Gulu, Uganda - Bala Walter says the first time he killed a child was when he was 13 years old. "I was told to hit one to death. I had to do it... or else they killed you." He says he cannot really remember how many more people he killed after that.
Walter had been abducted from his village in northern Uganda, by rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). Typically, the LRA forced newly-abducted children to kill their friends or relatives in extremely cruel ways. This terrified the children, leading them to fear running home. The tactic was effective in Walter's case. He was abducted in 1997 and did not dare try to escape from the rebel group for 17 years.
In the meantime, the Ugandan army eventually flushed the LRA out of Uganda in 2006, after 20 years of fighting. The LRA's leader, Joseph Kony, was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2005 for war crimes and crimes against humanity - but he remains at large. Although now fragmented and numbering only a few hundred, the group continues to attack communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, where the Ugandan army still pursues them - and from where Walter made his escape.
Now 29 years old, Walter sits under the shade of a tree in a near-deserted rehabilitation centre for former child soldiers. It is run by the charity World Vision in the town of Gulu, once the epicentre of the conflict in northern Uganda.
World Vision used to receive more than 50 children every week during the peak of the war, in the early 2000s, but things have since slowed down. The centre received only seven new arrivals in the last three months, all of them abducted as children, but now fully-grown men. It is quiet, and seated here, Walter seems at peace with his brutal past.
He says counselling sessions at the centre, since he arrived two months earlier, have helped him accept that it was all beyond his control. Other former child soldiers at the centre are less willing to talk about what they have done.
'Nightmares and self-blame'
Christine Oroma, who has led counselling sessions for over ten years, says only a minority of former combatants fully open up. "The effect is that normally they have nightmares," she says. "They tend to isolate, thinking perhaps that other people are thinking about what they did while in captivity, so there is guilt, and also self-blame."
The rehabilitation process includes counselling individually and in groups, and Christian teachings as well. The centre's director, Harriet Aloyo, says the former fighters are also free to pursue traditional beliefs that are still common in northern Uganda, alongside Christianity. But she says the future of those who escape the LRA depends on them receiving the whole rehabilitation package.
It is going to be difficult for me [to] find a livelihood because I missed out on school. But anything at home will still be better than the bush.
"A number of children who have returned without passing through a rehabilitation centre have not settled well. Some of them have become drug addicts, some of them have been rejected because the family have not been prepared."
The centre's social workers meet families in advance of reunions. Some returnees survived only by killing relatives or even siblings; reunions can be extremely difficult.
Dennis Ocan, another former fighter who arrived at the centre two months before Walter, says he was spared that horror when he was abducted in 2001. He was, however, forced to commit atrocities to other communities. Having completed the counselling programme, and with his family prepared, he is ready to return home. "I just feel joy. I am so happy. It is going to be difficult for me [to] find a livelihood because I missed out on school," he says. "But anything at home will still be better than the bush."
On the morning of Ocan's departure from the centre, he packs his possessions. He owns a few items of clothing, a pair of sunglasses and a corduroy hat, all of them brand new, bought with a small allowance from World Vision. Like all the men here, he looks strong and fit. His figure is muscular but lean, after years of life in the bush. He says weaker fighters either died or were killed.
Walter and the other men wave him off. They still have to wait at the centre for their turn in the coming weeks. They all say they are confident they will settle back into village life, but it will clearly be a big change.
In Walter's case, he left behind a woman, who he describes as his wife, and a five-month-old boy in CAR. She is Central African and he admits he had abducted her himself - as was normal among LRA officers. But says he is certain she had grown to want to be with him - possibly out of dependence, if nothing else.
He says that when he surrendered to Ugandan troops and was flown home, she wanted to come too, but as a Central African she had to stay in her home country. "I would love to live with her, and with my son, but it is hard to say if I will ever see them again."
In spite of the challenges, the trickle of former child soldiers who make it back to northern Uganda are among the lucky ones. Those who are still in the bush are killed if caught trying to escape. Malnutrition, disease or engagement with Ugandan soldiers can also mean death.
An estimated five to ten thousand people are still missing, but since the LRA now numbers a few hundred, it is now certain that the vast majority of them are dead.
Follow Malcolm Webb on Twitter @MalcolmWebb
Source: Al Jazeera