overthrown again by General Tito Okello in 1985. Thereafter, the National Resistance Movement (NRM) with its military wing, the National Resistance Army (NRA), seized power in 1986 under the military guidance of Yoweri Museveni – who is still the current president.
8 Museveni and the NRM govern over a ‘no-party’ political system where people can run for office in their individual capacity or as members of the ruling party. Freedom of assembly, association and expression are restricted.9

In many ways, the origin of the current conflict lies in the complex socio-religious traditions of the Acholi people who inhabit Uganda’s northern-most districts, as well as the deeply-rooted ethnic distrust between the Acholi and the ethnic groups of southern Uganda – a distrust that has erupted in the past into widespread violence. During the period of British colonial administration, the British mostly employed southerners in the civil service. People from northern Uganda, and especially the Acholi, were primarily recruited into the armed forces. This created a class division between northern and southern Uganda that persisted until independence in 1962. As a result, the south was more developed and contained the bulk of Uganda’s educated élite, while the north, including Gulu and Kitgum, the homeland of the Acholi, was much poorer, with the people relying on subsistence agricultural activities and military service for survival.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Uganda’s economy and social service sector collapsed. Gross domestic product (GDP) declined by 25 per cent, exports by 60 per cent, imports by over 50 per cent and inflation was over 200 per cent. Moreover, Uganda was a nation lost in civil strife, violence, lawlessness and self-destruction.

Agricultural activities were the predominant strategy to secure a livelihood, with few other true employment opportunities available in both the formal and informal sectors of Uganda. At the time, agriculture contributed more than 70 per cent of GDP, and provided 8 per cent of formal sector employment opportunities for the Ugandan population. The lack of economic opportunities was exacerbated by more than two decades of war. Now emerging from this turmoil, insecurity and instability, Uganda’s economy is one of the fastest growing in Africa and is often hailed as a success by Western powers. Nevertheless, the current rate of growth is insufficient to provide gainful employment for more than half of the fast growing population.
11 According to the 1991 National Population and Housing Census, Uganda’s population numbered 16,7 million, growing at an average rate of 2,5 per cent per annum. Furthermore, the population of Uganda is becoming increasingly younger. Over the last forty years, the proportion of children and youth in the total population has quadrupled. Almost 90 per cent of the Ugandan population live in the rural countryside. Compared with other East-African nations, Uganda is very densely populated with approximately 85 people per square kilometre.12

The war in the north

The war in the north is in its twelfth year, with the Ugandan military having had no success in stopping it. Many people in the northern districts of Uganda are of the opinion that the government’s weak response is deliberate. Most of these people belong to the Acholi ethnic group and have been historically unsupportive of the current government. Furthermore, during Obote’s second regime, a large percentage of soldiers who committed atrocities belonged to the Acholi group, and many Ugandans from the southern areas therefore often view the group as murderers. They are thus reluctant to lend any support to the northern areas. Moreover, with horrific abuses being committed by rebel forces, President Museveni has been able to ignore and excuse human rights violations committed by his soldiers in the north against the Acholi and other ethnic groups who do not support his government.

The war in Gulu has gone through many phases since 1986. In late 1986, Museveni’s troops were deployed in the north to mop up the remnants of forces supporting the previous Obote and Okello regimes. Human rights violations by these government troops fuelled the conflict, but most rebel troops had given themselves up to the authorities by 1988, and their leaders reconciled with the government in 1990.

In the interim, a woman called Alice Auma, also known as Lakwena (Acholi for messenger), created a force that became known as the Holy Spirit Movement. By late 1986, Lakwena had mobilised numbers of deserting rebel soldiers and Acholi tribespeople, as well as other Luo civilians, through a powerful combination of local spiritual ideology and Christian beliefs. Her forces were eventually defeated outside Jinja in November 1987. Following her defeat, an armed group led by Joseph Kony – initially known as Lakwena Two before becoming known as the Holy Spirit Movement – emerged as the focus of military opposition to the government NRA in the Gulu District. Like Lakwena, Kony claims to be possessed by religious forces that use him as a medium.
13 From the onset, forces led by Kony have committed serious human rights abuses against civilians.

In late October 1988, the NRA launched an offensive in the Gulu District. Government soldiers were responsible for extrajudicial executions, the internal displacement of thousands of people and the destruction of homes and granaries. Despite these ‘military efforts,’ Kony’s forces were not defeated, and by early 1991, were known as the United Christian Democratic Army (UCDA). During 1991, the NRA mounted another major military offensive, which included sealing off the north from the rest of the country. Although militarily effective, NRA activities were once more tarnished by significant human rights violations. In 1992, new NRA commanders in the area worked with the civilian authorities on a more politically-oriented counterinsurgency strategy, and in late 1993 and early 1994, government officials held peace talks with Kony’s force leaders, who where by then known as the LRA.

The latest phase of the war began in early 1994, after peace talks collapsed in February following President Museveni’s motion to the LRA leaders to lay down their arms in seven days.
14 Meanwhile, the Sudanese government began to provide the LRA with military and logistic support, which gave the movement the means to intensify its activities. As a result, the scale of violence and child abductions increased over the next two years. Since July 1996, nearly half the population of Gulu District – approximately 200 000 people who normally live in communities of scattered farms – have been forced to flee their homes. Some have moved into Gulu Town, others are concentrated around outlying trading centres or small army posts (known as detaches) in so-called protected villages. In the Kitgum District, tens of thousands of people fled LRA attacks on Lamwo County in January 1997. In July of the same year, unofficial estimates put the number of IDPs in this district at approximately 60 000. The UPDF maintains that villagers are fleeing the LRA. While for many, perhaps the majority, this is undoubtedly true, it is also true that others are responding to encouragement and in some instances coercion by the UPDF, which is focused on isolating the LRA in the countryside and then cutting them off from sources of food.

Neither the Holy Spirit Movement of Lakwena nor the LRA of Kony has presented political programmes that are readily understandable to outsiders, beyond calling for Uganda to be ruled according to the biblical Ten Commandments. As the testimony of escaped children attests, extreme violence is a deliberate tool used to terrorise civilians into providing support or newly abducted persons into staying with their captors – and as punishment for not following edicts laid down by LRA commanders. For civilians in the countryside, edicts include a ban on riding bicycles (persons on bicycles can quickly reach army detaches); habitation near roads (where people may witness landmines being planted or ambushes being laid); and keeping pigs (which appears to be in response to support from the Islamic Sudanese government).

Since February 1999, the situation has generally been fairly stable; although only hours after the departure of the researchers, an area not far from Palaro was attacked by rebels, which resulted in casualties.



Since the commencement of the destabilisation period and the infiltration of rebel forces into northern Uganda, the lifestyle of local communities has been drastically altered. Those living in the northern-most regions, particularly those in the Gulu District, have been systematically stripped of their assets – both productive assets such as their cattle and land, as well as their labour power. As acts of violence against the rural homestead increased, the government moved most of the households in parishes north of Gulu Town into ‘protected camps,’ while children were despatched to other areas where the threat was not so severe. Not all families had the option or could afford to send children away, and continued to live under constant fear. Many spent nights sleeping in the bush as a precaution against the increasing number of kidnappings and acts of brutalisation perpetrated by both rebels and government forces. As the number of families who experienced looting, abductions and other forms of physical violence became horrifically visible, this fear spread, as did mass displacement of people.

Focus group discussions and in-depth interviews with families in Palaro and Pabbo, repeatedly indicated that entire villages would sometimes spend up to two weeks sleeping in the bush, frequently kilometres away from their homesteads. In many instances, families would divide themselves into smaller units to avoid wholesale capture. Male adults were regularly separated from the rest of the family unit for weeks at a time, while children would have their education disrupted, due to fear of abduction on their way to or from school.


The impact of the instability on strategies to ensure the livelihood of people in Palaro and Pabbo has been devastating. Rebel groups were making use of the food grown in the communities as a means of survival. While these rebel forces were looting and killing, the UPDF soldiers were also ‘helping themselves’ to any goods that they wanted. As a result, the community was caught between two sides that were equally bad and, as such, had no means of recourse. During an interview with a rebel commander, he justified the looting of food by explaining that he "had to feed 200 mouths every day." In addition, he justified that some of the food they were taking from families was used to feed the families’ own abducted children anyway.

In order to minimise the food supply to the rebels, the government demarcated ‘safe zones’ into which all community members were forcibly herded. Anyone found outside the demarcated area was designated to be a rebel and was therefore a legitimate target. Crops and homes were burned as part of a ‘scorched earth’ policy, and cattle, possibly the single most important asset in livelihood strategies utilised by the inhabitants, were taken for ‘safekeeping’, with the understanding that they would be returned to their rightful owners once the rebel problem was quelled. This promise has never been fulfilled. The general opinion held by affected communities is that the cattle had been given to alternative owners and will not be returned to them, despite ongoing promises.

The loss of livestock has perhaps been the single most devastating economic hardship that this traditionally pastoralist society has had to confront. Consequently, the people of Pabbo and Palaro can no longer depend on their animals to provide both traction power and food for the families living in the region. Notwithstanding the nutritional impact of being denied both fresh meat and dairy produce, the loss of traction power provided by cattle has often meant that the utilisation of available fields for ploughing has been limited. A group of farmers in Palaro said that, since their cattle were confiscated by the government, prior to having their fields denied to them, they could only prepare about 60 per cent of the land in time for planting.

In addition, the Acholi have historically traded livestock produce for cash and other goods and services. Growing and selling fresh fruit and vegetables are common throughout Uganda, thus there is little other competitive advantage that the Acholi have in the Ugandan market place. As such, the loss of their cattle has also meant that they have been denied the one major income generator available to them.

It is evident that, as a result of this, these households have moved into ever increasing levels of poverty and vulnerability to the point where they may no longer be able to sustain their simple lifestyles. Furthermore, levels of savings appeared to have decreased rapidly. According to respondents in Palaro, they currently have about one-tenth of the savings they had twenty years ago. In other words, they are worse off than they were under the repressive Amin regime.


The drastic decrease in farming activities, both cultivation and livestock, has had a devastating impact on the health and economic security of households. Although the soils are exceptionally fertile and the relatively sparsely populated northern territories provide abundant land that can be cultivated, a balanced and nutritional diet is lacking, due to the vulnerable circumstances of the people. Respondents in both Pabbo and Palaro claimed noticeable declines in health, particularly among the very young and the elderly. Although there was little sign of malnutrition among young children in Palaro, malnutrition and disease were clearly evident in Pabbo.

Aside from the ever-present threat of malaria, unsanitary conditions in the camp resulted in an almost continual presence of cholera. Diarrhoea, chicken pox and scabies were common ailments among old and young alike. During face-to-face interviews with families of abducted children in Pabbo, it was established that children were washed at least once a day, but the same was not true of adults. Despite the fact that each community had a local clinic, resources were extremely limited. The lack of electricity and poor transportation links between the two centres and Gulu severely limited the supply of medicines. In both communities, as indeed in Uganda at large, AIDS awareness is high and the distribution of condoms free. However, at Palaro, supplies of condoms had run out seventeen weeks prior to the research.


Childhood is ideally a period of learning, both inside and out of an institutional setting. Exploration of the world and surrounding environment in a safe situation helps the child to form a view of the world that will determine future interpretations of events and the ability to make rational decisions based on this past learning. This period of a child’s life is also meant to be a time to play with peers, while forming social networks that will enhance understanding of their surroundings. Interaction with their family and peers help the learning of language and life skills that complements the knowledge gained in school

The reality of existence in Pabbo and Palaro is a far cry from this ideal. Mass internal migration and insecurity have fragmented family and community structures. Children were separated from friends and family, while exposure to violence and fear raises concern over their own future problem-solving skills. Furthermore, the loss of education is and will continue to have a tremendous negative impact on the value of their labour in future years that, in turn, will limit income earning options.

It would appear that both schools and villages are common rebel targets. Between 1993 and 1997, 81 teachers and over 100 children were killed in schools by the LRA in Kitgum District
16, while 450 primary school children were abducted and 59 primary schools burnt down. This led to the closure of 136 out of 180 primary schools in the affected areas.17

The following tragic events cast a glimpse of the plight of these children and their families.


Living in hell’ is what most children currently in abduction are doing. All the children of northern Gulu – those who have escaped from captivity after being abducted and those who have never been captured by rebels – live in constant fear of hell. Recent estimates suggest that up to 5 000 children have escaped from captivity during the past few years.
18 According to estimates by the UNChildren’s Fund (UNICEF), an equal number of children remain in captivity, while an unknown number are dead. In Pabbo, a sample of 483 households yielded 302 pre-adolescents and adolescents, ranging in age from seven to 22 years, who had been abducted between 1991 and 1999. A total of 24 children were known to have died, while thirteen had returned. Examples abound: on 25 July 1996, 23 girls were abducted from St Mary’s College and on 21 August 39 boys from Sir Samuel Baker School – two secondary schools near Gulu. On 10 October 1996, in an incident that has since galvanised public awareness of child abduction, 139 girls were abducted from St Mary’s College at Aboke in Apac District. Among the LRA raiders were boys from Sir Samuel Baker School.19

After abduction, children are force-marched back into the bush, carrying the few possessions that the rebels have taken. As a means to sever ties between the children and the households they have left behind, they may be forced to beat or kill weakening children who cannot maintain the forced pace, while the commanders rape and sexually molest the young female captives. Some children remain in the bush in Uganda for several months, as they are used by the rebels as servants and porters. At some point, however, most children who have not escaped or been killed, are taken across the border into Sudan, where the rebels have their main base.
20 They receive basic military training, including the use of small weapons, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

For young girls, abduction holds an even graver picture – that of sexual slavery. Evidence suggests conclusively that sexual slavery is imposed on all abducted girls, with possible exceptions of some pre-pubescent girls. The majority of girls and women in rebel camps have syphilis or other sexually transmitted diseases, against 60 per cent of boys and men.
21 With the exception of a small group of young women who had been married or had indulged in sexual intercourse prior to their abduction and therefore may have been carrying sexually transmitted diseases, the vast majority have been infected during their period in captivity. People who work with former child members of the rebel movements verify that female ‘helpers’ inevitably become victims of rape, either by the head of the family to whom they are allocated or senior soldiers.22

Apart from ‘domestic’ obligations, many young women and girls are forced into ‘marriage’, and as such are ‘obligated’ to provide sexual services to their ‘husbands’. Girls as young as twelve are given to rebel commanders or older soldiers as ‘wives’. These girls are referred to either as ‘wife’ or ‘helper’, although girls appear to use the different terms as a matter of self-representation, with the choice of ‘helper’ reflecting reluctance to admit (perhaps to themselves, as well as to outsiders) that sexual relations were imposed upon them.

Children in captivity are ‘owned’ by the LRA and, as such, forced to serve the rebels in a number of different ways. Girls and women are forced to carry out the range of domestic duties that in rural society might be expected of a wife. These include cooking, cleaning, and fetching water and food. Young children, irrespective of gender, are used to run errands, fetch water or cultivate the land. All of the children are trained as soldiers. After repetitive drilling in the use of weaponry, these child soldiers are either send to fight, loot villages for food or capture child slaves.

The rebels enforce discipline by inculcating fear through a combination of threats, violence and death. Children who do not comply with the demands of rebels are either beaten or killed, frequently by other abducted children. Failed escape attempts continue to be punished by death, while successful efforts to escape lead to retaliation – if one sibling escapes, the rebels often kills the other sibling, or return to the child’s home village and slaughter any surviving relatives.

While the children may initially be used to shoulder a variety of non-combat tasks, the shortage of ‘fighting power’ afflicting the rebels means that, at some point, most of the children end up in the midst of combat. As mentioned above, all children are trained as soldiers and as such are expected to fight, if necessary, during raids on villages and stores. Usually ‘fighting’ takes on the appearance of children being forced to run towards the ‘enemy’, thereby acting as a distraction and human shield for the adult rebels and their commanders. Those who retreat, are beaten or killed, often by other children. If any refuse to kill ‘fellow’ child soldiers, they themselves are beaten or killed.

Throughout the period spent in captivity, the children are repeatedly subjected to arbitrary beatings and violence, or forced to take part in beatings of other captives. Children who are sick, wounded and disobedient, or have attempted to escape, are killed. Few children receive proper nutrition, while sexual abuse occurs among most of the captives. It is impossible to know the percentage of abducted children who die while in rebel captivity.

What is conspicuous by its absence is the lack of ideological training on the part of rebels. ‘John’, a rebel commander, said that the recreation of ‘family’ kinship among ‘recruits’ was the only ideological input that he had to make. It was sufficient to threaten individuals and their families with death if anybody was disobedient or tried to escape. The rebel commander also felt that the strict discipline among ‘his’ troops far surpassed that found in the UPDF. All forms of substance abuse were punishable by flogging, while repeat offenders were locked up and if they transgressed the ‘rules’ again, they were executed. He felt that fear was a sufficient ‘ideological tool.’

Children who survive this ordeal, slowly, but steadfastly become drawn into a new way of life. The violence that they witness, the death threats directed at themselves and their families, as well as continued indoctrination practices combined with their dire economic situation, prevent them from leaving. For example, if these young soldiers become good fighters, they are rewarded with food, responsibility, rank advancement and wives. Eventually, these young adolescents are drawn into the ranks of the rebels on a permanent basis. A new order and society emerge – and absorb these children. Ironically, this society, despite its dehumanising elements, attempts to recreate the one from where the abducted children came.

However, children are not the only victims; their families and indeed their entire society are held hostage by a host of psycho-sociological problems. Attacks, frequently occurring under cover of night, are brutal. The parents and siblings of the children who had escaped, may be beaten and killed. The women are often assaulted, raped and then also killed. Upon leaving the village, all transportable goods and foods are stolen, while what is left behind, is razed to the ground.

Post-abduction trauma: Impact on children

Escape from abduction may bring a child’s period of incarceration to an end, but it marks the beginning of a new set of ordeals. For many children who escape there is often nowhere to go, as villages have been destroyed by the rebels, their parents have been killed or displaced into camps, or have simply fled the countryside for the comparative safety of the towns. For those children who could return to a rural homestead, many are reluctant to do so, fearing further rebel reprisals, either against them or their families. Furthermore, ostracism by other community members who blame the children for complicity in rebel atrocities or who feel resentful that their own children are still in captivity, is widespread.

Children are emotionally devastated by their experiences. All have been subjected to psychological traumas that are so extreme that self-defence mechanisms frequently result in the children only having blurred memories of their time with the rebels. These memories are so deep-seated that they may continue to revisit the child in nightmares, hallucinations and delusions for many years. Those who have experienced extreme levels of violence face little chance of being successfully reintegrated into society as ‘normal’ persons, particularly if there is no counselling available. Sometimes, the emotional scars of committing violent acts are the hardest to cure, as the guilt overwhelms the child’s whole emotional and physical being. Many children report pains in the abdomen and side, yet complete medical examinations show no physical or medical injury. These are psychosomatic disorders, essentially an emotional trauma that manifests itself as a physical pain or disability. The UN Commission on Human Rights’ Special Rapporteur emphasised that "memories of the events remain with them ... causing extreme nightmares, daily intrusive flashbacks of the traumatic events, fear, insecurity and bitterness."
25 These children are unable to relate to other children, are suspicious of all adults, are fearful, insecure and display violent outbursts of anger. Depression is common among former child combatants, while hopelessness and desperation have been known to lead to para-suicide or suicide. These children feel stigmatised, often for good reason, as society shuns them as violent, unskilled and uneducated.

One of the most traumatic events that these children have to overcome, is that of separation from the family. The family network is central to the fabric of the Ugandan lifestyle. Displacement through abduction, death or abandonment results in high stress levels. The loss of a ‘family’ network means that many of these children grow up without emotional and economic support, lacking guidance in morality and ethics. The loss of education and the development of life skills that a family usually provide, are also irrevocable, reducing the options open to these children when they are trying to be assimilated back into society.

The effects of these experiences on the child are severe and complex. The severing of the link between the child and the parent and family has ramifications that go beyond the immediate stress or trauma. The family is the primary arena through which the process of socialisation occurs. This process is central to children’s learning about the world and their role within that world. Through interaction with the family and greater social environment, the individual becomes aware of the self and learns what is considered acceptable behaviour and what is not.

For many abducted children, violence is seen as an acceptable and even necessary way of life, and the only means to solve problems and conflict that arise among the ranks of the rebel forces. The gun is regarded as a means to get everything that is necessary, as well as for personal enrichment. This lack of conflict resolution skills and the institutionalisation of violence become visible when the child is under pressure or stress, surfacing with explosive results.

In the section above, the impact of destabilisation on the education of children was discussed. In the event of abduction, the impact is even more severe. In this instance, the child is completely removed from the school setting. Instead, the child is placed in an indoctrinating environment where new forms of skills, which are destructive and are the antithesis to what is required in ‘normal society,’ are inculcated. An alternative form of social construction is created within the rebel camps, one that becomes a substitute for the society from which the children have been removed. New roles and responsibilities are forcibly assigned to the individual through a process of violence and fear. Long-term exposure to this form of social construction can result in a complete replacement of that which was previously learned and deemed acceptable in a normal home environment.

Added to this is the loss of trust and respect for life, particularly directed towards those seen as weak. Abducted children live under conditions of perpetual doubt – where a ‘friend’ may turn traitor and ‘family’ structures are falsely created. These conditions result in a complete breakdown of the trust that is inherent and central to successful interaction between individuals. The power provided through the barrel of a gun over those who do not have guns, as well as the norm of taking what is needed, inevitably leads to a loss of respect for life. This is evident when escaped children who have returned, threaten others by boasting about the number of people they have killed and threaten to harm anyone seen as a challenge to their authority.

The effects of captivity and exposure to combat are severe. These may be divided into two main categories: the emotional trauma, and the physical and medical disabilities with which children are left. Most children appear to have developed a degree of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD manifests itself when individuals experience acute psychological reactions to intensely traumatic events – beyond ordinary human experience.
27 Past events, such as exposure to killings in combat, executions, beatings, rape, physical abuse, food deprivation and other forms of violence or anti-social behaviour, have given root to PTSD. As noted, PTSD in most sufferers can be extremely debilitating. Abducted children who were interviewed evidently re-experience memories, often in painful nightmares, hallucinations or ‘flashbacks’ while in a wakened state. Their classmates and teachers recorded their reactions by stating that the children would freeze, exhibit signs of terror, shake uncontrollably, sweat and even shout and scream out loud.

In some instances, external stimuli may trigger the memory of the event/s, which will then be re-experienced by the child. During such times, these children may exhibit diminished responsiveness to the surrounding environment and a ‘numbness’ towards their surroundings. They may find it difficult to respond to affection and will seldom find renewed interest in things they enjoyed prior to the event. This inability to show affection may be a great source of pain to children and their families. Other symptoms are insomnia, depression, anxiety, irritability, hyper-alertness and outbursts of anger and violence.

The degree to which these symptoms may emerge, depends on the nature of the trauma, as well as the psychological strength of the individual prior to the event. Other factors that have to be considered are the length of time a child spent in the bush and the role played by an abducted child while in captivity.
29 Given that the average ages of abducted children range between twelve and fifteen years, they may not have developed the full array of defence mechanisms, making them extremely vulnerable and susceptible to the full force of the scenes they witness. In addition, the greater the number of events witnessed by them, the more severe the symptoms of PTSD are likely to be. Considering that the violence in northern Uganda has affected almost all in one way or another, the incidence and severity of PTSD is likely to be high. While in many cases the symptoms may subside after about six months, they may last for years. However, since the violence, hardship and displacement are still ongoing, the length of time taken for recovery is likely to be longer than in peaceful surroundings.

The responses of children to trauma may differ in significant ways to those of adults.
30 Children usually find it difficult to understand what has happened. As a result, they may be unable to describe how they are feeling and therefore express themselves in different ways. Most responses to a traumatic event are normal and will resolve in time with the help of caring family members and friends. However, if the responses are too severe or last too long, the need for professional intervention becomes paramount. Occasionally, these problems may be delayed until some time after the trauma. Frequently, the signs are misunderstood, as it appears that the child is merely being disobedient.

The symptoms of PTSD not only affect the sufferer, but may also impact severely on other family members.
31 Relationships with partners and children may become strained and difficult. PTSD may cause the sufferer to reject or withdraw from the very people who care the most.32 If PTSD and the associated problems are not recognised as the cause of the problems, family members may start to blame the affected person or themselves.33 They may feel rejected or unloved, and powerless to help the sufferer. It may mean that the family will require help with other problems that they had been coping with before. Unfortunately, PTSD can be a difficult disorder to recognise, considering there is often a reluctance to talk about the traumatic event(s) and personal reactions, for fear of appearing weak or stupid. This may be exacerbated by unhelpful attitudes in others (e.g. beliefs that PTSD does not exist or that survivors should ‘just pull themselves together’), or by a variation in the intensity of symptoms over time. The sufferer may be relatively well for long periods between episodes and sometimes symptoms may not appear for some months, or even years, after the trauma.

Impact on the family

An area that has largely been ignored, is the impact and trauma experienced by those who witness the violence and abduction, but are left behind. Parents in particular, are left with feelings of extreme guilt about having been unable to save their children. There are some reports of parents being unable to eat, sleep or work, as they constantly lament the loss of their child. Other symptoms that have been reported are sudden and unexpected outbursts of anger, frequently directed towards other children. In one instance, the state of the individual became so bad that he had to be hospitalised. The medical staff was unable to find any physical defect, despite the patient’s complaints of pain in a variety of body regions, including his head and stomach. The patient was given some small white pills and sent home. His condition has continued to deteriorate, and other family members fear that he will soon die.

Children who have avoided capture and enslavement by rebels are also not shielded from the consequential torment and effects of violence and conflict. It is not so much the general instability caused by the ongoing conflict – the economic mainstay of the region, its agricultural base and infrastructure, have been destroyed – but the everlasting fear of abduction that absorbs a large part of their emotions. Ultimately, this emotional experience translates into the most devastating disabling factors that influence their lives, making them susceptible and vulnerable to further inner turmoil.

While the experiences of the abducted child are undoubtedly traumatic, those affecting the family are broader and possibly more complex. This is usually because it is a combined experience of destabilisation, the loss of at least one family member, the loss of their lifetime savings and work, and the guilt and uncertainty associated with being relocated to an IDP camp. Relocation in itself is a traumatic experience, as people are literally uprooted and forced to leave everything behind, only to move into an area without a house, fields, or employment. Furthermore, these camps have hopelessly inadequate health and education facilities, poor sanitation and unclean water. All the respondents stated that prior to the move to the camp, they were healthier, happier and economically better off. They had more meals per day, were able to wash more frequently and did not have to visit a medical practitioner as often. The cramped living conditions and lack of privacy contributed towards their future uncertainty and misery. Ironically, the herding of people into camps under the guise of protection did little to limit the abductions, which continued unabated despite the heavy presence of security personnel.

Another major complaint of the parents of abducted children, was the lack of support for efforts to have their children returned to them. Furthermore, most parents of abducted children stated that they were unaware of any other forms of support, such as grief counselling. Even those who approached the UPDF received little information and help, while on occasion, they would be harassed by troops wanting to know where their child and the other rebels were. It appears that the impact upon families depends upon a number of factors:

Given this, the successful reintegration of the child back into the family and society is also largely intertwined with the level of poverty and the availability or lack of economic opportunities, that are presented. The loss of cattle and land, the removal of resources and trade links, and constant insecurity tend to promote risk-adverse investment behaviours. In this scenario, individuals or families will not risk the little they have in a gamble, where the potential returns would be sufficient to lift them out of their dire economic position. Instead, the fear of losing the little they have, results in small, safe investments where the returns are guaranteed, yet insufficient to have any real positive impact on the economic status of the individual or family. These families are constantly preoccupied with survival, limiting the attention that can be directed towards the returning child.

Wealthier families who are able to continue functioning as a productive economic unit tend to suffer a lesser impact in comparison to poorer families who have to struggle continually simply to survive. In this sense, the family with the greater asset base is better able t

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