Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Sam Okello remembers the day that fighters of the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, killed his parents six years ago in the village of Atin Kok in Apala, near the town of Lira in north central Uganda.
Those memories haunt Okello so strongly that he can't concentrate at school and is prone to fits and crying.
“I can’t [stop] thinking about my lost parents, even though my teachers say thinking about them will affect my performance,” said Okello, 16.
But forgetting will not be easy because the memories are still fresh, he confessed.
“It is better I keep them in my memory at the moment,” he said, “so that when time [passes], I [may] forget them once and for all.”
Some studies suggest that 40-50,000 youngsters were abducted by the LRA, forced to carry looted food and materials and become child soldiers and sex slaves.
Over the years, large numbers of these children have escaped their captors. Many headed for refugees camps, some returned to their villages while others ended up on the street.
Another child victim of the war, who had been living on the streets of Lira and is now being assisted by the Child Restoration Outreach centre in the town, said many youngsters traumatised by the war are abused rather than helped.
“Those who never suffered [from the] LRA war [wrongly] treat us as rebels,” said John Otim. “But one day when war ends, we shall abandon the streets, go back home, and begin living normally.”
A 14-year-old boy who lost his parents in the Barlonyo massacre, when the LRA killed more than 300 people, complains of similar mistreatment. He said he was abused by some people who told him that streets kids were useless.
He and others say they are harassed by security guards protecting businesses in the town centre. “[My parents] could provide me all that I wanted, but now [I am] battling with useless guards,” said the boy.
He is, he confessed, one of the worst students in his class, “How can you perform well when you are preoccupied with the loss of your loved ones?”
The psychological problems suffered in the north are only now becoming more apparent, as some degree of normality begins to return to the region after two decades of war.
People here have watched nervously as peace talks between the LRA and the Ugandan government have stumbled along. The parties appeared to be making progress, but in the last few weeks there have been a series of major setbacks.
LRA leader Joseph Kony was reportedly set to sign an agreement to end the conflict on April 10 in a remote location on the border of South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC, but failed to show up.
Many observers suspect the peace process is over, in part because the LRA has reportedly abducted hundreds of people in the regions near their camps in DRC and the town of Obo in the Central African Republic as well as South Sudan.
With the focus of local and international attention over the last year on securing a peace deal, little effort has been made to treat the psychological wounds of those who survived LRA brutality.
People in northern Uganda who are only now returning to their homes say healing these wounds may be the most difficult task of all.
“Our children are really disturbed," said Tom Okao, an Apala elder. "They think life is all about violence. They need psycho-social rehabilitation as they grow."
Teachers in some of the recently reopened schools in the north told IWPR that they have become increasingly aware of many children who have been traumatised by the war and, as a result, have trouble learning.
The students suffer traumatic memories since many experienced and witnessed brutal violence, say the teachers, and their memories often surface in the midst of the lessons.
Joel Peter Onyuta, a teacher in Otwal in Oyam district, northwest of Lira, said, “[Children] demonstrate in class how their relatives were tortured before being killed by the LRA. They are really traumatised. They need some psycho-social support if they are to become good citizens."
Bill Oketch is an IWPR-trained journalist in Uganda.
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