It was hard to imagine what James had been through since being snatched from his family by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). How could a 12 year old boy recover from the trauma of being forced to execute two other children for trying to escape? How do you live with the memory of beating their heads with clubs while they lay facedown with hands tied behind their backs? How could he then have found the courage to try to escape, knowing the cost of being caught? But escape he did and although I heard his words I found it difficult to conceive the terrifying reality of it.
I had read reports and guidelines as preparation for my trip to southern Sudan with a team from Flame International in May 2009. I read of children in the area being abducted by the LRA and learnt that some of the only credible information about their tactics and structures was provided by the small number who had managed to escape and find their way home. I had no idea when I was doing my research that I would soon meet several of these ‘escapees’.
James was brought to the Flame International team by his father six weeks after his escape. The UK based charity works in partnership with the Church in areas where people are suffering the effects of post-conflict trauma. Trained volunteers equip local church leaders, teaching trauma counselling through forgiveness and emotional and spiritual healing. In turn, those leaders pass on what they have been taught and experienced for themselves to the wider community. But on this occasion a Flame team was in the area and able to give direct support.
After his capture, James was marched day and night by the LRA without food or water to the point of collapse. This is standard practice for the LRA who then subject the abducted children to a regime of brutalization to turn them into ruthless killers. The forced execution of siblings or friends is common and designed to cut all their ties from family back home. James told us that nothing happened for a couple of days after the two boys had tried to escape but then they and others were called to go and collect honey from the bush. Fifty yards from the base James was forced at gunpoint to carry out the killings. Weeks of marching, moving base, raids on villages, looting and abductions followed before James managed to flee.
The LRA, lead by Joseph Kony since the mid 1980s, has been fighting for a new government in Uganda based on their own twisted view of spirituality with Kony himself claiming to be channelling several spirits who direct his actions. In the last 30 years it is estimated that they have abducted between 30,000 and 50,000 children to become soldiers and sex slaves and killed more than 100,000 people. They are now fighting for their survival against the joint forces of Sudan, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who recently forged an alliance in an attempt to end their reign of terror.
It was this conflict that gave James his chance to run when the LRA unit he was with was bombed. In the panic James fled and was chased by older soldiers who at one point ran right past him when he had fallen and given himself up for dead. He ran again when he encountered Ugandan soldiers thinking they would kill him for being LRA. 21 days later he stumbled barely alive into an empty Ugandan army camp and was eating their food when they returned and arrested him. He held up his hands and shouted “Sudanese, Sudanese!” For two days they carried him on their shoulders to a base with a field hospital where he was treated for a week before being returned to his family in a camp for internally displaced people in Sudan.
Flame’s team of volunteers had not anticipated meeting someone like James but, filled with compassion, members of the team spent hours with him and his father in prayer and counselling. While we were with James another escapee was brought to us for care: Nelson had met James in the bush; they had been taken on the same day but were used by different units of the LRA. We met James again the next morning; he had a large smile and reported that he’d slept peacefully for the first time in months.
In a separate location we were introduced to John by the local Anglican bishop. He had been reunited with his family only two days earlier. The LRA had carried out a large number of raids, murders and abductions on Christmas Day, 2008 in a coordinated retaliation for the very bombing raids that James had used to escape. John was snatched from his uncle’s mud hut and saw his uncle being killed. In his five months of captivity John was used by the LRA as a slave and a soldier and witnessed terrible atrocities. It was too early for John to share details of his experiences but he did tell us of his miraculous escape – the children were guarded each night at gunpoint as they slept but one night he had a vivid dream. In it he saw his Uncle (the one murdered in the raid) slapping him on the leg and urging him to wake up. “John, John, get up, you’ve got to go, quickly!” The dream was so real that John felt his leg being hit and woke up to discover that he was temporarily unguarded. He rolled over and crept out of the camp. He then spent two days scavenging for food and water in the bush before being discovered by a local elderly man who took him to a nearby army camp. The unit helped him recover before transporting him back to Sudan and then to his home town, finally walking him into his family compound to be met by shrieks of amazement and a tearful reunion.
The team was reminded of God’s word in Ephesians (2v10) that “…we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” We continue to pray for these miracle boys to experience a full restoration and with it a life free from the unimaginable horrors inflicted upon them by Joseph Kony’s LRA; and for those children he still holds in captivity.