The scene is surreal. Under a giant tree dripping with vines, three men in loincloths chant and sway to the sounds of an ancient balafon. Their faces covered by giant grotesque masks, they run through a series of rituals – from placing money on ceremonial tools to sprinkling holy water with the bushy tail of an antelope – each designed to curry favor with the village ancestors and mobilize the spirits.
Incense is thrown onto a fire built inside the tree's hollow trunk, and a cloud of pungent gray smoke fills the small clearing. Suddenly, the group's leader, the village chief, lifts a ceremonial blade and lunges, screaming, at four boys standing in a row nearby. Three recoil in terror. But one, 16-year-old Olivier Mbolifuyhe, doesn't flinch.
The ceremony is called zelesi, or mind-healing. The boys have all recently returned to their village, Dakwa in northern Democratic Republic of Congo, after being abducted and forced to kill by the Lord's Resistance Army. The traditional rituals are meant to wash away the brutal acts committed in the bush and cleanse the children of the rebels' black magic. But the ceremony is also intended to sooth the worried minds of a suspicious community.
"When these kids came out of the bush, they told us of how they'd beaten people to death. That scared people. Other children started to avoid them," Dakwa chief Jacques Akumbaduele said later. "This is an emergency intervention. We're trying to neutralize the strength of the enemy. But this isn't a lasting solution. We need psychologists."
There is perhaps no other image so inextricably linked to modern warfare in Africa as that of the child soldier. Photos and TV footage of the drug-addled cross-dressing Liberian boy warrior or the Kalashnikov-toting miniature Mai-Mai of eastern Congo have, rightly, left us aghast the world over.
And no group is as reliant upon the practices of abduction and forced recruitment for its survival as the LRA.
Determining exactly how many children the LRA has kidnapped and trained up as killers is impossible to know. UNICEF officials in northern Uganda have long offered a figure of between 20,000 and 25,000. And though they have been criticized for exaggerating the phenomenon, the first quantitative study to be carried out on LRA abductions recently indicated that UNICEF may, in fact, have inadvertently low-balled the scale of the problem.
Phase one of the Survey of War Affected Youth, a survey of hundreds of young men and boys in northern Uganda, found that UNICEF was likely greatly overestimating the percentage of returnees who actually passed through the agency's reception centers.
"(F)igures suggest that for every three children in the official reception center count, ten youths were actually abducted – suggesting a figure of at least 66,000 abductions in total," researchers Christopher Blattman and Jeannie Annan wrote earlier this year.
The study found that the overwhelming majority – possibly approaching 80 percent – of the LRA's total force is made up of abducted minors. What's more, the rebels' show a distinct preference for adolescent boys between 12 and 16.
This is no accident. The evaluation of the LRA's primary recruitment tactic – far from reenforcing their generally accepted image as an irrational group of madmen – shows the rebels to be "more strategic and coldly rational...than commonly supposed."
Due to high birthrates and short life expectancy in northern Uganda, the youth are overrepresented in the population as a whole and are, therefore, more readily available in large numbers than adults. Adolescent fighters, unlike younger children, are physically capable of carrying out the usual tasks of an adult soldier. They also have an underdeveloped sense of death, are more easily manipulated and indoctrinated, and, perhaps most importantly for the LRA, are less likely to run away than adults.
To train these children as fighters, the LRA relies largely on terror. Only 7 percent of abducted children reported ever 'being rewarded for a job well done'. In contrast, 61 percent reported being beaten severely, 26 percent had been attacked with a weapon, and over half had been forced 'often or sometimes' to kill other children.
"Real or threatened death and injury were among the primary means of discouraging escape and motivating performance," the researchers found.
If one figure is to be retained from the wealth of data provided in the study, it should probably be this one. Roughly 20 percent of those children abducted have never returned. Extrapolating from our earlier baseline figure of 66,000 abducted, that means over 13,000 children have disappeared. And since the LRA is believed to number less than 1,000 fighters today, the study concludes that 90 percent of those – or nearly 12,000 children – are almost certainly dead.
It's important to mention here that the study covers only LRA activity in northern Uganda. It does not include abductions during the rebels lengthy stay in southern Sudan, nor does it take into account the campaign against civilians – arguably the worst in the LRA's long history – that began nearly two years ago in Congo and later moved into Central African Republic.
No reliable figures exist for child abductions in these areas. For example, in Congo between December 2008 and August 2010, the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that a total of 517 children had been abducted in the districts of Haut-Uele and Bas-Uele. This is not a total they felt needed to be revised, even after Italian aid agency COOPI reported that humanitarians were already caring for 1,038 children who'd escaped from the LRA.
Since, in Congo, there are no reception centers like the ones set up in Uganda by UNICEF, it's fair to assume that the COOPI figure is likely to represent only a fraction of total number of escapees.
On our first day in Dakwa, in Bas-Uele, around two dozen abducted children showed up to tell us their stories. This despite official U.N. statistics indicating that only nine children had been kidnapped in the entire territory. More arrived the next day.
Olivier Mbolifuyhe was one of these children. Taken at fifteen and held for eight months before escaping, his profile is fairly typical of an LRA child soldier. His story, however, is anything but.
"I built my own house to have a calm place to study. There are a lot of us in my family, and I wanted to be alone while I studied. Someone's always crying. Others are chatting. And it makes it hard for me to concentrate.
"I worked on it every day. I was still working on the roof when the attacks started and we had to go hide in the fields. We left everything behind – radio, machetes, plates. Everything was looted by these attackers while we were in the fields.
"We couldn't make food or do anything while we were in hiding, out of fear that they'd find us. We spent three months in the fields. Only the chief stayed in town. After he saw the (Ugandan) army arrive, he banged a gong as a sign for the villagers to return. That night, Papa took the decision that we would return to the village, and I was able to get back to work on my house. It was almost finished.
"With all the soldiers around, everyone thought the war was over. It was during the school holidays, and I was sent to my uncle's to bring back some food. I stayed there two days, and then we were planning to go hunting near the village. We were preparing our things early in the morning when the enemies arrived.
"They told us not to be afraid. They said they were Congolese soldiers who'd come to protect the people. But then they said anyone who tried to run would be shot. I realized they were rebels because some of them had dreadlocks, others had Afros. Many of them didn't have uniforms, and all of them were very dirty. That was the first sign. Our soldiers don't look like that.
"When they rounded us up, my uncle told us to do as they said and not to run. They tied us up and tied us to the loads we were carrying. They'd captured people and brought them to the church. There were nearly 80 people there.
"There were five LRA. All of them armed. There were also fifteen children, and nine of them were armed with either guns or machetes. Even though there were only a few Ugandan (LRA), they had no trouble controlling the Congolese among them.
"We went to pick up those who were locked in the church then continued into the bush. When we got to the edge of the village, they freed my uncle and all the other adults.
"We marched all that day. They told us not to be afraid, that nothing would happen to us. But when we had to move, they would hit us if we couldn't walk fast enough.
"Their chief picked me out of the group. He took me as a bodyguard. I carried his things for him. He said he liked me and would even take me back to Uganda with him. His mouth had been deformed by a bullet wound. His name was Ndibili.
"We marched until we arrived at a wide river. We were told to cross it like soldiers. The children who were too tired fell in and died. There were three of them. Those of us who God helped cross the river carried on. During the march, we crossed a lot of rivers. I survived. But many died...we didn't speak of them.
"At a certain point, we were divided up. The man with the strange jaw kept me. Others went with other commanders. From then on he wouldn't let me out of his sight.
"We were then given military training. They made little soldiers out of us, and it was our job to kill those we found in the fields, or who we came across on the road, or who were just too lazy to carry the loot.
"I was with them for a month before the training. They had us do guard duty and patrol with a member of the LRA. Whatever he did you did too. If he rolled on the ground, you rolled on the ground. If he dove for cover, you dove for cover.
"We trained in a clearing. We started at six and would finish at eleven. First they had us crawl. Then they handed out the guns and taught us to shoot. Afterward, they'd bring us back, and we'd take a short rest before going back to training. After the rest, they would make us lie down, and whether we'd done something wrong or not, they would whip us. They said it was part of the training.
"Those of us who were in training weren't given anything to eat. They gave us the heaviest loads to carry. There were other forms of mistreatment. The girls were raped. Those charged with making the food for the rest of us didn't eat. Only sometimes after everyone else had eaten would they get to make a small amount for themselves.
"At the end, they give you boots, and then you are a real soldier. If they captured a weapon in an attack, they'd toss it to whomever they saw as the most worthy. And from that point on, you're one of them.
"Soon we were detached for a mission to look for food in the bush. Then on the second mission we came across the FARDC, and they attacked us. But by then, I was used to the rebels and didn't run away. When they saw that, they were happy and said that I was no longer a problem. Now, I was one of them. From then on I was given some freedom, while the others were still closely guarded.
"I once participated in the killing of a man we captured in his fields. He was with his children, and we were supposed to kill him along with the children. They gave us clubs, me and one of his sons. They told us to hit him in the head until he was dead. After killing him, we left his body there and came back to the camp. That day I couldn't eat. That was the first time I killed. While I was doing it I was afraid. But they said if we didn't do it we would take his place, so we had to.
"Since I was now treated as an LRA soldier, I was to accompany all the missions. We had set up a camp near Samungu. It was forbidden to enter the village itself, but we were allowed get food from the surrounding fields. However, there was nothing there, so we continued on towards the village.
"We arrived one kilometer from the soldiers' positions. We had already looted and captured some villagers, so we were returning to the camp. When the soldiers realized we were there, they organized an attack. We didn't know they were following us.
"We came to a clearing and they were already upon us. They started to shoot at us. I was the second to last in line. I could see the bullets flying by in the darkness. I tripped and the load I was carrying fell on my head. I couldn't lift my head, and it was like I was drunk. The one behind me fled without stopping to help me.
"When I came back to my senses, I tried to get away from the scene of the attack. When I was some distance from the noise, I tried to figure out what was going on. I started to walk. All I wanted to do was find a trail that led to the village. But when I found one, I was even more scared. I thought that if the army found me, an LRA fighter, they'd kill me. And if the LRA did, they would kill me for trying to escape.
"I followed the trail into the village and told the villagers not to be afraid, that I was a Zande (an ethnic group present in southeastern Central African Republic, northern Democratic Republic of Congo and parts of southern Sudan). I told them I'd been kidnapped in Dakwa. They took me to the chief. The chief took me to the soldiers.
"There were already three girls who'd been in our group in the bush and had already come out. When we saw each other, we were happy. We told ourselves that now we wouldn't die. None of us had any hair left on our heads from having carried heavy loads each day.
"They brought us to Banda to the commander of the Ours (French for 'bear') Battalion. The commander, a major, took care of us, gave us food, and treated us like his own children. The major asked me many questions. He asked me what the LRA's objectives were. I said they had set up near Samungu to work in the surrounding areas. Sometimes they would attack around Ango, sometimes in Dakwa.
"He asked me if I could take his soldiers to lay an ambush for them. I said I could, since I knew the terrain very well. When I'd been with the rebels, each night before I went to sleep I would pray. I promised that if I ever managed to escape, I would become a soldier to come back and wage war against them.
"We left Banda and walked for two days. When we approached the camp, I told the commander to be careful, that we were near. I told him we were 500m from the enemy.
"We had no binoculars to verify their location, so they listened to everything I said. We waited until 5am, then we opened fire. They called out to the Congolese children, and nine were able to escape.
"Everyone fled in all directions. Lots of children fled, and the LRA ran away as well without taking anything with them. Our soldiers killed two LRA. Since we attacked them in the dark, my commander fled barefoot. I found his boots.
"I knew the area, so I told the soldiers that there was another spot less than two kilometers away where they stored loot under tarpaulins. It was so they could leave things and come back later.
"When we'd gone away to recuperate the loot, the soldiers that had remained back at the camp began to shoot. I ran into the forest, trying to rejoin the LRA. I must tell you, I have a little problem. There's something not right with my head. I ran and ran but I never found their trail. The soldiers found me and brought me back.
"I think it had something to do with the gris gris (black magic) they often gave us. Because as soon as you hear shots, the only thought you have is to go with them.
"They made a paste that they rubbed in our joints or sometimes into the soles of our feet. Sometimes they would put it in the water we were to drink or the food we ate. The one who did this was named Atchopo. He sometimes took a bit and burned it, then make you inhale. Once I inhaled it, and I know longer knew what was happening around me.
"We brought the children back to Banda for treatment. We all had sores on our legs. When we arrived in Banda, the commander of the Ours Battalion wanted me to go with another operation against the LRA. I said no. My whole family now knew I'd been saved. If I went back into the bush, I might be killed and wouldn't see them again. I wanted to go see my family.
"He was angry, and he didn't give me any of the things he'd promised. He'd promised me clothes, a share of the money we'd found in the camp. But I thought that if my father found out I was leading operations with the army, he would get angry. I told him I couldn't go into the bush. I'd done the first operation voluntarily to free my friends.
"Usually, the children freed in operations were escorted home by the army. But when I refused the second operation, the Ours Battalion commander made me go home on my own. I left with nothing.
"When I got home, my whole family was waiting for me. They cried out. They weren't sure it was me. In the end, they welcomed me back. But I'm am often troubled. I don't really know what I'm doing, but my family tell me.
"Sometimes I speak Acholi (language spoken by the LRA, who traditionally came from the Acholi ethnic group) with everyone. I need a film or television to distract me and help me forget what happened in the bush. Sometimes that life comes back to me. And since I did a lot of killing in the bush, that desire often returns.
"They often say that I don't make any sense. So they take me to a witchdoctor to heal me. He has a whole ceremony he performs.
"Among those who have escaped, many come back with what we call kifafa, or epilepsy. We don't know if we can heal it. Our witchdoctors try but without success.
"I was captured September 30th 2009. I spent eight months with them. It was when I returned back in the village that they told me it had been eight months. You have an idea of time for a while in the bush. But if you don't keep track of it yourself, no one else will.
"I've now finished my house. That is where I sleep at night."