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Painter Takes Art Therapy to Young People in Uganda

Former child captives of rebels worked with American artist Ross Bleckner, a U.N. goodwill ambassador. Transcript of radio broadcast:

This is the VOA Special English Development Report.

In recent years, rebel groups in northern Uganda have often kidnapped children. They use boys as soldiers and girls as sex slaves. Some children are later released. Others escape.

Now, some of these former captives have learned to express their feelings through art. They worked with an American artist known for paintings that deal mainly with loss and remembrance.

Ross Bleckner is an art professor at New York University. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has named him as a goodwill ambassador to combat human trafficking. That title became official at a recent ceremony in New York for the opening of an exhibition called "Welcome to Gulu."

There were two hundred paintings by young people from Gulu, Uganda. Most of the paintings were sold to raise money to assist the former captives. Ross Bleckner also donated some of his own paintings to sell.

He held art therapy sessions with twenty-five young people in Gulu earlier this year. Many were kidnapped as young as age nine, and many have lost their parents. They are now thirteen to twenty-one years old.

Some of the children reportedly were forced to kill or harm other children while part of the Lord's Resistance Army. The International Criminal Court is seeking the arrest of the rebel group's leader. Joseph Kony is charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Ross Bleckner had never been to southern Africa before he set up his workshop classes in Uganda in January. He began by teaching basic methods of painting. His students were very quiet at first, he says, but that changed as they started to trust him.

He told the students that each one had a story that was special, and that each one of them was special. Their stories were sad, and they painted their feelings. But he also asked them to think of something beautiful and paint that, too.

The young people worked hard, he says, and kept him busy fourteen hours a day. But he says he felt the greatest satisfaction when a thirteen-year-old painted the word "gun" and then put a big "X" through it.

Some of the young people painted Joseph Kony. They still feared him. But Ross Bleckner says, "With everything they have been through, they are hopeful."

And that's the VOA Special English Development Report, written by Jerilyn Watson, with reporting by Cagla Guvelioglu in New York. For a link to see works from "Welcome to Gulu," go to I'm Steve Ember.