Nothing prepares you for talking to a child you know has killed others in battle or mutilated them in a test to prove his loyalty to the rebel gang that pressed him to become a soldier at the unbelievable age of seven.
Gulu, in the north of Uganda, has been, for the past 20 years, at the centre of a fierce and demoralising guerrilla war between government troops and the rebels of the Lords Resistance Army (LRA). Last year, they agreed a ceasefire but a year of uneasy peace has failed to quieten the reverberating horror of the war in the minds of the local people.
In the town is a camp closed off from the surrounding world by high whitewashed walls. More than 7,000 children have passed through the place the locals call Gusco, which stands for Gulu Support the Children Organisation. They constitute a third of the 20,000 child soldiers who were abducted by the LRA and press-ganged into its raggle-taggle army. Many of them were taken as young as six or seven the age at which rebel leaders believed they would be most malleable and easy to groom into unquestioning, ruthless killers.
A considerable number are still unaccounted for. Many died, either in battle or at the hands of their captors. Some, however, have in the past year either been released by the LRA, or escaped and found their own way.
They return no longer children. They carry with them demons no child should hear about, let alone wrestle with. They are gathered in Gusco, a camp fitted out like a rudimentary army barracks, funded by Save the Children one of the three charities being supported by the Independent Christmas Appeal this year
In the shade of the few leafy trees in a corner of the camp courtyard Jonny Quinn [Snow Patrol's drummer] and I met some of them, accompanied by the camp's administrator Christine Langol. We sat on plastic school chairs, a detail of bizarre normality in this strange and disconcerting place.
Beneath the heavy heat of the midday sun, we were introduced to six former soldiers. They looked like ordinary children. And yet the tale they told was anything but ordinary.
The first two to speak, through a translator from the local Acholi tribal dialect, said their names were Norrie and Stephen. They had arrived at Gusco only a few days before, after having spent seven years with the rebels. They had been abducted in 2000, seized together by a rebel raiding party on their school.
"We were tied to a long line of other kids and marched" said Norrie, who is now 14. "We were kept moving because we were new to the system and couldn't be trusted yet. Every day we were beaten with sticks or the flat side of a panga (a type of machete)."
Relentless marching and random brutality was the daily routine for the first two years of their captivity. They were told that "you first have to be beaten to remove the fear in you". But it was also clear that the violence was designed to deter the abductees from planning to escape.
Initiation beatings of 50 strokes were common. Sometimes, the whole group was beaten for an offence by a single individual.
They were also subjected to an initiation ceremony, which involved smearing them with shea butter, which the rebel leaders told them would make their skin impregnable to bullets. They were then forced to fight and told "if you die you, this body will rot, but you will continue to live".
Norrie and Stephen, throughout their recollections, did not raise their voices above a whisper, such was the burden and the shame of their memories
At Gusco, over the days to come, they will spend time with a class therapy teacher to prepare them for re-entry into school. The Save the Children project also has vocational centres in Gulu town where older children can learn skills such as carpentry, tailoring and cycle repairs.
But it is in the villages that the other key work of the project takes place. Most parents there are overjoyed to see their children again. But some are as traumatised as their offspring. "They've committed atrocities on their very own people," says the project administrator Christine Langol. "They've participated in abducting other children, in killing, in burning houses."
Counsellors prepare the adults for family reunions at the centre. But some children were made, at their abduction, to kill one of their parents and their families refuse to take them back. If so, Gusco seeks out a foster family.
Problems are particularly acute for girls. One of those sitting silently under the tree was a 15-year-old named Nora. She had been in rebel hands for more than six years. She cast her eyes to the ground as she told her story.
"I was nine when the rebels came," she said. "I was in the field with my mother, sister and brother. They were all older than me and could run faster. They ran off leaving me in the field. Because I was young I could not run, so I was grabbed".
She was forced to become a porter, carrying luggage, cooking utensils and food. "At one point, when we were embarking on an attack on an enemy base I was given a gun to carry. I dropped it and it went off. I was seriously beaten".
Beside her sat Geraldine. She was 17 and had been held by the LRA for five years. She too spoke in a whisper, and never once made eye contact. "It was evening around 8pm. I came back from school and was helping my mother cook. My little sister was also home. I remember she was refusing to eat and my mother asked me to get some cassava for her.
"It was not in a safe place. Every night we would commute to a safe refuge. Mother said we should go there that night. But that night I said 'no'.
"Just then, my elder brother came home. He was clowning around, pretending to make scary noises when by horrible coincidence the rebels arrived. They had followed him home. They attacked, seized him and made off. But just as the last man was going, he grabbed me as well."
All at once, Geraldine ceases to speak about herself. Instead she talks in the third person, about what the rebels did with others, rather than what had happened to her. Girls, she said, were raped and given to the rebel commanders "as wives". The greater the fighter the more "wives" he got. One commander had as many as 21 women.
"Some girls are given as young as 12 years old," she said. It was the age at which she was taken. Her eyes had been pointed at the ground. Now her face turned completely away.
The last to speak was Peter, a gangly 17-year-old, who had been captured by government forces after he was shot in the leg. He had been abducted when he was just seven. As early as he could remember, he said, he carried, and used, a rifle.
"I was given a gun within two weeks [of being abducted]. We were given full training, how to assemble the gun, how to lay ambushes, even how to march." He had been a child soldier for 10 years, spending more of his life with the rebels than he had in his home.
He spoke, calmly and matter-of-factly of how he fought in many bloody and horrific battles against both the Sudanese and Ugandan armies. After he was shot in the leg and taken to Gusco, he says, her was overwhelmed, depressed and disorientated. He was suicidal. "I felt I didn't want to continue, I just wanted it to be over. Just kill me and let me rest."
As the months at Gusco passed, his mood changed to one of optimism for the future: "I realise education is extremely important and that's a big step, a lot of people don't get that chance."
That is not glib optimism. He still finds things hard. At 17, he is in school for the first time, and in Primary 5, with a bunch of 9 and 10-year-olds. But he has been made a prefect. And he has come to realise that school is real lifeHe has, at last, been reunited with family.
Gusco is awaiting a further 1,500 former child soldiers whose release was promised by the rebels as a gesture of goodwill. Your donations will help them through the rehabilitation process.
Back home now, I look back on that meeting with a feeling of complete disbelief. It was another world, in which the more we found out, the more heartbreaking it became. We left drained and emotionally exhausted. Even now I don't know where to put it all in my head.
What keeps me going is that Peter's story is, in its way, a story of hope. Not facile easy hope but something which carries the seed of a better future for a boy who has been through an ordeal beyond our imaginings.Reuse content