The most important part is to get people home and begin to normalize.
—Anthony Kerwegi, Uganda Concerned Parents Association (Washington Post 28 July 2008)
“I dreamt about somebody that came to shoot me,” murmurs Jennifer Akelo. “There were dead bodies everywhere.” Describing her nightmare, 14-year-old Jennifer turns her head away from Grace Arach, a social worker in Northern Uganda. The child is one of an estimated 1500 who have arrived at the rehabilitation center in Pajule since 2001, all kidnapped by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, then forced into sexual slavery and/or a decidedly brutal martial service. It is estimated that the LRC kidnapped some 65,000 children over 20 years of civil war, some as young as five years old.
As Jennifer and other victims recall, they were abused, terrified, and compelled to commit atrocities. Using footage and interviews from Ali Samadi Ahadi and Oliver Stoltz’s 2005 film, The Lost Children, this week’s Wide Angle episode focuses on three children’s efforts to recover from their personal and collective traumas (Kony’s “rebels” and the government finally signed a truce, that appears to be holding, in 2006). Startling and strangely poetic, the episode leaves out the original’s most harrowing imagery, but maintains its focus on the children’s experiences.
Social worker John Bosco Komakech Aludi describes the daunting tasks ahead of those working at the Pajule Center. After surviving years of abuse, the children escaped to the center or other refuges, where they have been counseled and treated for physical injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. And after all this, it’s uncertain whether they might return to their families. Some relatives were murdered during the war and, he says, “Some parents might not be willing to accept their own children because of the atrocities they have committed.”
To provide a kind of structure for the chaos of such stories, the film’s images are alternately poetic and prosaic. Jennifer recalls her rape by a rebel soldier. She was 11, and cowering with a group of five other girls: “He said if we didn’t have sex with him, he would shoot us,” she says, her voice even and soft. Sunlight drizzles through tree branches as she speaks, at once serene and cruelly ironic (life has gone on during her half-decade in hell). “I felt bad,” she says, “I might get AIDS.” When Grace brings Jennifer to visit with her father and grandparents, they’re reluctant to take her back. There must be something done to clean the bad spirits,” her father tells Grace (not speaking to his daughter, right in front of him).“It’s a pity that you have just brought her unannounced.” When Grace invites Jennifer to speak (“Is there anything you want to tell your father or your grandparents?”), the child looks at her hands and whispers: “No, nothing.” Sad strings on the soundtrack accompany her sad face: “It would be better to be captured by the rebels again than to stay with my father and grandparents.”
The score and evocative imagery are hardly necessary. Yet the film provides such helpfully leading imagery repeatedly, as when young Richard Kilama enters a church in Pujale, the white light streaming behind him, exquisite and hopeful. This gorgeous moment is offset, briefly, by his recollections, which are, like Jennifer’s, jarring. He tells the story of being forced to stab a “lady” in front of her children, just before his grandmother articulates how hard it is to take him back: “When these rebels come back from the bush,” she says, “They don’t come back clean, they have blood on their hands.” Kilama sits quietly. “I’ve been praying in this church,” he observes, “but it doesn’t help. I don’t see any changes.”
The narrator introduces 12-year-old Francis Akayo as “dragged away from his home village one night.” Like the other two interviewees, he describes a series of unimaginable torments. On top of being part of a rebel group forced to attack Pujale, the very place where he now seeks refuge, he also witnessed a young girl’s forced punishment of a boy with whom she tried to escape the LRA. “They told her to cut the boy,” he says, his voice barely audible. When she was too weak to complete the task, he says, other, older kids were ordered to contribute, and they “cut and cut and cut.” As he remembers the girl being told to “carry the boy’s head, to throw it up in the air four times and catch it,” Francis shows how she caught the head with a glass he holds in his hands.
The image here, as elsewhere in Lord’s Children, is utterly incongruous, a child trying to process horror and ferocity on a scale beyond adult comprehension. It’s no wonder that some of the victims are unable to “reintegrate.” Kilama, it turns out, is so fearful of sleeping in his family’s village at night—when chances of a rebel raid are greatest—that each night he walks to the city and sleeps where he can, on the street or in a shelter amid other children like him. But at the same time, none of them is quite like any other. Their stories are unique, their fears absolutely real and unshakable. As the film shows the dark, lonely journeys taken every evening by these “night commuters,” their bare legs so fragile, their faces so haunted, it’s hard not to think that the hardest work of their lives lies ahead.