The rebels have ruined northern Uganda. No one wanted to look out the car window on the three-hour journey northwest from Lira to Gulu near the Sudanese border. Charlotte Awino leaned her cheek on the glass and closed her eyes against the abandoned homesteads and fallow farmland that once provided most of the country's cassava, millet and beans. After 18 years of civil war, more than 1.5 million inhabitants have fled to plastic-sheeted internment camps, preferring to risk slow death by disease and malnutrition rather than to wake in their beds one night to discover the rebels have arrived. The rebels are the Lord's Resistance Army (L.R.A.), which massacres or mutilates villagers -- cutting off their noses, ears and genitals -- and kidnaps their children, turning them into killers who then become kidnappers themselves.
A soldier at a military checkpoint instructed us to drive quickly; just ahead, he said, is a sweep of land where the rebels sometimes cross. He crouched down, peering into the car, his AK-47 dangling against the door, his gaze resting with relish on Charlotte and the other young women clustered in the back seat, their arms entwined, their silky dresses crumpling against one another. The girls stiffened and looked at their laps as he talked.
"What does the U.P.D.F. know?'' Charlotte spat as we drove away, referring to the Ugandan Army.
"The rebels don't cross before dark,'' Grace Acan agreed.
The four girls know this land far better than any government soldier, because for eight years they were rebels themselves. Abducted from their convent school when they were 14, 15 and 16, they were brutalized, brainwashed and forced to be ''wives'' to rebel commanders. They crossed this road on foot many times, hiding from the Ugandan Army while their commanders scouted for villages to raid.
In July, Charlotte was the first of the friends to escape. Janet Akello followed in August, Grace in September and finally Caroline Anyango in November. The girls eventually returned to their hometown of Lira to live with their parents and to try to pick up the lives they lost. They are in their mid-20's now and burdened by children they were raped to bear; yet as they showed me around Lira or journeyed to Caroline's ancestral village, where Caroline's grandmother danced welcome around her, they often seemed like the schoolgirls they once were. They are pretty, polite, docile and devout, their personalities blending like their dresses, and it was hard to imagine that they were recently guerrilla girls, as some terrified villagers used to call them.
At unexpected junctures, however, their moods change and darkness surfaces: Charlotte's prim composure gives way to bitterness and contempt; Janet's impassiveness becomes depression; Grace's good spirits crumple; Caroline cries; and then -- the rift exposed -- they all fall into a pained silence.
In Lira, the girls had heard that some of their other friends were living in a rehabilitation center called World Vision, in Gulu, where the Ugandan government houses former rebels for a month. When I told the girls that I was planning to visit the center, they asked to come with me. Their parents were reluctant to permit the trip, worried less about the road's dangers than about the moral risks of letting their daughters reconnect with their past. Janet's parents were especially concerned about her ''husband,'' Charles Otim, who had been recently captured and was living at World Vision, too. (Charlotte's husband is still with the rebels, Caroline's is dead and Grace's is now a government informant.)
When I asked Janet whether she would like to see Otim, she twisted her body, touched her mouth and looked away. ''If I see him, I will greet him,'' she declared finally, leaving the matter to happenstance -- the force that dictated her life for so many years.
The light was waning by the time we reached World Vision. As a result of government military victories in the past two years, more than 10,000 rebels have been captured or have managed to escape the L.R.A. The former child soldiers, as they are called, have all been given amnesty, but reintegrating them into society remains a daunting problem.
A guard showed us into the office of Sam Kilaro, the center's outreach coordinator, an ambitious, upright young man in a starched white shirt who betrayed just a touch of pride in his authority.
''Grace Acan,'' he exclaimed, reaching out and clasping her hands.
Melanie Thernstrom is a contributing writer for the magazine. Her last article was about high-end matchmaking.
''Sam!'' Grace flushed with pleasure, her customary demureness overcome. They attended elementary school together, Sam explained, and then they lost touch. As they chatted, he studied her approvingly: a lovely young woman, he seemed to be thinking, the kind of woman he might like to marry. ''What are you doing here, Grace?''
She hesitated. ''I went to St. Mary's school, you see--'' She broke off, holding her hands up defensively. ''I was taken by the rebels, you see; we all were,'' she said, appealing to her friends for fellowship.
He gaped at her. ''I'm sorry,'' he said. But his sorriness seemed tinged with horror, as if to say: I'm sorry you were a killer and a sex slave. I'm sorry you are not the innocent Christian virgin you were raised to be and I was raised to want. I'm sorry.
''I'm going back to school again soon,'' she said hastily. ''In just a few weeks. In Kampala.''
He seemed unable to recover his poise. ''Go in if you like,'' he said, turning away. Grace blinked at him. Like the others, she is accustomed to rejection. In Lira, villagers who were once jealous of the girls' modest prosperity now hiss rebels as they pass. Although northerners know that all but a few of the oldest commanders were themselves once abducted children, their pity for the rebels as victims is overlaid with hatred and fear of them as victimizers.
In the center's women and children's section, the new escapees were thin, with scarred skin and broken teeth. Many of the children playing in the dirt resembled one another; as it turned out, many were half-siblings since each of the commanders had many wives. The leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, Joseph Kony, is said to have 56 wives and more than 100 children: he aims, he professes, to repopulate his tribe, the Acholis.
The girls hugged their friends, exchanging shy smiles. The women admired Charlotte's rustling black dress and Grace's delicate sandals, revealing feet no longer cut by underbrush. None of them said much at the reunion: in captivity, they had not been allowed to talk to one another lest they conspire. But they all stood in the gold late-afternoon light reveling in the wonder of something they never expected: to meet together in freedom.
On Independence Day, Oct 9, 1996, the girls at St. Mary's, a prestigious boarding school run by Italian nuns, were awakened by the blaze of torchlight and the sounds of shattering glass as rebels broke into their dormitory. They recognized some of the rebels -- boys abducted just a month earlier from a school nearby -- who dragged them out from under their beds, tied them together with ropes and marched them off into the moonless night.
The next day, the deputy headmistress, Sister Rachele Fassera tracked the rebels into the bush and managed to persuade their commander to return 109 of the girls. He insisted on keeping 30, selecting them for desirable traits (strength, beauty, light skin). Charlotte, Grace, Caroline and Janet recall how they sobbed as they were left behind, how the rebels ordered them to be quiet, forced them to lie down and then trampled them with heavy boots.
If any of them tried to escape, they would be killed, the commander told them. Shortly after the abduction, a girl named Jennifer disappeared. When the rebels discovered Jennifer hiding in a hut, they ordered the other girls to beat her to death. The girls hit her lightly about the legs at first, but the rebels encircled them, yelling for them to hit Jennifer harder and beating them to make sure they did so. Afterward, the rebels left the body on the ground unburied and beat the girls who cried.
Killing was the crux of the abductees' initiation. According to rehabilitation-center counselors, all new recruits were forced to murder within the first week, not only to illustrate the peril of trying to leave but also to make escape psychologically difficult by destroying the new rebels' old selves and turning them into murderers. When Jennifer died, Charlotte said, the girls realized they could not help one another and passed into the numb solitary trance in which they endured the next eight years -- and from which they are still trying to awaken.
After a week's walking, they reached Kony's base camp in southern Sudan. (The Sudanese government harbored and armed the L.R.A. in retaliation for Uganda's support of the Sudanese rebels.) Raised by their traditional families to obey authority, particularly religious authority, the girls said they believed Kony's claim that he was ''the Messiah -- the true Jesus Christ,'' as Janet recalls. They described him as a ''tall, handsome'' man whom the rebels called father or Lakwena, the Acholi word for one who serves the holy spirit. Kony would chant for hours, at times waking them up in the middle of the night to lead them in prayers that interwove Christian, Muslim and tribal spiritual beliefs and superstitions. Lakwena was mercurial. One day, for example, he would direct everyone at camp to stand bare-chested in the rain for four minutes; on another, they could not have sex or cook with oil from the yao tree.
The girls came to believe that Kony was their protector in a cruel, strange world rather than the creator of that world. He prophesized in ways they still insist came true, like foretelling the outcome of a particular battle with the Ugandan Army, and he protected them, they told me, by executing girls and boys they believed were witches and wizards.
Kony prized the St. Mary's girls above the other abductees, keeping them closely guarded and telling them they would one day be his ministers when he took over the Ugandan government. In the meantime, however, he gave them as wives to commanders. When I asked the girls in what sense they were married -- whether there were ceremonies, for example -- Charlotte laughed mirthlessly. ''You're just distributed, like shoes,'' she said. The girls recalled how Kony told them what he would do if they refused their husbands sex: the punishment was 200 strokes and then a hot-iron branding of their foreheads and backs.
None of the girls knew at the time exactly what sex was, they said, only that the loss of their virginity would leave them as damaged -- culturally, spiritually and psychologically -- as those who had been mutilated in more visible ways. The commanders made a point of having sex with each wife during her fertile period. Charlotte, Janet and Grace each gave birth to two children.
Although they were starved, beaten and forced to do hard labor -- digging all day in the garden, walking long distances barefoot carrying heavy jugs of water on their heads -- their positions as commanders' wives meant that unlike the other children, they would not be forced to be fighters. At a rehabilitation center in Lira, the former child soldiers are asked questions like: Were you forced to kill your parents, your relatives or your neighbors? Were you forced to cut, burn or pluck out eyes? Again and again, the answers in the files are yes.
Charlotte told me that her husband had 21 other wives and had been with the rebels for 19 years. But when I asked her more about him, her expression became especially solemn and distant, and she refused to say anything other than that he was ''very rude, very cruel. He doesn't have mercy for people.''
Grace and Janet and Caroline said that their husbands favored them over their other wives and helped them to survive. ''I was given to an old man,'' Grace said. She laughed bashfully, as if speaking of a boy on whom she had a crush. ''I was given to a disabled man,'' Janet said, blushing, as she described Otim, a commander whose leg had been amputated years before and who fought using crutches. ''He was not rude; he was nice,'' Janet said.
Grace chimed in that her husband had ''taught me everything.'' He punished her often, she said, but she felt it was for her own good because ''he knows students are always lazy.'' When Caroline's husband died, she felt there was ''no one to take care of me'' and she had to work as a nurse in another commander's household.
According to human rights groups, the rebels abducted an estimated 20,000 children. Most were the offspring of peasants who, fearing revenge, obeyed the rebels' command that they not complain to the government. The rebels illustrated their injunctions of silence by literally sealing villagers' lips with stakes or padlocks and taunting them to ask President Yoweri Museveni to find the keys.
While Kony's professed aim has been to take over the government in the southern capital of Kampala and replace it with rule by the Ten Commandments, in fact the Lord's Resistance Army never crosses the Nile River that divides the desolate northern region from the rapidly developing south. Kony's insurgency afflicts primarily his own people, the Acholi and other northern tribes, whom he claims to be punishing for their sins, particularly the sin of not supporting him.
It is widely held among African policy experts, human rights groups and people in the north that during the late 1980's and 90's Museveni showed little resolve to win the war. In fact, many believe, Museveni found it politically advantageous to leave the troublesome northern region to self-destruct. The United Nations has called the situation in northern Uganda the most neglected human rights crisis in the world.
The abduction of the elite private-school girls, however, changed the political landscape. Sister Rachele, along with Charlotte's mother, Angelina Atyam, Caroline's father, Frank Olyet Ayo-Ogang, and other parents founded an effective lobbying group called the Concerned Parents Association, which made the most of the narrative power of the case, turning an obscure war into a terrible fairy tale -- a story of schoolgirls stolen in the night and compelled by a demon man's spell to roam in the wild and commit unspeakable acts. They appealed to the pope, who condemned the abductions, gaining attention from the international media.
The parents' group mounted a campaign to get the countries who gave aid to Uganda, including the United States, to put pressure on the Museveni government to end the war. In 2002, Uganda and Sudan signed a treaty to stop supporting each other's insurgents. The Ugandan Army was allowed to go into southern Sudan to attack the L.R.A., which was thus forced out into the northern Ugandan bush. Fighting intensified, as did abductions. The next year, Museveni put a new general, Aronda Nyakairima, in charge of the army to defeat the rebels. Now, Nyakairima told me, he estimates that the rebels only have 300 to 500 experienced fighters left. Late last year, the rebels began peace talks with the government.
Each battle provided an opportunity for rebels to escape. Nyakairima described to me how during a battle the Ugandan Army calls out to the wives and children to surrender -- and thousands have. But the girls' recollections are of the soldiers' attacks: of their classmate Jessica being wounded and then bayoneted, of Grace finding only her 4-year-old son's leg and a bit of shirt in a tree after an explosion.
Grace, Janet and Caroline all believed what Kony had told them repeatedly -- that their parents were dead and that if they tried to escape, Ugandan soldiers would rape and imprison them. Grace was so convinced of it that one day, when she was separated from other rebels after fleeing a battle, she hid for a week with her starving toddler before turning herself in to a villager.
Charlotte, however, had heard rumors of the Concerned Parents Association from the guards who watched over her, who had overheard news reports on the commanders' radio. And so she believed her mother was looking for her. ''I kept praying,'' Charlotte said: ''I don't belong here, I can't fit in. God, please, please, please.'' By talking continually to God, Charlotte kept from despairing and wholly losing herself. ''Some of my friends would say, 'There are bullets flying -- let us ask God to kill us,''' Charlotte told me. ''But I said, 'Let us tell Him that as long as we are alive, keep us so we can see our parents.'''
Then, one night, she had a dream in which a messenger of God told her she would escape the next day. Just walk away, the messenger said.
The next morning, as she marched through the bush, Charlotte turned and took a few steps off the trail. A guard looked directly at her, she said, but just as the dream had foretold, he did not register her presence. She carried her 2-year-old son, Miracle, on her back. (Her 6-year-old son, Ronald, had disappeared a month earlier during a battle. She later found out that he had wandered for three days before reaching a village, his pockets holding mangoes that must have helped him survive.)
Back in the camp, she was told by a girl who escaped after her, 50 rebel boys were selected to hunt her down and drag her back to be killed. But God arranged for the group to cross paths with the Ugandan Army instead, Charlotte told me, and she reached a town where a villager took her to the authorities, who called her mother.
Although the idea of her mother looking for her had sustained Charlotte all those years, the truth she learned when she arrived home was not so simple. Eight years earlier, according to Charlotte's mother, Angelina, the Concerned Parents Association had stirred up so much international anger against the L.R.A. that Angelina was able to arrange a meeting with the rebels. An intermediary set up a rendezvous in an abandoned house in Gulu with a man nicknamed Lagira, the commander who led the raid on St. Mary's. Lagira told Angelina that he would release Charlotte if Angelina, the spokeswoman of the group, would stop her activism. But Angelina refused to take her daughter unless all the girls were released.
The ancients distinguished between different kinds of love: personal attachment as opposed to caritas, love for mankind. But how many situations dramatize the difference so clearly? Angelina saw in the commander's offer a deep, emblematic choice. The former midwife and mother of six described to me how, in the seven months after Charlotte was abducted, she had become completely committed to the cause and realized she needed to sacrifice her love for her daughter for caritas. ''Charlotte is special in my life, but as the Concerned Parents Association we had become a family,'' she said in her deep, slow, sermonizing voice. ''For C.P.A., every child is our child. Me getting one child, it would feel very selfish. How would I walk the streets in joy while others are captive?''
As a practical matter, the refusal seems puzzling: if Angelina had said yes, and the commander came through on his offer, what was to stop her from taking Charlotte and then continuing her advocacy as before? The rebels could kill her, but they could have killed her anyway.
But when I asked her about this, Angelina dismissed these details, focusing instead on the symbolism of the gesture. And as a gesture, her renunciation was very powerful -- a mother-daughter Abraham-Isaac sacrifice story that she relayed on TV and radio and in letters and opinion articles she sent to newspapers around the globe. The year after Angelina refused the rebels' deal, she was invited to the White House by Hillary Rodham Clinton to receive an award. She showed me the first lady's letter and described their ''beautiful'' meeting. Her office wall is filled with plaques of other awards to her and the Concerned Parents Association- from Human Rights Watch, Kofi Annan at the U.N., Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu. She adopted the nickname Mama.
But when Charlotte's mother became everyone's mother, did Angelina's child become no one's child? Angelina denies that rejecting the rebels' deal affected her relationship with her daughter. ''There is no tension between my daughter and me,'' she said testily.
While I was in Lira, the two declined to meet with me together. One night, however, I took Charlotte and the other girls home late. They worried that they would be in trouble with their parents, who still treat them as the children they wish they were. ''Us girls are not supposed to be out after dark,'' Charlotte explained. When we arrived at Charlotte's house, Angelina invited me into the small front room and served Fantas and ginger ales in glass bottles. When she started on a speech about her calling, her daughter's face puckered. She sat, slouched and sullen, as she heard how the Concerned Parents Association gives ''voice to the voiceless'' and how ''the future generation is the future''; then she abruptly stomped out of the room. Her mother didn't appear to register her absence.
When I was alone with Charlotte, she spoke with a flat demeanor, duly answering questions with a dull detachment as if she had little hope of, or interest in, being understood. One night, she and I sat on the porch outside the Concerned Parents Association's office. I asked about the deal her mother turned down all those years ago.
''Yes, yes,'' she said. ''It wouldn't look good for me to be happy with my mother and be leaving my friends behind.'' But her soft voice, with its African-British accent, was hollow.
Charlotte and her friends are fortunate to have families who still want them and are willing to accept the children they bore in captivity -- children many grandparents consider the devil's spawn. Many former child soldiers have returned from the bush to find themselves homeless. They cannot go back to villages where people recall the night they returned with the rebels and massacred their relatives and neighbors -- and sometimes, even, their own parents.
Counselors at the rehabilitation centers regard these cases helplessly. ''How can you tell a boy to go back to grade school and learn arithmetic when he remembers killing his last headmaster?'' asked a counselor.
At World Vision in Gulu, Janet's husband, Charles Otim, 34, told me bitterly that the best option for returning male rebels is to join the Ugandan Army and prove they are no longer enemies of the state. But he is a cripple; he showed me the bullet holes in the metal crutches from the battle where he was shot in the pelvis and captured by the Ugandan Army.
While Otim was still with the L.R.A., he heard on the radio that Janet was free, he told me, and thought about leaving the rebels to join her. I must bring Janet to him, he commanded. I asked if he loved her. ''I have need of Janet'' -- for money and a place to live. As the father, he should have dominion over their children, he added.
Then Janet, who had been talking with some others, walked slowly toward us. She looked as dazed as if she were sleepwalking, drawn against her will to Otim's side -- the man who had controlled her every move for so long. She reached down to where he sat on the bench and touched his neck in a joyless half-hug. They began to speak in Acholi. Janet studied the ground as he spoke, his voice loud and threatening, hers faint and frightened. When I returned a while later to pick her up, she rose to leave. He ordered her to stay, and she froze, momentarily caught between us.
On the ride home, she was silent and withdrawn. She could say nothing of her own feelings, only that she had disobeyed her parents. One of the other girls proposed that when they leave Gulu, they forget that Janet saw him and never speak of it again.
''See, it's erased,'' Charlotte said as the edges of Gulu flattened into soft savannah.
Although the girls learned many things in captivity (how to give birth, forage for potato roots and beat someone to death without crying), they did not learn to think for themselves. Half a year after their escape, it is still difficult for them to say what they want in even the simplest sense. During our excursions around Lira, no one ever said she was hungry or thirsty or had to go to the bathroom -- until I did. When we did go to a restaurant, they all waited to hear what I was ordering, and when drinks came, they waited for me to take the first sip.
Even now, they spoke cautiously of Kony, as if uncertain whether he could still read their minds, as he told them he could. When I asked whether they thought he was true to the Ten Commandments, they were not sure. Then I asked whether they were certain that Kony's powers -- if he has them -- were benevolent.
They puzzled about this. ''We know he's serving a spirit,'' Grace said after a minute. ''We just don't know if it's a good or a bad spirit.''
''Now I'm feeling he has a bad spirit,'' Caroline declared suddenly. ''Before, when I was under his captivity, I thought he had a good spirit.''
''We became confused,'' Grace said. ''When there was a good spirit, he was so friendly and so merciful and so encouraging. When there was a bad spirit, he was very rude and very cruel and gave orders to kill.''
All the girls said they think that Kony, their commander-husbands and the other rebels should be forgiven in accordance with traditional Acholi jurisprudence, which polls of northerners show has significant support. Though peace negotiations began a few months ago, they have stalled over the issue of amnesty because Museveni has recently invited the International Criminal Court to investigate Kony and the high commanders. But Kony wants assurances that he can share the fate of his role model, Idi Amin, who enjoyed luxurious exile in Saudi Arabia.
Charlotte told me that if the rebel commanders are put in prison, ''they will think they are paying for it, so they won't feel it so much. I think someone who has done wrong, carries his shame.'' In the L.R.A., commanders did not ''develop consciences,'' she added. If they returned to see the internment camps, however, created by the war, where ''the suffering is very strong,'' they would ''see their mistakes and be sad.''
Behind the girls' desire for the rebels to be forgiven is their own longing for absolution. One day, as we sat around Grace's living room while her daughter, Mercy Beatrice, chased chickens, Caroline said, ''My future is black.''
''With God everything is possible,'' Grace insisted with bravado.
Although the girls attend church services often, participating in cleansing and healing rituals, and Janet -- who says she wants to be an evangelical preacher -- attends a daily noon service, they seem anxious about their spiritual status. Whether they can make a new life for themselves in difficult circumstances -- study with classmates almost a decade younger, raise children they didn't choose to have and perhaps even realize their shy hopes to remarry -- depends in part on whether they can reconcile themselves to their memories and believe their faith's promise of forgiveness and rebirth.
We were idly chatting when Janet blurted, ''I beat a 10-year old boy to death.'' The boy had been caught trying to escape, and Janet had been chosen to kill him because the commanders knew that she liked him. Janet is large -- both muscular and tall; the rebels praised her for her strength. ''There was blood coming out of his ears and nose,'' she said in a voice almost inaudible. She kept beating him with a big stick; he looked at her ''straight'' as he died.
''I ask God to forgive me,'' she whispered, burying her face in her hands.
A pall fell upon the room.
All the girls looked at me and someone -- Grace, I think -- said, ''What do you think?'' as if my opinion were very important. The girls kept staring, their eyes large and frightened, so I repeated what the counselors at the rehabilitation center in Gulu told me they tell the children: that nothing they did when they were rebels was their fault.
Then the moment was over, and they were light and gay again. Grace asked if I knew a certain hymn, and they sang it for me again and again until I caught each of the words:
Could the Lord ever leave you?
Could the Lord ever forget his love?
Though the mother forsakes her child,
He will not abandon you.
Even though as rebels they were forbidden from singing, ''We sang it,'' Grace said. ''We sang it in our minds, so we knew we were not abandoned.''
They seemed happy as they chattered about preparing to begin at the British boarding school in Kampala next month. But I could hear behind their words an impossible longing that the strict school, with its neat uniforms and fresh notebooks, would turn back the page to their former schoolgirl lives and that all the difficult polarities that followed -- injury and healing, childhood and parenthood, good spirits and bad spirits, guilt and innocence, punishment and forgiveness, pity and judgment -- would be not so much reconciled but, in Charlotte's word, ''erased.'' Then they asked questions about the United States (''Do you have a stove?'' and ''How many tribes are there in America?''), and we walked to the marketplace to buy pineapples