The Child Soldiers of Gusco

Spend one afternoon at Gusco camp, and I promise you it will be impossible ever again to take for granted the joys of your childhood. Gusco (Gulu United to Save the Children Organization) is a nongovernmental organization whose camp in northern Uganda is home today for about 50 formerly abducted children. On the afternoon of July 4, 2001, I was a guest at this site, where I encountered a band of children bonded together by a terrible fatethey had all been kidnapped by rebels in the Lord’s Resistance Army (L.R.A.) and thrown into war. The L.R.A. is one of the world’s most treacherous guerrilla forces. Currently operating in southern Sudan, it refreshes its numbers by stealing children, aged 6 to 18, to do its brutal bidding. The children at Gusco had escaped from the L.R.A. and were to remain at this camp for some six to eight weeks, preparing to be reintegrated into their families and communities.

These so-called child soldiers had been robbed of their childhoods, held as captives by the L.R.A. rebels and forced into nightmares that were all too real. After being abducted, each of them was forced to trek on foot for long distances between northern Uganda and southern Sudan laden with stolen food, goods and arms. If they cried, they were beaten. If they cried again, they were shot or their necks broken with an iron bar. The female children were used as sex slaves, trophies given to the top officers in the L.R.A. as rewards for military victories. Within the first three months of captivity, all the boys had been trained in the use of weapons and told that their gun was now their mother, best friend, their everything. The children were routinely used as human shields to protect the adults who had committed these atrocities against them.


That memorable afternoon, I found myself drawn into a nearly unbelievable story related to me by Christopher, a 15-year-old who spoke with calm self-confidence. There was a genuineness in his facial expressions and tone of voice that made me like him immediately. Christopher had been abducted when he was just 7 years old. As weeks became months and years, those who had kidnapped him became his brothers. They were the only human contact he had. An emotional hardening slowly took possession of him and he would, upon command, carry out the savage orders of the L.R.A. officers. Christopher, along with many other children, often heard shouted at him: Killor be killed!

He eventually became a part of the elite corps of bodyguards that surrounds Joseph Kony, the notorious and feared leader of the L.R.A. His special assignment was to go on expeditions to secure new girls for Kony’s pleasure. Christopher confided to me: When I was about 12 years old they began to trust me to help abduct women for Kony, to abduct beautiful girls only for Kony. The soldiers given women were always the top leaders. When I once made the mistake of bringing to them an ugly girl, I was beaten.

Christopher experienced daily familiarity with death. He killed other children and many adults upon direct command from the L.R.A. rebels. This child who sat serenely with me in the shade, who smiled at me whenever I smiled at him, had lost his freedom, his entire childhood and certainly a vital part of his humanity in the hellish company of Joseph Kony. When I met Christopher, he was in the seventh week of his freedom, having been rescued by Ugandan security forces in a surprise ambush on the L.R.A. He has a bullet lodged in his leg, a souvenir of his eight-year captivity in the bush of southern Sudan. Regrettably, the emotional wounds he bears are far more menacing. Staff members at Gusco tell me the war trauma that he has suffered will make it necessary for him to remain at the camp for a greatly extended period. His self-confident demeanor hides a most vulnerable child.

Among the common side effects that afflict formerly abducted children who have been brutalized in war are eating disorders, nightmares, aggressive and militaristic behavior, epileptic fits, alcohol abuse and the inability to form trusting relationships. Many graduates of the Gusco camp recount ordeals of having little or nothing to eat while living with the rebels. Some days all that was available to them to eat were the leaves that had fallen from the trees. Now, in their freedom and food security, those prolonged periods of food deprivation continue to wreak havoc. Many fall victim to eating either too little or too much.

It appears that Christopher’s personal struggles center upon his inability to form trusting relationships. There is a sense of abandonment that has invaded his life twice. As a child he lost his family when he was kidnapped by the rebels. Now, as a teenager, he is again experiencing separation from those in whose company he grew up. He tells me his greatest hope is that his rebel brothers come out of the war alive. In the meantime, he wonders whom to trust. As our conversation was drawing to a close, Christopher had a curious question he wanted to ask me. With near glee he inquired: Do you know that there are people here who love me? This teenager, who had lost so much of his life to an evil that few of us can even imagine, obviously did not forget what love is like. This, I suspect, will prove to be his redemption.

The day I visited Gusco, the 2,867th young person to graduate from the camp’s program was walking out the front gate into a free but uncertain future. He is now fully retired from the military at the age of 12. Every day is freedom day at Gusco, with every child destined to be reunited with loved ones back home. Their parents feel exhilaration in the simple yet astounding fact that their son or daughter is still alive, because most abducted children in this region of war-weary Africa never return. The anxiety of some parents has been nearly overwhelming. They know all too well what it feels like to be helpless to protect their own offspring from a violent world. One father of two sons who had been kidnapped tried to give me his sonsbegging me to take them home with me, so fearful was he of their being abducted again. Some fear that their children will never fit into society after surviving warfare, but will remain scarred by the trauma and brutality that characterized their daily lives. Others even fear to take their own children back because the rebels’ dehumanizing tactics have toughened them to be extremely hostile.

Walking on the grounds of the camp, however, I could sense that this was a place of promise that held out the hope of new beginnings. I witnessed the healing and liberating spirit that flourishes there. I saw young people learning music and dance, while other children were busy cooking the supper that would soon be shared by all. Now it appears to me that they were befriending one another instead of their guns. Meanwhile, armed guards protect them around the clock, posted at every entrance to this site. It is widely known that the L.R.A. is set upon recapturing these escapees. The sight of these guards let me know just how fragile is the new freedom these children now experience.

A Lost Identity

I was struck with the realization that Christopher was systematically made to banish from consciousness all that lingered from his former selfall of childhood’s tenderness in the secure company of parents who loved him. From the moment he was abducted from his home, he never again heard his name pronounced. It was as if he had never been given a name at all. It would be eight long years until he would know the bliss of hearing the sound of his mother’s voice, and when he did, she was shouting his name in joy.

Children thrown into the guerrilla warfare that afflicts our world lose not only their innocence but also their identity and individuality. They come to be known only by a generic title, such as the boys or kidogo, a Swahili word that means little ones. This change of name heralds the complete depersonalization of the child. Some children have been given the designation Suicide, Rambo and Strike Commando.

In the very act of designating a name for their offspring, parents celebrate the uniqueness of a new human life. To be given a name is, in some real way, also to be gifted with an awareness of your own special identity in the family. Those who know and love you recognize you in a distinctive way that is reserved to you, by calling you by name. In the strategy of depersonalization undertaken by the Nazi regime during the Second World War, those detained in concentration camps were similarly denied the opportunity to be called by name. They were given a number instead, burned into their arms, that could serve as identification.

Young people forced into warfare soon discover that those who control them have one driving desireto maximize their labor while minimizing their individuality. The child soldier is viewed as a commodity ripe for exploitation. But first the natural and humane feelings of the child soldier must be suppressed. How else can a young person be made capable of killing upon command?

I conducted interviews with 15 former child soldiers in the Great Lakes Region of Africa during the month of July 2001. All of them had been kidnapped from their families. They had later either escaped from their rebel captors or been rescued by government forces. The shortest period of captivity for these children was three months, the longest eight years. Twelve of these 15 formerly abducted children were forced to kill during their ordeal. As they told me their stories, it became clear that their captors took advantage of their instinct for self-preservation. Likewise, in very calculated ways, the rebels attempted to destroy their personalities. To accomplish this task many deeply personal feelings had to be deadened, or at least dulledespecially those distinctively human intuitions that stir compassion when we suddenly encounter someone in peril.

Abducted Girls

On the night of Oct. 9, 1996, 139 girls between the ages of 12 and 15 were abducted from St. Mary’s, a Catholic boarding school in Aboke, Uganda. The next day their headmistress, Sister Rachele, went in pursuit of the rebels to beg for the girls’ return. Surprisingly, the L.R.A. was won over by this very persuasive Italian nun, but she managed to secure the freedom of only 109. Kony had sent orders to his commanders to be sure to keep 30 of the girls. He would make of them personal bequests to his friends and top military officers, while keeping three for himself. As of today, 19 remain in captivity. Pope John Paul II at the Vatican and Kofi Annan at the United Nations have made futile appeals for their release. Stories of the ordeals these children have been forced to endure live in the collective consciousness of the Ugandan people. Professor Els De Temmerman, a Belgian journalist and child rights advocate, has chronicled the horrific events that surround their captivity in a powerful new book, Aboke Girls: Children Abducted in Northern Uganda.

Among the unfortunate 30 who were chosen at random to remain behind with the rebels was Ellen, a 14-year-old known among her classmates as the most resourceful in the group. Ellen can vividly recall the first horror she experienced in the company of the soldiers. In their first week in the bush one desperately frightened 12-year-old girl had hidden in a small hut in an attempt to escape. The rebels shouted to Ellen and the other new recruits: Find her. If you don’t find her, we will kill one of you instead. The child was found. Rebels pounced on her immediately, one of them jumping repeatedly on her chest. The scene that unfolded on that tragic day saw not only the cruel death of a young child, but a cold and deliberate attempt to destroy the humanity of the others.

After the soldiers had taken turns beating the child mercilessly, Ellen and the other children, all new to the savage fury of the L.R.A., were commanded to finish her off. Ellen’s body trembled in disbelief. She knew she simply could not do this. It was the first command she had been given from her captors that would have to go unanswered. What Ellen could not have been expected to know was that her captors were skilled in crushing humane instincts like those welling up inside her at that moment. Her feelings of compassion intensified as the beaten girl’s eyes pleaded for help.

The rebels were bent on destroying what Ellen knew about herself. The children were ordered to collect firewood that would serve a double purpose, as weapons to strike the girl and as fuel to cook the next meal. Upon direct order to strike the already bleeding child, the children formed a human circle around the girl and began to hit her slightly, directing all their blows to her legs. The soldiers stopped them, insisting upon demonstrating for the new recruits the proper method. What was called for, they ordered, were swift blows to either the neck or the back of the head. The children were all crying at this point as they were made to line up and individually follow the example set by the rebels. Those who did not strike hard enough were punished and made to repeat their blows to the victim.

Ellen was frantically trying to plot some possible escape from this ordeal. It is common among new child soldiers to invent mechanisms to hide their true selves. She began to imagine that she was not inside her body. She pretended to leave her body, momentarily, in order to do the unthinkable. When it was her turn to strike, Ellen joined in the deadly assault. When the girl no longer moved under the force of the blows, Ellen had an overwhelming sense that this single action had separated her from her past in an irrevocable way.

Ellen never fully acquiesced to her ruthless captors. She did, however, pretend to be manipulated by them in order to lull them into believing she belonged to them. When she learned that Kony had promised her to a commander older than her father, she resolved to escape or die attempting it. The very morning of her escape, she managed to save the life of an old man whom the rebels would have killed had Ellen exposed his hiding place. When a government helicopter suddenly appeared overhead at around 9:00 a.m., surprising her brigade, she felt it was God’s providence. In that moment a new courage raged inside her. She grabbed the hand of a younger girl named Esther and together they fled in the confusion. They hid in the high grass, motionless, for a very long time. Afterward they ran so fast and so far that the rebels could not recapture them. That night, safe in an army barracks in Palenga, Esther slept by Ellen’s side, crying tears of joy that this strong girl had opened her heart to her and brought her into freedom.

The staff at Gusco camp informed me that their new residents, those fortunate enough to escape the clutches of the rebels, also celebrate in a ritualistic fashion their freedom and new life. The clothes they were wearing while in the company of the rebels are burned in their presence, and all new clothes are given to them. These new clothes are a gift from the community to which they are returning. It is meant to reinforce in the minds and hearts of the recipients that they are, indeed, welcomed back and no hostility is held against them for the violence they were forced to perform. Yet it would take a monumental act of grace for these abused sons and daughters to return home with the conviction that their dreaded past had actually been forgiven. They also knew from listening to the radio while in captivity that everyone in East Central Africa heard of the murderous behavior to which they had to submit in order to survive. Still, most of the children feel some of their shame lifted when the fire burns a piece of their past.

Christopher emerged from captivity with the L.R.A. rebels with a bullet in his leg, and Ellen escaped with one overriding question haunting her: Will I ever be the same again? Against all odds, these young people can still sense some hopefulness about their future. Best of all, today they live in the company of people who prize them. What was lost is now slowly being restored. As I spoke with Christopher, he remained incredulous that there were people in this world who could love him. Over time, Ellen has gradually come to believe again in her own core goodness.

Ellen is currently working at a center in northern Uganda that helps treat formerly abducted children who, like herself, have been thrown into war and know intimately its horrors. She can see herself in their current struggles to reclaim their lives from their kidnappers. Her career aspiration is to study law and become an advocate for the rights of others. Her life has become for many a powerful witness to the resilience of the human spirit.

There was a certain resilience of spirit I could identify in each of the formerly abducted children I met. The triumph of that spirit had saved them from despair on countless occasions. This is the grace that I want others to know about these children.

Astonishingly, there are approximately 300,000 child soldiers in our world, over one third of them in the Great Lakes region of Africa. Today children who have been forcibly separated from their families will be made to fight in deadly skirmishes in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Liberia, Uganda and elsewhere. To many of us in North America, this senseless violence that destroys thousands of young lives seems tragic but remote. It must be the concern of somebody other than ourselves. Yet Christopher and Ellen are our children too; they belong to us. Whenever we allow a girl or boy anywhere on the earth to be reduced to a nonperson, one more thread is plucked out of the fabric that holds the human family together. Until our moral outrage joins the voices of others around the world demanding that this cruelty stop, it is likely that Joseph Kony and others like him will continue to inflict untold suffering upon the most vulnerable of us all.

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16 years 12 months ago
America, January 21-28, 2002, is especially noteworthy, particularly for the article “The Child Soldiers of Gusco.” Donald Dunson is attentive to the grace that saved these children from despair. Unfortunately the majority American Catholics, I fear, read little regarding the Third World. My hope is that Dunson’s article, and also Gretchun Gundrum’s, may move and change the hearts of American Catholics, so that “our moral outrage joins the voices of others.” This issue of America joins those before and those yet to come, in presenting unpopular information necessary for us to serve our brothers and sisters.

Paul Donohue
Director Communications Office Comboni Mission Center

16 years 12 months ago
America, January 21-28, 2002, is especially noteworthy, particularly for the article “The Child Soldiers of Gusco.” Donald Dunson is attentive to the grace that saved these children from despair. Unfortunately the majority American Catholics, I fear, read little regarding the Third World. My hope is that Dunson’s article, and also Gretchun Gundrum’s, may move and change the hearts of American Catholics, so that “our moral outrage joins the voices of others.” This issue of America joins those before and those yet to come, in presenting unpopular information necessary for us to serve our brothers and sisters.

Paul Donohue
Director Communications Office Comboni Mission Center


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