BARR REFUGEE CAMP, Uganda (Reuters) - Walter Emodo shudders as he recalls the day Ugandan rebels attacked his village two years ago, killing his younger brother and changing his formerly peaceful childhood forever.
“They came at night. They woke everyone up, then they just started shooting people,” the 16-year-old said, casting his eyes down to the dusty ground of his refugee camp.
“They set fire to huts with people inside and they were screaming.”
For 20 years, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) — one of Africa’s most feared rebel groups — has waged a vicious war in Uganda, killing civilians, mutilating people and abducting thousands of children to swell their ranks, victims say.
In August, the rebels and government signed a landmark truce, raising hopes of ending a rebellion that has killed thousands and forced nearly two million into camps, but analysts say a final peace deal remains far off.
Emodo comes from a region that had been rebel-free until early 2004, when the LRA carried out a series of massacres around the northern town of Lira.
After rampaging through his village, they abducted him to carry loot, taking him deep into the bush where he escaped after nearly a year in captivity. His 8-year-old brother was less fortunate.
“They killed him. They cut him up with a panga (machete),” he said. “He was too small to carry anything.”
In July, a Reuters poll of humanitarian experts listed the 10 worst places in the world in which to be a child. Northern Uganda came second, after Sudan’s war-ravaged Darfur region.
The report said 935,000 children in northern Uganda are living in refugee camps. Some 25,000 children have been abducted by the LRA since the rebellion began, it said.
“Northern Uganda is a very difficult place to be a child,” Martin Mogwanja, country director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) told Reuters in an interview.
“Parents who are normally the first people to care for a child can’t because of the life in the (refugee) camps, which tears the social fabric apart. Camps are not a good place to bring up children”
Many of the thousands of children abducted by rebels have ended up being killed — by the rebels themselves or in clashes with the Ugandan army, though some are rescued.
The risk of abduction has forced thousands of children to sleep on the streets of the relatively secure town centre’s.
But aid workers say the recent calm in the north as a truce holds up has slowed the daily flood of “night commuters” to a trickle. Only about 5,000 come into town centers each night, compared with some 40,000 at the peak of the conflict.
Though rebel abductions have stopped for now, the problem remains of how to help reintegrate children who have been with the LRA, many of them rejected by their families.
At the Laroo boarding school for war-affected children outside the town of Gulu, once the epicenter of the conflict, a group of kids play football on the grass, while others sing or sit to eat their lunch of millet and beans on plastic dishes.
Many are former abductees or child soldiers.
“We are traumatized by war,” Doris Atiko, the school’s secretary said. “When we register these children, some have fresh bullet wounds from fighting. I sometimes want to cry.”
Richard Oweka, 15, was abducted by rebels as he walked home from his primary school. Three years after he escaped, he is back in school again.
After being forced to help carry looted food through the bush for hours, Oweka was whisked away to a rebel base in southern Sudan where they trained him to be a killer.
“They taught us to shoot bullets and dive when fired at. They said we had to fight the government,” he said. “But we were too hungry most of the time.”
Aid workers say the task of rehabilitating children like Oweka, many of whom have permanent psychological scars, will persist long after the signing of any peace deal.
Scovia Atim won’t forget her 18 months with the LRA, when she was given as a “wife” to one of the rebel commanders.
“Being forced to beat the new abductees was the worst thing,” the 17-year-old said. “You had to hit them hard or the commanders hit you.”
Atim said she wanted to sew dresses to sell on the market now she was out of the bush. “I just need help to start again,” she said.