Coming Back to Life
Kidnapped Children in Uganda Are Airlifted Home
April 1, 2004
by Ivan Giesbrecht
Beatrice was 8 years old the night soldiers of the Lord's Resistance Army kicked down the door of her family's home and stole her away. That was in 1995. What followed was a terrifying, nine-year odyssey of slavery and torture.
Beatrice is from a village in Kitgum, a remote region of northern Uganda. For nearly 18 years, a cult-like militia movement called the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has waged war against the government, and since 1994 the LRA has abducted more than 30,000 children. The children disappear into the group's ruthless world of forced combat and sexual slavery. Many are never heard from again.
Beatrice is an exception—she survived the cruel world of the LRA. And even more remarkably, she escaped it.
Samaritan's Purse recently had the joy of reuniting Beatrice and 24 of her fellow LRA captives with their families. On a dusty airstrip back in Kitgum, Beatrice finally came home.
The LRA is headed by Joseph Kony, a fanatical, self-styled prophet whose campaign of violence and terror has left northern Uganda a disaster zone of human need.
More than a million people have been displaced from their homes and villages. Their lives, possessions and even their meager food supplies are targets of the LRA. Too afraid to stay home, most have migrated to squalid, overcrowded camps in nearby cities such as Lira and Gulu.
Tragically, most of the young LRA guerrillas carrying out these violent raids are former abductees themselves. Life is cheap in the LRA, and any sign of disloyalty to Kony would be grounds for their own torture or murder.
While Kony sends young children into battle, he typically stays behind at his headquarters in neighboring southern Sudan. For years, this cowardly strategy has allowed him to elude capture by the Ugandan military—a source of immense frustration and anger for the people of Uganda.
After Beatrice was kidnapped, she was forced to march several hundred miles into Sudan. After her initiation into LRA captivity—a bizarre ritual of having shea butter oil smeared over her body—she was assigned duties of cooking and cleaning for the soldiers.
When she turned 12, Beatrice was given as a "wife" to an 18-year-old LRA commander. Two years later she became pregnant and gave birth to her daughter Nancy, one of countless children born into LRA slavery.
By the end of 2003, Beatrice's husband had been killed in combat, and she and three-year-old Nancy were ordered to join an LRA raid back into Uganda.
This, Beatrice decided, would be her opportunity to escape.
One day while marching through the thick forest, Beatrice took the greatest risk of her young life. In a moment of tremendous courage, knowing that she would be killed if she were caught, she fled into the jungle with Nancy when her captors were not watching.
Still haunted by her memories, Beatrice shyly explained what happened that day. "I was afraid, so we hid in the bushes," she said. "But then we walked for two days, and people along the way helped us."
They eventually made it to the city of Lira and to Rachele Rehabilitation Centre, a recovery facility run by Belgian journalist and author Els De Temmerman. The 147 children currently staying there have all escaped from the LRA or were rescued by the Ugandan military.
De Temmerman and her staff of social workers, several of whom are Christians, offer a six-week program of counseling and medical care for the children. She also locates the children's parents and arranges for their safe passage home.
As the weeks pass, signs of normalcy in the children begin to reappear. Through gentle and loving care, the children slowly come back to life. Their guilt and shame begin to heal.
But, sadly, despite whatever recovery these children make here, many still have to face the almost unbelievable possibility that they may not be warmly welcomed home.
"All the children here were tortured, and many were forced to torture other children," De Temmerman said. "Because of this, they might be discriminated against when they get home."
According to De Temmerman, discrimination against the girls can be especially cruel. "These girls are victims four times over," she said. "They've all been raped; many come home with babies they can't support; they are branded as 'wives of Kony'; and many of them have been infected with the AIDS virus."
Though stoic about what may lie ahead, Beatrice was excited to finally go home. "I'm so happy to go home," she said before leaving Lira. "I'll get to see my family again, and I want to go back to school."
And so on Jan. 26, Beatrice and Nancy, along with the other former captives, climbed aboard a Samaritan's Purse DC-3. If any of them were nervous at their first time in an airplane, they didn't show it. After what they'd been through, flying seemed to hold little fear for them.
It wouldn't be long now—a prayer, some happy waves out the window, a 30-minute flight. They were going home.
Excited parents, social workers and local politicians met the flight in Kitgum. Beatrice and the other children rushed to the embrace of the families they had been torn away from for so long.
Before saying good-bye to the children, Samaritan's Purse staff gave each one a gift of love: a backpack full of school supplies, hygiene items and a Bible.
In those Bibles is a promise of redemption for these battered young lives—and a promise of hope for the parents whose children are still missing: "But this is what the Lord says: 'Yes, captives will be taken from warriors, and plunder retrieved from the fierce; I will contend with those who contend with you, and your children I will save'" (Isaiah 49:25, NIV).