Hope for Uganda's Child Soldiers?

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As he marched for days through the bush without food or water, armed with an AK-47 to loot and to kill, Bosco Ojok dared not dream of going home. Just 14 when he was abducted near his northern Ugandan house by the Lord's Resistance Army, he never said a word to anyone about escaping from the rebels' world-renowned campaign of terror, which included cutting off the lips, ears and noses of civilians as they fought the government. If anyone heard, the frightened teen knew, it would mean his swift execution.

But unlike so many of the Ugandan children abducted near their homes and schools — tens of thousands of them in total during the nearly 20 years of conflict that still wracks this small east African country — Ojok made a stunning escape. In 2000, four years after he was stolen away, he dove underwater as his unit crossed a fast-flowing river, which carried him to safety. "When I came back," he says now, "there was only welcome," first by government soldiers, then by aid workers from the American Christian organization World Vision, then finally by his mother and grandmother. When Ojok returned, however, he found both of his brothers had been abducted just months earlier.

Northern Uganda's struggle has killed tens of thousands, and 1.5 million people still live, as Ojok does today, in squalid, packed camps for civilians displaced by the conflict. But now that negotiations between the LRA and Uganda are underway in nearby southern Sudan, those millions are waiting on word that Uganda's child soldiers and displaced civilians can finally go home. Despite shaky relations all around and the death Saturday of LRA's third-in-command Raska Lukwiya in a government attack, the talks are widely seen as the country's best chance at peace in decades.

In a rare press conference earlier this month, the LRA's elusive leader Joseph Kony — who claims to communicate with spirits and says he wants to rule Uganda based on the Ten Commandments — has denied any wrongdoing. But the LRA has been pushed to sue for peace nonetheless, in part by mounting international pressure. Five of the LRA's top brass, including Kony and Lukwiya, were indicted last year by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Loss of support from former Sudanese allies and a long Ugandan military campaign have also pushed most LRA fighters into the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. "They don't have the capacity to recruit," says Walter Ochora, Uganda's Resident District Commissioner in Gulu, the epicenter of the conflict. "They're surrendering on a daily basis." Child abductions and other attacks are way down from their peak in 2002. Farmers in Uganda's army-defended camps tentatively return to cultivate their land by day. And the north's main town of Gulu is once again bustling with commerce and nightlife.

The LRA's long, bloody campaign is the legacy of the assumption of power two decades ago by President Yoweri Museveni, a southerner who helped end the string of bloody reigns by northerners such as Milton Obote and Idi Amin. Former soldiers who returned north and felt out of favor soon formed a rebel groups with Christian roots but decidedly anti-Christian tactics.

Uganda has hinted it will offer amnesty to Kony and other rebel leaders as a bargaining chip — just as it has allowed surrendering fighters to return home freely in the past. But cleaning up after the gruesome conflict will be difficult. The line between victim and attacker has been badly blurred: Most of the LRA fighting forces were once abductees themselves, children like Ojok Bosco, who were then forced to visit terror on their own families and villages.

For them, returning to civilian life is hard, says Philip Ludara, Gulu's distrtict coordinator for the Concerned Parents' Association, a local organization with records on nearly 20,000 of Uganda's abducted children. "You're trained how to torture. You're trained how to kill. It's all you know," he says. "Fitting into the community is a big challenge."

The challenges are also many for the displaced people waiting to return to their land. Even after security is assured, they will need to repair damage caused by years of neglect. Razed homes, schools, and hospitals need to be rebuilt, and landmines must be removed. But peace talks, at least, offer optimism that the thousands of children still missing might escape their brutal lives in the bush — without risking execution or drowning. "It's a chance to go home, alive," says Ludara. "For the parents, it's a chance to see their children. And for the people in the camps it's a chance to go home, leave this prison."