Most of the world found out about the horrors inflicted by the Lord’s Resistance Army on March 5, when a 30-minute video titled “KONY 2012” posted on YouTube went viral, being viewed more than 100 million times in just 10 days. In graphic detail the video documented the horrific exploits of cult and military leader Joseph Kony, who claims to be not only the spokesperson of God but also a medium to 13 spirits. The rebel LRA has been responsible for the displacement of two million people and the death of more than 100,000 civilians during the 23-year-long civil war, which officially ended in 2009. But it’s their kidnapping and brainwashing of child soldiers and adolescent female sex slaves through torture, starvation and rape that grabbed the attention of George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Oprah Winfrey and other celebrities.None of this, however, was news to Sister Pauline Acayo, who was just 15 when she joined the Little Sisters of Mary Immaculate in Gulu, the northern district of Uganda. After earning a bachelor’s degree in education and then a master’s in religion in Rome, she returned home in 1998 to teach at a local high school and also work for Catholic Relief Services. It was a time when Gulu was exploding in conflict with local massacres. Some children were also escaping from their LRA captors, but were too emotionally and physically scarred to fit back into their villages. “What prompted me to work with these children is because my family had been affected. Four of my siblings were abducted from home, with two of my brothers killed,” Sister Acayo told The Tidings midway through a speaking tour last month to mostly Catholic high schools in Southern California. “And then seeing these children coming back home; they wanted to come back to school, but they were traumatized.“They were so traumatized simply because they were made to kill people, sometimes by chopping them into pieces with machetes. Others were forced to carry dead bodies on their backs for one week to indoctrinate them. And then some of them were made to wash their hands with blood and eat their victims’ flesh.“And girls were kidnapped to be used as sex slaves for LRA’s leaders,” she reported. Accepting and forgivingThe former teacher said besides being unable to concentrate on their studies, the former child soldiers were rejected by their classmates. They would point them out, shouting, “You are a rebel! You killed my brother. You killed my mother.” So CRS under Sister Acayo’s direction started “peace clubs” in 24 schools, training both teachers and children in conflict management — how to handle conflict through dialogue, mediation and other peaceful means. “Then we stressed acceptance among the students, forgiving the child soldiers for what had been done and reconciling with each other, which they did,” she reported.“Four of my siblings were abducted from home, with two of my brothers killed.”— Sister AcayoBut many of the returning young rebels were so psychologically damaged they were first placed in “reception centers,” where they had psycho-social support from trained workers of GUSCO (Gulu United to Save the Children Organization). CRS and other faith-based groups, in turn, worked with tribal leaders to bring the former child soldiers and community together. The healing programs ended with a daylong traditional reconciliation and cleansing ceremony called “Mato Oput.” The former trained killers would step on a raw egg, a symbol of purity, meaning that today they were purified from all the atrocities they had committed. Then religious leaders would offer prayers, and the children would ask for forgiveness. After members of the community declared “We have accepted you,” everyone would embrace and share a meal. Finally, the returned children would be handed over to their parents, while charitable families would pick out orphans to raise. Today, more than 5,000 former child soldiers and 2,500 abducted people have been reintegrated back into their communities. Dreaming of atrocities“It’s very hard to change these former child soldiers, who can be as young as nine because they were abducted at seven or five. Others come back home when they’re young adults because they were abducted when they were 15,” pointed out Sister Acayo. “And people used to say to me, ‘Sister, coming out of the trauma does not take place in some few months.’ I’d say, ‘I understand.’ It’s a slow process and it can take two years. “Because when they are at home, they keep on dreaming of all the atrocities, the killing they have done. And sometimes at home they forget and pick up something that can kill people. So every time you have to be with them.”She has done just that. And at times it’s taken a toll on the 42-year-old religious, who was threatened and nearly abducted herself as a young girl and later as a nun. “Sometimes in the course of following up these children, listening to their stories, you find yourself traumatized,” she confided. “You find yourself so traumatized, and what do you do with yourself? You need to refresh yourself; otherwise you break down. So I go on retreats. Because certain stories are so horrible, and you have to listen because in the course of listening you are helping the person to get healed.”Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army were driven out of Uganda by government forces in 2009, then chased from nearby South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo before escaping to the Central African Republic. And while the rebels’ number has decreased, the LRA continues to abduct and indoctrinate boys as well as kidnap girls for sex slaves. “And the children keep on coming back,” reported Sister Acayo, who received an Outstanding Leadership Award last year from the Association for Conflict Resolution. “So the post-war is more than the real war because of all the destruction. Everything is destroyed. People are just traumatized, even those who were not abducted. When you move through northern Uganda, you find so many people who are disabled because of the war. And that’s why most of CRS projects are targeting the people deep in the villages.”Peace buildingThe projects include training land-conflict mitigators to help displaced Ugandans settle land disputes without going to costly legal courts. Another is called “The Women Peace Ring,” working with women who have been physically or psychologically harmed or raped. There is also a water sanitation project, youth program and another program dealing with married couples. And the underpinning of these CRS efforts is peace building.Why?“Without peace, you can’t do anything in the world,” Sister Acayo answered. “All the CRS projects cannot be successful if the people who are beneficiaries to those projects are not peaceful, and if they’re not trained in how to handle conflict with each other. So, it is like the core for all that we do.” But she said until Joseph Kony is caught and all the child soldiers are returned home and reconciled with their families and communities, the civil war will not truly be over. And she intends to continue her hands-on ministries and listening to the horrific stories of child soldiers.“For me my job is when I give hope to somebody who is hopeless,” Sister Acayo explained. “Working with them in their community, giving them hope, I come back in the evening fulfilled. I come back very happy. It is hard work, but it’s always possible. I believe in God and his power.”After a moment, she said, “And I always talk on behalf of the people. So I try to give them a voice. Only when justice is done will I stop talking.” {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2012/1116/srpauline/{/gallery}