LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – "Each time I hear a loud noise or somebody shouting, I feel this compulsion that I should kill somebody."
These are the words of 17-year-old Jean de Dieu who was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) when he was 11.
He escaped three years ago, but he still has some of the reflexes instilled in him by his former masters.
"They (LRA commanders) gave us the training for this. They would make cuts above our eyebrows to put on their traditional medicines to make us strong and to kill without thinking," he told researchers interviewing former LRA members in Congo and South Sudan.
The LRA is a rebel group that originates in northern Uganda, but now terrorises civilians in South Sudan, Central African Republic and Congo. Since it was formed in 1987, the group has abducted an estimated 60,000 children to use as fighters, often forcing them to commit atrocities in their own communities.
Thousands have returned home. But the difficulties returnees face reintegrating in their communities means some say they are tempted to go back to the LRA, according to Back but not home, a study based on interviews with 133 former LRA members and their families in Congo and South Sudan.
Many receive a joyous welcome at first, and most communities initially see them as victims who are not responsible for the atrocities they committed, according to the study by London-based peace-building organisation Conciliation Resources.
But over time that can change to suspicion, especially in villages still at risk of LRA attacks. Locals fear the returnees will act as LRA spies or start killing locals, the researchers found.
Even in communities no longer at risk of attack, families and neighbours struggle to accept them back, believing them tainted or changed by LRA violence and magic, said Emilie Medeiros, the author of the report and a clinical psychologist at University College London.
Some believe abductees still follow the LRA’s teachings and that witchcraft rituals have contaminated their souls and bodies. The antisocial behaviour of traumatised returnees has sometimes strengthened these suspicions.
Pauline, 18, returned home to her parents in March 2013 after spending two years with the LRA acting as a porter.
"We love her so much ... but sometimes she gets into these states of extreme anger," her mother told the researchers.
"If there is conflict between us (her parents) and she doesn't like it, she threatens (her father): 'Just one hit only and I can kill you. If I touch one part of your body you’ll die! Don’t forget that I am an LRA!' She then becomes uncontrollable and we all have to leave the house for a couple of hours until she calms down," she said.
Parents and partners can come under pressure from their communities to distance themselves. Returnees may be bullied, and barred from social gatherings and even their own homes.
Women who were forced to become LRA wives are particularly stigmatised.
Some of the returnees say that coping both with local ostracism and their own trauma had become too much, and they had left home.
In an open letter to their communities, published in the report, a group from Equatorial State in South Sudan said their families and communities began to reject them after they had told people of the atrocities they had committed in the LRA. With noone to lean on and help them cope with the trauma, they had moved to another region.
They still hoped to be reconciled with their families.
"We the LRA abductees, your sons and daughters, regrets and would like to beg your kindness to forgive us ... it was not our intentions to join LRA or to commit those crimes against our own flesh," they wrote.
What helps children reintegrate is going to school and joining in games with other kids. For adults it’s farming or finding work, and support from friends and family, the report said.
Returnees told the researchers that rituals of the region's Zande tribe helped them deal with their traumatic memories, and increased their sense of belonging. The Church’s support of individuals, and group healing sessions led by NGOs have also helped, the study said.
But these have been ad hoc, said Medeiros of UCL’s Mental Health Sciences Department. Authorities need to gather information on the number and needs of returnees, and develop plans for their reintegration with support from donors and national governments, she said in the report.
(Editing by Ros Russell; firstname.lastname@example.org)