Uganda is the small, dark teal country in the east, between Kenya and Zaire, with Sudan to the north and Lake Victoria to the south.
Samuel has a secret. A secret he will never share.
“Some of these secrets are for me and for me alone because if I share it with other people…it endangers my life.”
Eleven years ago, Okodo Samuel was living in Abia, a village in northern Uganda. Samuel is part of a subsistence farming family, which means they grow enough food to feed themselves. They also sell the cassava root -- a starchy food full of carbohydrates – to others in Abia. By selling cassava by the roadside of his village, Samuel was able to make a decent living. At 17, the eldest of nine children, Samuel was the only child his grandparents were sending to school in hopes that he would become the provider for their family.
The outlook for Samuel’s future was relatively good, considering he had a privilege denied to many Ugandan youth: the opportunity to pursue an education and a means of making money in the meantime, even as a civil war disrupted lives in other villages in the north.
One night, when Samuel was 17, word reached him that the rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army were coming to raid his village. He and his mother fled to hide with his sister in her hut, but the rebels found them.
They set fire to his sister’s hut and beat his mother severely, then took him away into the bush. Rebel forces returned later and killed his father, leaving Samuel’s family without a source of income.
In the bush, the LRA rebels caned Samuel 80 times to ensure that he wouldn’t try to escape their grasp. From his village, he traveled by foot wherever the rebels required him to go, tied by the waist to a line of abducted children like him. He spent the next five years as a child soldier in the rebel army. Regardless of size, each child was forced to carry and run with heavy loads for the rebels. While with the LRA, Samuel witnessed and forcibly took part in unspeakable atrocities. Years later, he speaks haltingly of what life was like.
“One time, the rebels had killed a government soldier. They knifed him so all the intestines were out. We were told if we escaped, the same thing will happen to us,” Samuel said. “Another person was forced to lay on a log. We were told to cut a part, whichever part.”
Samuel finds sharing some of his traumatic experiences therapeutic, but he must keep secrets from his community to preserve his life.
“I keep these secrets to make my life and communications with these people here easy. The secrets are for life. I will never disclose it,” Samuel said.
Although carefully kept, the secrets often don’t stay hidden inside Samuel. He has vivid nightmares, mostly in two forms. One form is the voice of a rebel soldier, calling to him, saying “Get up and we go! Get up and we go!”
In other instances, he experiences a more physically discomforting manifestation in which “worms are crawling all over” him and he must leave his bed. In one particular instance, these nightmares became violent.
“I had a table just near my bed. When the nightmares came, I woke up all of a sudden and kicked this table,” Samuel said, “I ended up breaking my leg because I was afraid they were arresting me.”
Samuel’s nightmares and secrets are echoed throughout the world, as an estimated 250,000 children and adolescents are exploited as soldiers. According to a study by the Society for Research in Child Development, Inc., about half of those children are in Africa. During a civil war in Uganda that lasted nearly two decades, 25,000 children (under age 18) were abducted by the rebel forces of the LRA and forced to take part in combat and other aspects of conflict (Go to “The war” section of this website for a timeline and summary of the war).
Despite the trauma they have been through, child soldiers must reintegrate and strive to be productive members of society once they return to the homes they were once forced to leave. How does a society cope when children who have been repeatedly traumatized return?
Traditional western approaches to childhood and trauma may not be the answer. Some believe these current methods do not always prove helpful in the reintegration and survival of the children.
In many studies done by western psychologists, former child soldiers were interviewed and diagnosed with
post-traumatic stress disorder, which was originally diagnosed in United States war veterans.
Studies that seek to find the presence of PTSD tend to ask former child soldiers to remember specific traumatic experiences and report the findings in the form of statistics. For instance, an article in the Lancet in 2004 reports that 77 percent of their subjects saw someone killed and 39 percent killed someone themselves.
These statistics accumulate and lead to more statistics that tell researchers the prevalence of PTSD in a given sample of former child soldiers.
But some question the methods of gathering the data necessary to diagnose PTSD. Malia Robinson is a children’s rights advocate and UNICEF consultant based in Lincoln, Neb. She is currently working with UNICEF to write an operational field book on how to implement the Paris Principles --the set of principles that guide all aspects of child soldier reintegration.
In an interview, Robinson said asking children to recount their traumatic experiences for research purposes can leave the children with secondary trauma and “borders on racism.”
Through a cultural lens, it is also questionable if the western disorder is applicable to children in Uganda. The label of being “sick” that accompanies the diagnosis of a mental disorder or condition varies greatly from culture to culture, Robinson said.
“It’s really not helpful to bring that language anymore because it might be far more acceptable in the community to say that this child has spirits of dead people and we need to cleanse them than to say that he’s sick,” Robinson said.
The potential these former child soldiers have to go on and lead productive lives is often overlooked. The
trauma that these children have experienced has them, but what matters more in their lives is how to continue to survive at home.
According to the Society for Research in Child Development, “one of the most impressive phenomena of child development is the ability of many children to develop into healthy, well-adapted adults despite adversity and trauma.”
The article says that research on this ability to thrive in spite of tremendous trauma is still relatively new and overshadowed by the research on what psychopathology may be present in the children due to that trauma.
One article in the International Review of Psychiatry by Theresa Stichick Betancourt & Kashif Tanveer Khan says that researchers’ “focus on trauma alone has resulted in inadequate attention to factors associated with resilient mental health outcomes” and that more attention should be paid to children’s ability to overcome that trauma through certain factors that increase resilience.
Research indicates that those positive factors include “coping and meaning making at the individual level; the role of attachment relationships, caregiver health, resources and connection in the family, and social support available in peer and extended social networks,” according to Betancourt and Khan.
The potential for resilience in these children exists, and can be looked at as a hopeful possibility for reintegration in the future.
“There is a pressing need to examine predictors of resilience in war-affected children across all layers of the social ecology,” say Betancourt and Khan.
The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers published a report in which 116 former child soldiers from the Teso Region in Uganda gave their views on reintegration and coming home. That report recognizes the complexity of the psychological issues that may face a returning child soldier.
“The mixed outcome [of the research] -- resilient while remaining distressed by their experiences – illustrates the complexity of their situations and underlines the need to avoid characterizing war-affected children solely according to one dimension, as either traumatized or resilient,” the report said.
These children are more than statistics; they are complicated and can be helped, but more needs to be done. As more research surfaces on the resilience of the children in the face of adversity, the importance of a cultural perspective is becoming obvious.
“The understanding and treatment of mental illness has to be grounded in cultural context because culture so heavily shapes and defines our sense of identity and how we deal with adversity,” said Robinson, the children’s rights advocate.
Samuel’s own resilience has been called upon by the needs of his family. He must overcome the trauma he has experienced in order to fill the role of breadwinner.
“Life is harder now than before I was abducted because there are so many gaps that need to be filled,” Samuel said.
A diagnosis of PTSD would not help Samuel pay his siblings and children’s school fees. Now 28, Samuel is attempting to put together the jagged pieces of a life that existed 10 years ago. He was deprived of five crucial years when, if everything had gone according to plan, he would have been educated and trained in a productive career field. With or without the necessary education, Samuel is expected to be the breadwinner for his large and extended family, especially since his father was killed.
“I have six brothers and sisters. I have two children. There is no change now. If my father were here, things would be better. Now with all these responsibilities, all these demands, when I’m not even earning anything. I am taking responsibility that I’m not prepared for,” Samuel said.
Many child soldiers return home to communities with little or no established healthcare or established services to help with reintegration long term.
Samuel initially went through a rehabilitation center called Rachele, where they gave him merchandise to sell, and he is thankful for that. However, “they have ended with that kind of support and I’m back to square one,” Samuel said. “From here, I see no support. Among my own people, I see no support.”
The most important thing for Samuel is to be productive and to pay for food and school fees for his younger siblings and his children. He must use the resources he has to reintegrate and survive.
Abia is in the northern Lira district, which is brown on this map.