I have seen so much in my life. I cannot cry. All tears left me when I was taken from my family," says 26-year-old George as he stares at the floor of the aid agency vehicle taking him home for the first time in 11 years.
We get closer to George's village in Uganda and he begins to shake as the memories emerge. Aged 15, George had been walking along the very same track on his way home from school when rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) surrounded him and his friends. The boys were dragged away at gunpoint, then forcibly marched through the bush and across the border into what is now South Sudan, where the rebels had set up a base camp.
The journey took several days. The boys were not allowed to rest except for a few brief stops to drink water. There was no food. George still wore his school uniform and had only a pair of sandals to walk in. His feet were blistered and bleeding. Those who survived were given a gun and informed that they were now under the command of Joseph Kony, the LRA's notorious leader. They were told that they must fight or die.
"Another child, but one who was already experienced, demonstrated to us how a gun operates, how it opens and then the appropriate position for shooting," George recalls. "The first time I went into a real battle, I wasn't scared because my body took control of my mind. And at the end of the fight, you just see dead people lined up."
Within days, memories of family and school, and his dream of becoming a lawyer, had evaporated as he fell victim to Kony's brutal form of brainwashing through fear. Kony told the children that if they tried to escape, the blood of their victims that was now inside them would kill them. But if they stayed, that blood would make them stronger fighters. For his own survival, George chose to believe this. He was promoted to sergeant and is proud of the fact that he was a good fighter who "killed many people, so many I cannot remember".
George escaped only when Kony killed his direct commander. "I realised if he could kill my boss then I was nothing to him, so I fled that night. I was a trusted man and it was my job to do the nightly hourly checks to be sure everyone was in their beds. I did my check, then I fled, knowing I had one hour before they started to look for me."
As George talks, the driver of the car, a round-faced man with a beard, turns to him with a warm smile. "My brother, relax. Those days are gone now. You are here to live a good life. I did it, my friend. So can you."
The driver's name is Chris. He was also a child soldier who escaped in 1998, at the height of the conflict between the LRA and the Ugandan government. Some 15 years later, Chris is a success story. He completed primary and secondary education and now works as a driver for the charity Invisible Children.
"Coming home was tough, so tough," he says. "Can you imagine being at primary school in your twenties? You have to pick up your life from where you were on the day it was taken. But you also have the reality of being an adult and of all the things you and your family have suffered."
Returning child soldiers face a huge stigma. Local people are often terrified of them and don't want trained killers living among them. For parents whose children were murdered, or were abducted and are still missing, the returnees are often a painful reminder. Addiction and suicide rates among returnees are high. As part of his role at Invisible Children, Chris goes out to meet village elders and give talks. He wears a suit and tie and reassures them that a return to normality, even respectability, is possible for the former fighters.
Trauma and transition
After escaping the LRA, both Chris and George went to the Children of War Rehabilitation Center run by children's charity World Vision - the only place of its kind in Uganda. Since 1995, the centre has rehabilitated more than 15,000 ex-child soldiers, boys and girls.
"When they arrive they are quiet, they don't want to talk, they are kind of reserved and there is fear in them," centre manager Susan Alal says. "They don't trust anyone. Sometimes they are very disturbed and at night they tear off their clothes, screaming. We don't push them, but when they start to talk to us, we begin a process of intensive counselling and education."
"They are children," senior trauma counsellor Charles Onekalit says. "We call them children, however old they are, because they were children when they were taken. They are victims, they were forced to kill. It wasn't by choice.
"They were little when Kony took them. He gave them milk and food and they saw him like a kind of father. They have lived in the jungle and know only the bad things of war, killing and fighting.
"One of the things we do here at the centre is teach them to play calabash (a traditional musical instrument). Calabash is played in Uganda all the time - at weddings, birthdays, Sunday afternoons. It's a crucial part of life and everyone in the village takes part, but if you don't know it, how can you be accepted in village life? Kony denied them this because music was banned in the LRA. Denying them their own cultures was another way to prevent them rebelling."
The population of Gulu, the town where the rehabilitation centre is based, also plays a key role in re-educating its inhabitants. There is a security guard on the gate, but the "children" are not locked in - they are free to walk around the local market if they wish.
"People are generally very kind to them. I take them into town and introduce them to people. I say, see, this is the student carrying his bags, this is the fruit seller, this is the bank, this is the garage where you put fuel in your car. They've forgotten how everything in life works," Onekalit says.
On top of life skills and trauma counselling, the centre also offers a basic formal education, but the aim is to reunite the former soldiers with their families and get them back into a mainstream school. For most, it is a case of starting right at the beginning of primary school, even if they are in their mid-twenties. But, as Onekalit points out, "not all schools are willing to accept them, but we encourage it. We also encourage the families to help with it, because when they do go back to education, their self-esteem grows so quickly. It really helps them to recover."
Simon left the centre five years ago and today has come back to give a talk to the new residents. He completed his primary education at the nearby government-run Laroo Boarding School for War Affected Children, then found a place on a vocational training course to learn how to be a mechanic. "If you don't go back to school, you have no way to survive," he says. "At first I was so depressed and scared, but now I am so thankful to God for bringing me safely home and giving me another chance."
Simon was one of an estimated 30,000 abducted Ugandan children, most of whom were taken during the height of the conflict in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, when the LRA attempted to overthrow the Ugandan government.
At that time, Kidaya Yairo was a rural principal. He recalls how schools were targeted by the LRA: "We tried to stay open as long as we could. But in the end many parents were forced to take their children away to hide them in the bush.
"On one single day, I lost nine pupils. They were trying to run from the rebels and they went in the opposite direction of the gunshots. But it was a trick, an ambush. The militia were waiting on the opposite side and they mowed them all down as they tried to hide."
Yairo wipes a tear away as he remembers how he and another teacher went to recover the bodies. "They were so small. What monsters these men are. Some say here that Kony can change forms and is the devil himself. When I remember those days, I find it easy to believe."
The devastating years of conflict have shattered the educational prospects of an entire generation, not just of the children who became soldiers. "Others lost parents, fathers, so they couldn't afford the school fees," Yairo says. "Also, many schools were burned down and didn't reopen for years. I personally funded six boys from my school through university. I did it for the boys but also for our village. How could our village survive otherwise without educated young men?"
The majority of the residents at the rehabilitation centre are boys, but thousands of girls were also abducted and forced to become "wives" for the boy soldiers. Jenifer was one of them. She had two children by a fighter, then returned home eight years ago. No one wanted to marry her because she had been raped, which carries a huge stigma in Uganda. In the end, she married a drug addict and had two more children. Today she is a single mother, trying to raise all four children alone.
"It is so hard for me," she says. "I still have shrapnel in my neck and back and a lot of pain. I want my children to have the chances I did not. I have two in school but I cannot afford fees for the youngest two."
`Now I am safe'
When the car taking George home reaches the village, something extraordinary happens. He is gathering the cooking utensils, shoes and clothes that the centre has given him when about 50 women run towards the vehicle, chanting and waving flowers and branches - a sign of peace. In an instant, they are throwing flowers through the window and trying to put their arms around him. At the front is an elderly woman, too overcome with emotion to move. George sees her and starts to sob. It is his mother.
The entire village has come out to welcome him home and attend his "cleansing ceremony". George kneels, tears streaming down his face, as the local pastor places his hands on his head in a prayer that grants forgiveness for his sins. The pastor asks the community to accept him and treat him as they would their own child. Finally, the pastor takes George and his elderly parents into their traditional thatched hut and they break bread to symbolise living together as a family once again. It is an unbearably poignant moment.
As we leave, George is asked if he wants to go back to the bush as a fighter. He laughs. "Never! Never, never. I never knew I was loved this much. I wasn't expecting this. I have to honour my family now and get my education so I can take care of my parents in their elderly years. I feel now that I am safe. Nothing can harm me."