WESLEY CHAPEL — These children had endured the atrocities of war in Uganda: abduction, terrorization, transformation into child soldiers or sex slaves.
But their songs of hope brought more than 600 people to their feet Tuesday night at Victorious Life Church, which hosted a performance of the Restore Tour: Child Soldier No More.
"I am on the tour because I want people to understand what God has done in my life," said Apio Flavia, 17, who was abducted and orphaned at age 7. "Because of God I was able to forgive. Forgiveness made all the pain go away. I want people to see me the way I am right now."
The tour features 24 children, ages 9 to 19, who were victimized by war in Gulu, a northern area of Uganda that has been a hotbed of insurgency. They use song and dance to describe what the war did to them. It is the true story of children being taken by force, held captive and forced to fight as soldiers. It is also a story about courage, restoration and unfailing faith.
"This is a story that needs to be told," said Gary Skinner, founder of Watoto, the ministry behind Restore. "These are not actors. These are the real children telling their individual stories."
Skinner and his wife, Marilyn, founded Watoto in 1994 when Gulu was still being terrorized by the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group now estimated to have abducted more than 20,000 children according the State of Uganda 2009 population report, Ugandan Population Secretariat and the 2005-06 Uganda National Household survey.
The Skinners saw a need for hope amidst the devastation. Today, Watoto provides more than 1,700 young people in Uganda with housing, food, medical care and schooling.
Restore is part of Watoto's Project Gulu, a humanitarian effort to rebuild the war-torn village. The project includes orphan care, medical intervention, city development, a program for women and trauma rehabilitation for children of the war.
The performers traveling with Restore have been through extensive Christian counseling and are open to sharing their stories. They will visit 80 churches worldwide before returning to Uganda in six months. The children and tour directors stay with host families along the way.
When the show begins, the people of Gulu are depicted as a happy. Then performers dressed as soldiers violently storm the stage and attack, mercilessly beating screaming women and children.
Midway through the performance, the children tell stories of how they escaped, and hope begins to shine through. They begin to sing in unison, closing their eyes and lifting their hands to praise a God they now know. The audience rises and is invited to sing along.
Victorious Life member Fred Felton works as a missionary visiting countries like Uganda. He was moved by the Restore performance in Wesley Chapel, one of only three scheduled appearances in Florida.
"The show depicts how through the hands of man lives can be broken and shattered, but also how man can bring hope and healing through Jesus Christ," Felton said. "These children will bring to hope to their nation and to the world."
Flavia no longer holds onto memories of the past. She is enjoying visiting America and plans to one day become a doctor in Gulu. She wants to help her people find peace and spread love wherever she goes.
"My life was different before," she said. "I was different before. Love changed me."