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In Uganda, 12-year-old ex-child soldier tries to make a new life

GULU, Uganda — Dennis Ojok's childhood ended three years ago, when he was 9. He was kidnapped from his grandmother's garden and forced to become a soldier in a rebel army that had a bizarre and brutal taste for children.

Dennis survived two harrowing years in the bush before he escaped, only to discover that his grandmother—the only family he knew—had died. The child soldier became a child of the streets, waking before dawn and spending his days searching for menial jobs. He sleeps in a shelter with hundreds of other children who were orphaned by the long civil war in northern Uganda.

If he manages to earn the equivalent of 15 cents in a day, he'll eat. If he doesn't, he goes hungry.

Not yet a teenager, this little boy, whose soulful eyes and big white smile mask a steely determination, is trying to make a life entirely on his own.

Across Africa, decades of wars have orphaned hundreds of thousands of children, torn families apart and left a generation of boys and girls to fight alone against homelessness, poverty and early death.

In guerrilla conflicts such as those in Uganda, Congo and Liberia, children like Dennis were abducted and made soldiers. Many have emerged from the bush only to find that their families are gone, murdered in massacres or victims of one of Africa's deadly diseases.

"The idea of family has completely broken down here. There is nothing that gives children that strength," said Juliet Cherukut, the manager of the Noah's Ark children's shelter where children such as Dennis can find a place to sleep in this bustling market town.

That's especially true in northern Uganda, a scrubland dotted with acacia trees and clusters of mud huts where the cult-like Lord's Resistance Army has waged Africa's longest running civil war mostly on the tiny backs of children.

Over 20 years, the LRA has kidnapped more than 25,000 children, enlisted them in a terrifying campaign of nighttime raids and forced many to perform grotesque acts of torture and mutilation, sometimes on their own families. Its messianic leader, Joseph Kony, has said that he wants to replace Uganda's government with a radical theocracy based on the Ten Commandments.

The LRA is slowly weakening under a sustained assault by the Ugandan army, and the government says that nearly 18,000 former child soldiers have been recovered.

But the war forced nearly all of northern Uganda's 2 million people into camps for displaced people. Civil Society Organizations for Peace in Northern Uganda, a coalition of aid agencies, estimates that one-fourth of children older than 10 have lost one or both parents to the war. Many don't attend school, and dozens die each day from violence and disease.

"Of all the conflicts I've seen, this one has had the greatest impact on children," said Michael Copland, a child protection officer in the Gulu office of the United Nations Children's Fund.

The war has spawned a striking phenomenon called the "night commuters." Every evening, as darkness falls over dusty villages, children as young as 4 and as old as 18 walk toward the scattered lights of the nearest town to spend the night in spartan shelters.

At first, these children were fleeing the threat of abduction. Now, aid workers said, most of them come to escape poor living conditions with relatives or because they're homeless. Of the 7,000 children who now sleep in Gulu's shelters each night, half have lost at least one parent.

"This is my home," Dennis said one recent night at Noah's Ark. He was sitting cross-legged on the ground, drawing absentmindedly in the dirt with his finger.

Aid workers at Noah's Ark said that they started seeing Dennis a little over a year ago. He was quieter than most of the boys but big for his age, and when he spoke the others tended to listen.

Dennis said his parents died when he was very young and that he'd lived for as long as he could remember with his grandmother. One morning when he was 9, he was working with her in the garden outside their hut when a group of boys slightly older than he was appeared from the brush and pointed a gun at her.

She was paralyzed with fear, he was hustled away, and it was the last time he ever saw her.

Life in the LRA was harsh. Dennis was the low man—he carried weapons and supplies on his thin frame for a tall teenage commander whom he hated. After about a year, he began soldier training. For hours each day, Dennis was made to tramp through waist-high muck and practice shooting with weathered AK-47 rifles.

He became a pretty decent shot, but the cold metal in his hands terrified him.

"Every time I walked past a river or a pond," he said, "I wanted to throw the gun in the water and never see it again."

His final rite of training came one hot afternoon, when an older boy, about 16 or 17, refused to carry a superior's luggage. Dennis' commander ordered him to take the boy behind some nearby trees and kill him.

Dennis was so scared that his hands were shaking, and he was afraid that he'd drop the gun. But he had a plan, and once he was out of his commander's sight, he whispered it to the other boy: Dennis would pretend to beat him, he should scream in pain, and then Dennis would fire a shot into the bushes.

The boy dropped to the ground, pretending that he'd been killed. When the commander came to see, Dennis had covered his body with some leaves. He spit on the boy: The LRA believes that keeps the spirit of a dead body from haunting the killer.

The commander was satisfied. He and Dennis walked away, leaving the boy free to escape.

As it happened, Dennis didn't have to fire the gun again. A few weeks later, after an LRA raid on a village, Ugandan helicopter gunships strafed the retreating rebels. Dennis was among them, and in the chaos he escaped into the bush.

He hid the telltale color of his army pants by rolling up the legs and tying his shirt around his waist, and he walked for two days until he found a village he recognized. Eventually he was led to his old home, where neighbors told him that his grandmother had died not long after he was abducted.

Homeless, he began following other village children to Gulu each night, and he eventually found Noah's Ark. He slept in the open under thin, sand-colored blankets, alongside dozens of other boys, crammed together like wriggling sardines for warmth and security. Every morning, he looked for work.

He found a steady job selling pineapples for a stocky man who favored loud-colored shirts, and he became friends with another seller about his age, a schoolboy who worked on weekends. One day about six months ago, the boy invited Dennis to come and live with his family in a village outside Gulu.

The boy's parents gave Dennis chores and sent him to an overcrowded school. He was placed in the fifth grade, and although the education was less than stellar—he said he could often smell alcohol on his teachers' breath—he was thrilled to be in a classroom again.

But at home, Dennis found himself doing all the chores. He collected trash or fetched water from the well while his friend played. After a month, Dennis ran away from the family and his chance at an education and returned to the streets.

He doesn't regret it. "I did the right thing," he said, his posture straightening, his chalky arms folded across his chest. "They weren't treating me well. I never had time for schoolwork."

Street children line Gulu's open-air markets and stinking back alleys, eager for work. Child labor is a free-for-all and exploitation is rampant, according to aid workers. Girls are lured into the sex trade, and boys are abused.

"Small, small children are being made to do work in terrible conditions, not paid and treated badly," said Michael Oruni, who works with formerly abducted children in Gulu for the Christian charity organization World Vision.

"This kind of work might be OK for them in terms of daily survival, but it doesn't promise much to improve their life."

Dennis is trying to save enough to return to school. The fees—about $2.50 per semester, $4 for a uniform and a little more for books and supplies—are astronomically high in a place where 500 Ugandan shillings—about 25 cents—is more than enough to buy a meal of rice and beans.

Once, he'd almost saved enough but had worn through his only shirt and pants, so he had to spend the money on a secondhand shirt and jeans. Twice, he's had money stolen from under his pillow at the shelter while he slept.

Now he's buried the coins that constitute his life's worth in a secret spot near the shelter.

When night comes, it's a relief. Dennis likes the shelter. He gets to be with friends, he can shower and wash his clothes, and in prayers he closes his eyes tightly.

"I always pray that I will go back to school," he said.

Every day brings a new struggle for survival. One recent morning, Dennis trudged from a hotel to a market stall to a butcher to a movie house. No work. But he was undaunted, and the next day he tried the movie house again. "Come back tomorrow," he was told.

Shortly after dawn the next day, a Saturday, Dennis showed up and was handed a broom to sweep the floor. He worked silently in the dark, musty movie house, ignoring the sounds of roosters crowing and children yelling outside. After 20 minutes, he was done and went to the owner to collect his payment—about 10 cents.

Quickly, as if the money might leap out of his hands, Dennis shoved the coins in his pocket and turned to walk back up the busy road to look for more work.

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