A brutal rebellion by the Lord’s Resistance Army brought years of suffering to northern Uganda. Tens of thousands of children were abducted, their childhoods lost and communities broken.
Now that the fighting is over, a group of former child soldiers is helping some heal through music therapy.
At a recent talent show they organized, a woman dropped to the ground, howling, as four young boys carried a coffin. Behind her, a chorus of women chanted “The war has touched us, it makes us sad.”
The Youth Leaders for Restoration and Development group was formed last year by two former child soldiers with support from the Chicago-based Goldin institute and Tokyo-based Arigatou International.
It has brought together 240 people, more than half of them former LRA captives, to compose songs and plays based on their experiences.
The rebel group, led by one of Africa’s most-wanted warlords, Joseph Kony, terrorized the region during the 1990s and early 2000s. Early support for the rebellion against the government withered as the group’s brutal tactics became clear.
For years the LRA killed, tortured, maimed, raped and abducted tens of thousands of civilians. Of those seized, more than 25,000 were children, according to the UN children’s agency.
Children were preferred because they were easier to control and indoctrinate into believing in Kony’s alleged supernatural powers.
The children, especially the boys, were forced to be LRA fighters. The girls became “bush wives.”
For the people of Acholiland, the scars run deep.
The inadequate response by government and aid groups during and after the conflict left many former child abductees with serious trauma, said Collins Kisembo, project manager for YOLRED’s music therapy program.
Many are withdrawn, isolated, filled with anger. Where words fail them, music has helped.
“You realize that somebody now is trying to speak the message in himself,” said Kisembo, who trained as a psychologist after working in a local school.
Children who left the LRA through escape, rescue or abandonment were given a mattress, some soap and minimal counseling.
Many returned to nothing, as their families had been killed. Some had been forced to murder their parents.
Communities held them accountable for the suffering they had endured.
At the recent talent show, 36-year old Jackline Akot acted out a story close to her own.
As a teenager harvesting yams in the forest, she was taken to the bush to become a “wife.” When she escaped, she had two children of her own.
Her family welcomed her with open arms but soon became suspicious. They felt she and her children could not be trusted after living with the rebels for so long.
Akot decided to leave. She met another man. Four more children and an HIV infection later, the man demanded that she take her older children back to their father’s family. She had never told him about her abduction. She left him.
Shunned by her family for a second time, she now lives deep in the village, surrounded by cassava plantations and mango trees.
The unprecedented scale of the LRA’s abductions led to a breakdown of the existing support network, said Ochora Emmanuel Lagedo, spokesman for the leading Acholi cultural institution Ker Kwaro Acholi.
Many families turned to indigenous practices such as cleansing rituals: lighting a bonfire around the abductee, stepping on eggs, bending a spear.
Lagedo welcomed the music therapy program.
“The gap that was ignored by civil society organizations during the conflict can now be bit by bit addressed,” he said.
Haunted by her past, Akot said being part of the program kept her sane.
“You would not cope if you were to stay according to the traditional way,” she said. “So when the group came, they started sharing with us, they started counselling us.” The talent show, she said, brought her “a lot of peace.”
But like many returnees, what Akot craves most is the acceptance of her family and community.
“Now that I am among these people, if I don’t tell you, you cannot even tell if I was in captivity,” she said.
“And I try as much as possible for it not to be seen in me because it was not my will.”