Former child soldier, Brazilian bishops work against slavery

WASHINGTON -- When Anywar Ricky Richard was a teenager, he witnessed the murder of his family, was kidnapped by Ugandan rebels twice and forced to fight as a child soldier.

Although he escaped his captors both times, Richard could not run away from the memory of his childhood. In 1999, he founded Friends of Orphans, a nonprofit organization that helps former child soldiers.

Friends of Orphans and several other anti-slavery activists and organizations -- including a Brazilian bishops' agency -- were honored with Freedom Awards Sept. 15 by Free the Slaves and the John Templeton Foundation for their efforts to end forced labor around the world.

When Richard was 14, he and his brother were abducted from his village in northern Uganda, taken more than 30 miles away and forced to fight as child soldiers for the Lord's Resistance Army.

Three-and-a-half years later, they escaped while their captors slept.

"I organized three other boys (including his brother). We didn't know the direction we were supposed to go. ... We were guided by the moon and the stars," Richard, 33, told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview from Kampala, Uganda, in early September. The boys walked under the cover of darkness for three days.

When Richard reached his village, he found his house burned. He also discovered no one would accept him back into the community after he had fought -- albeit forced -- for the rebels. His brother could not bear the murder of his family, the abduction, the horrific things he had been forced to do as a soldier and the rejection from villagers.

His brother was "too traumatized" and committed suicide, Richard said.

Richard was kidnapped again, and his captors knew he had escaped before -- a crime punishable by death.

"I was a very good fighter for them (the rebels)," and thus was allowed to live, Richard told CNS.

Again, under cover of night, Richard escaped. This time, he said, he headed nearly 375 miles south of his village to "a safer place."

He began working as a security guard in a small factory, where he also slept. The owner "saw I was traumatized and needed help," so she covered his schooling fees, and Richard eventually graduated from Kyambogo University. But while working for his first job at the Ministry of Education and Sports, Richard could not stop thinking about other child soldiers.

Calling the phenomenon of kidnapping children to fight as soldiers "humiliating to mankind," Richard said, "I needed to reverse the trend."

Friends of Orphans rehabilitates former child soldiers, orphans and other poor children in Uganda's Pader district. Since abducted girls are used as sex slaves, making them vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases, the organization also has a program to treat HIV and AIDS.

"Our counseling is based on Christian values, trust and honesty," he said.

Free the Slaves says 27 million people -- more than any other time in history -- are currently enslaved. The rise of modern slavery can be attributed to a population explosion in the developing world, rapid economic changes and government corruption, says the Free the Slaves Web site.

In the Brazilian Amazon region alone, as few as 25,000 and perhaps as many as 100,000 people are enslaved, according to estimates by the Brazilian bishops' Pastoral Land Commission. The commission, which has been fighting slavery in Brazil by working with victims and the Brazilian legal system since 1975, also was honored by Free the Slaves.

French Dominican Brother Xavier Plassat, who works with the commission, said that in rural Brazil, "modern slavery mainly involves migrant or seasonal workers who are contracted by farmers, or more often by their middlemen, for temporary jobs on ranches and farms."

When workers are subjected to degrading conditions and their freedom is restricted with "violence, pressures, threats, debt and geographical isolation," then it becomes slavery, he said in an e-mail to CNS.

"When they (slave workers) decide to run away, I mean when they really feel their situation is humanly unbearable, they find a way to run away at their own risk, sometimes taking (advantage) of the night, of some trick or the distraction of their boss or guards, walking on long distances ... to a secure place where they may have their claim listened to," Brother Plassat said. "Others have no difficulty to escape since they live on the farm almost abandoned without any support."

In addition to providing food, protection and legal aid to former slaves, the Pastoral Land Commission tries to raise awareness with phone-card-sized booklets.

The 10-page booklet has comics describing the story of workers enticed into slavery and how they escaped. There's also information about workers' rights, hotlines, a calendar and an identification section.

"A lot of workers ... find us through this booklet since they ... keep it all the time with them," he said.

The Pastoral Land Commission also provides solutions -- such as creating a community food market and mobilizing landless peasants to demand reform -- for people vulnerable to slavery.

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