Wild ululation engulfed Gulu Airfield recently. Mary Apio received her son Julius Obira, 25, who escaped from the Lord Resistance Army (LRA) after 14 years in captivity.
Obira was heading a 15-member unit of LRA abductees who had turned into fighters. He was abducted from Aeket internally displaced people's camp in Agonga parish, Obalanga Sub-county, Amuria District in 2003.
He escaped from one of the LRA camps in Central Africa Republic (CAR) in June last year , but lost his way for five months.
In the CAR jungles
Upon his escape, he would only move at night for fear of being tracked since it was the norm.
After trekking several kilometres and feeling a bit safe from his captives, he started moving during the day.
"In the second week, I kept moving through the thick forests, but realised my road was endless and I got back to the spot I had previously set off from. That evening I bumped into an armed woman carrying a child, who seemed to be resting," he recounts.
To Obira, she was LRA from another commanding unit and he was afraid, she would shoot him because he was an escapee.
"I set my weapon but the unbothered woman asked me to put my gun down. We talked about our lives. She said that she is a Congolese national who had been abducted five years ago. She went on to confess to me that she was a former wife to the LRA Commander Joseph Kony and they had a four year- old boy," Obira says.
Obira realised that he and the woman had a lot in common. Both had lost their way in the jungle while tracing for an escape route.
Obira and his new found colleague set off. Whichever route they took would take them back to the starting point.They lost their way more often in the rainforest, according to Obira, but got close to each other that after about two months, they both concentrated on protecting the child.
"I cannot tell all I encountered during the five months in the forests, but we hunted wild creatures for food and tapped drinking water using leaves. It rained almost every day," he recounts.
They moved until they finally reached a main road [to Mboki] in Central African Republic, in November last year.
Beam of hope
They were determined to go back home despite the endless trek.
"When we saw the main road, we just kept walking clueless of our destination," he said. Somewhere on their way, they spotted a UPDF convoy. They stopped it and told the army men their ordeal.
"We boarded the UPDF truck and they took us to Mboki before being taken to Obbo and finally being reintegrated with our families," said the former captive.
Gulu District chairperson Martin Ojara Mapenduzi, who welcomed the former LRA abductees, lauded the UPDF and US army for job.
"We are grateful for this move and return of our abducted children, but we also task our government to commit itself to reintegrate those who return from captivity," he said.
"Much as UPDF and other stakeholders have been able to play their roles in returning the abducted and the hunt for Kony is still on, the plight of the returnees needs to be addressed by the government fully," Ojara said.
Captain John Kamanzi, the special investigations commander in CAR and South Sudan, who accompanied Obira from CAR, said the UPDF is ready to receive whoever defects from LRA. He said the joint task force of UPDF and US army has put more pressure on the LRA.
Remedies in place
UPDF is carrying out free medical and psychosocial support to former LRA rebels.
Fourth Division Army Spokesperson Lt Hassan Ahmad Kato said,
"We receive LRA defectors before they are flown back to Uganda. We know issues associated with battle fatigue and stress. We offer them psychosocial support," says Lt Kato.
They have set up a rehabilitation facility and child protection unit, where former abductees are given post-trauma counselling and more psychosocial support which takes between one to three months depending on the level of trauma one has, before reintegrating them with their respective communities," Lt Kato said.
He added that majority of these defectors are always sickly, need food and emergency medical attention since some have bullets wounds.
UPDF rehabilitation centre comes when Gulu Support the Children Organisation and World Vision closed their rehabilitation centres due to inadequate funds.
In January, Peter Kidega, 33, and Consy Auma, Kony's signallers, escaped to the UPDF base in the Central African Republic after more than a decade in captivity.
Kidega was abducted alongside three relatives from Karumu-kal village, Agago District, in January 2003 while in Senior Two. Auma was abducted a year later from Apar village in Amuru district while farming together with her parents.
"With four other colleagues we escaped as armed rebels chased after us but we took different directions. Sadly, one of us was shot dead," he added.
Kidega says they reached Samondja in CAR where the UPDF picked them up.
Although Auma, 24, says she wants to learn carpentry or metal fabrication, Kidega maintains that he wants to remain a fighter.
"I will join the UPDF and continue fighting for the freedom of my other innocent colleagues who are still stuck in CAR and Darfur in the hands of Joseph Kony," he said.
The LRA war, that lasted for nearly 20 years, led to the displacement of more than 1.5 million people into internally displaced persons camps.
From last year to date, 22 LRA abductees have returned from captivity and have been already reunited with their relatives.