Descent into the heart of darkness PDF Print E-mail
The shaping of policy at UNODC (2002-2010)

Gulu, northern Uganda, January

"We lined up the villagers, about 20 of them, and chopped their hands with a machete." He twists his fingers and looks at his own hands as to make sure that they were both there. "They dropped to the ground screaming. We cracked their skulls."

Opoko is a handsome boy with vivid eyes, in his late teens (he isn't exactly sure how old), and a former child-soldier. He was abducted 4 years ago by the LRA (Lord's Resistance Army) and forced to commit atrocities, or atrocity would have been committed on him.

I met Opoko and another two dozens former child-soldiers at a camp in the town of Gulu, northern Uganda, organized by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and the ICC Trust Fund for Victims. The initiative to help these kids was conceived more than a year ago when, during a meeting organized by Simone Monasebian (Head of UNODC Office in NY), we asked renowned artist Ross Bleckner of New York whether he could be motivated to launch an art-based campaign against human trafficking. Child-soldiers, their victimization and their exploitation for violence against civilians, are a dramatic case of contemporary slavery - one that UNODC is committed to fight in the four corners of the world. We proposed to start with northern Uganda.

altRoss Bleckner was more than willing. He promised to help enlist the talent of other artists to portray the drama of modern slavery: "Actually, I'll do more than that," he added. "I want to meet these kids and use art to alleviate their suffering".

Simone, with her usual networking skills, put together funds from two generous foundations (Eleonora Kennedy and Louise Blouin) to ship tens of brushes, hundreds of kilos of paint and thousands of sheets of paper to a facility run by Italian Catholic nuns in the heart of a land scorched by the LRA for over a decade, and especially since 2002. The ICC Trust Fund for Victims added resources and, with the help of local NGOs, provided the logistics to identify the former child-soldiers and run the first phase of this project. It turned out to be a great partnership, with each institution and each individual -- starting from TFV Executive Director Andre Laperriere -- bringing something probably nobody else could have provided. The Kennedy daughter contributed irreplaceable support to both the organizers and the kids: thanks Anna.

For about 10 days, Ross relentlessly taught the children the rudimentary skills of painting. How touching it was to see girls, used by the LRA as sexual slaves before they could be women, and boys, trained to kill before they could read, how touching it was to see them represent past sufferings and future hopes with brilliant colours and vivid shapes. Lots of naïveté of course, simple drawings as well - but what could one expect from children kidnapped between the ages of 8 and 12, after seeing their parents maimed or burned alive in their straw huts?

"I was one of Odhiambo's bodyguards. I didn't kill anybody" says Etion. Whether this admission is true or not (he probably feared that we could refer him to the ICC in the Hague), this is irrelevant. "We walked for weeks, at the side of the leader. We carried loads of ammunition, food and water. Those who couldn't make it, were left behind, chopped to pieces for the animals in the forest". Etion looks around: is someone else hearing his story?, he seems to fear. "I hope to become a carpenter," he adds walking away from under the shade of a giant papaya tree, where we are sitting. It is harder to walk away from a bloody past. On one sheet of paper I recall seeing a naïve male portrait, with bushy hair, long moustache and piercing eyes -a stylized reminder of the picture featured on the arrest warrant against LRA deputy commander Okot Odhiambo. The rebel leader is still at large, and very much in Etion's mind. With father and older brothers killed, looking at Etion's body language I wondered who was his role model: was there hate or awe towards his tormentor? Perhaps both.

"I was one of Kony's concubine. My baby is 10 months old" says 16 year old Anna, holding an infant whose beauty makes heads turn. She was speaking to my wife Patricia and to Simone, who together patiently interviewed all the girls in the camp. Joseph Kony, the head of LRA, roamed around northern Uganda for years, committing unspeakable atrocities against civilians. He is now reportedly in northern Congo, where military operations have been launched jointly by forces from Uganda and Congo to arrest him -- and his 700-800 rebels. Kony is assisted by a few thousands slave-children (hard to say exactly): they move around a region larger than France, with skill and speed. Recently, a platoon was reported to have travelled 360 km in 6 days, loaded with tons of supply.

With the regular army in hot pursuit, Joseph Kony has not given up cruelty. Just the other day, as I was leaving the Entebbe airport heading into eastern Congo, he attacked church-goers attending a religious concert, killing and maiming hundreds of peasants. This in reprisal for the ongoing attempt to seize him and transfer him to ICC in the Hague, where he was indicted. 

In Uganda, LRA has caused massive suffering, despite the small number of their guerrillas. Typically, a few rebels (no more than 3-4), would approach a village in the early hours and ignite the huts. As villagers ran for safety, the rebels would shoot them or, to save ammunition, kill them by machete. A dozen kids would be forced to follow the killers. Immediately out of the village, some of the kids would be killed, to impose fear upon their friends. And so on, from village to village. I heard this story, unbelievable as it may seem, over and over again.

It is always hard to understand the motivation behind violence inflicted on civilians. It is even harder to comprehend why the Gulu kids, and the thousands of other Ugandan children not yet in their teens at the moment of capture had to suffer so much. For sure, evil had descended into this part of the world, a region known for the kindness of its people, the beauty of the nature and the richness of its soil.

At the camp we share our meals with the children, simple and tasty food prepared with love by the nuns. In the evening we gathered with other victims of the LRA's violence, and heard even more gruesome stories. The evidence was there in front of us: so vivid that it will be impossible to remove from our minds in the years to come.



Evelyn is 16 years old now. When she smiles, or tries to, she is very coy and protects her face with both hands. She is timid, for sure. But she is also hiding the consequences of a gun blast to her face. "A rebel put a gun in my mouth and fired." Disfigured, she was left behind to die, but was rescued. The early photos of disfigured Evelyn cannot be shown, too gruesome even for contemporary brazen media. She was brought back to the village. Eventually an NGO accompanied her to the US for surgery, where she became a sort of a celebrity. She appeared on Oprah Winfrey's show; in California she spent time with actor Will Smith. After several months in school in Michigan to learn English, she is now back in Gulu. Her facial features are still horribly deformed but she can speak, eat and drink. More surgery is needed for cosmetic purposes, but also for better control of her facial muscles. Doctors say she will have a quasi-normal life, if all goes well: yet, her body language keeps screaming that celebrity on the Gulu-Chicago-Los Angeles-Gulu circuit had come at a terrible price.

Why so much pain? Why destroy the face of a 12 year old girl? Luckily for Evelyn, good Samaritans worked hard to remedy the evil gesture of a mad-man. But how many other similarly disfigured, maimed and terribly hurt kids are in northern Ugandan villages, with no other option than to hide for shame of their appearance? What about those without limbs and no access to prostheses?

Many of the Gulu children's drawings were left behind, together with the surplus paints, brushes and papers, for more fun. Other sketches are now on their way to New York, where they will be catalogued, associated to the photo and the story of each child, and then exhibited at the United Nations in the spring - and perhaps elsewhere, if funds are available.

Artist Ross Bleckner is the dynamo behind all this. In Uganda he was superb at using art therapy to help the children recover from their physical and psychological hurt. It will take years, if ever, for the kids to regain control of themselves. Yet, the camp was a useful start. Back home in New York, Ross is committed to motivate the international art community to represent the tragedy of human trafficking, as a UNODC anti-slavery ambassador.

This project is part of a broader program. UNODC last year launched the UN.GIFT initiative and organized the Vienna Forum against modern slavery. It will soon publish its first comprehensive Report on Human Trafficking. It is also helping director Robert Bilheimer to produce a documentary-film, Not My Life, for release this autumn. The initiative with Ross Bleckner is adding a new dimension to UNODC's efforts.

UNODC and ICC Trust Fund may return to Gulu next year. The job is far from done. Other kids need to be brought in. We also intend to engage other artists, some from Uganda itself. In the mean time, the current initiative will sponsor the school and board of the two dozen children who attended the '09 camp. We met some of the children's relatives as well as authorities in Kampala: they all agree that education is the basis of the child-soldiers' future life and so we are willing to invest in them. Key to results in this sort of initiative is to count on the right partner. And we did, in the person of Victor Ochen, head of the NGO African Youth Initiative Network - a former child-soldier himself.

Of course, this is a drop in the ocean. What about the tens of thousands of children who have not returned yet, kids still in the hands of the LRA and other warlords who operate in the triangular area of northern Uganda, eastern Congo and southern Sudan? What about the children sold by their predators in exchange for weapons, communication gears and food? "Three of our girls were exchanged for a bundle of uniforms", one of the victims told us - and this bloody barter trade is still going on.

If evil is present in this world, so is good. We just need to find a way to mobilize it - at the aggregate level (governments and the UN), but also at the personal level. Look at what Ross did.

Doreen is sweet 16. But when Doreen was sitting in front of me at dinner, it was hard to think about sweetness. She is a good student and Ross is paying for her education. But Doreen needs more than school: she also need good surgeons, to regain the image of a human being. Her captors maimed her nose, lips and ears. Modern medicine can do miracles and rebuild a nose where there are now just two holes, and a mouth where there is now just a slit. Ears, I am told, are difficult to patch - but something can be done in plastic. Doreen hopes "to work in an hospital," she says holding a hand on her face, to help other kids maimed like her.

My wife Patricia and I are assisting another child, Rose who is also 16. By luck, she was not abducted by the LRA -- but the circumstances of life were equally cruel. About 4 years ago her mom sent her with a sister to bring food to her grandmother, in a near-by village. The rebels attacked just that town torching, slaughtering and abducting. Rose found parts of her father on a bench, his severed head laying inside the hut. Her mother was also dead, ripped apart not too far away, in a pool of blood she shared with some of Rose's other siblings. Fate had spared a child who sings like one of the forest's melodious birds, and who this February will return to boarding school hoping to become a medical doctor.

Despite the tragedy in their earlier years, Doreen, Evelyn, Anna, Rose, Opoko, Etion and the other kids we met in Gulu, want to have a normal life -- like you and me. But are we all doing enough to help?

Antonio Maria Costa 



Last Updated on Sunday, 04 May 2014 17:10