by a former Child Soldier, as told to Godfrey Ogena, Psychosocial Coordinator, Kitgum, JRS Uganda
A better life is not something I just want. It is something I struggle for. I wish I had an easy answer to my life’s struggles but I don’t. I am also very skeptical of any one who claims to. This often stretches me to the limit. Living in this state of uncertainty may continue probably for some time yet I have to learn to love these struggles and live my life again. The important thing is that I still have a responsibility, a choice and the initiative to decide how I want to live the rest of my life.
It was one magnificent night in mid 2002. A breeze kept stirring the trees. It was hard to imagine or believe that a nightmare would happen and the least I expected was abduction.
While sleeping in my hut at our ancestral home in Kilime village in Kitgum District, I was picked by the merciless and renegade Lord’s Resistance Army forces. I was by then 16 years old and a pupil of Pajimo primary school.
I was severely beaten and tied with a rope with two other abductees, made to walk long distances from one village to another often carrying heavy loads until I reached Latanya in Gulu district.
What shocked me were the bizarre strategies and tactics of the LRA, which was characterized by brutal killings, horrible tortures, lootings and burning of people’s houses.
They often terrorized the countryside leaving behind trails of destruction as their trademark. Villagers were often left gripped with fear, worries and hopelessness especially as the rebels wandered from one place to another.
The most horrifying was the crude weapons and tools that the LRA used to make horror killings. This ranged from simple canes to machetes and axes. Some captives were killed as examples to instill fear in other captives so as not to escape after witnessing or being made to carry out the horrible murders.
It was while in Latanya in Gulu that I met one of the rebel commanders on the International Criminal Courts wanted list. He was in charge of conscripting all those who had been abducted into the ranks and file of the LRA.
Under his directives, other abductees and I underwent the conscription ritual which involved severe beatings and torture as a sign of instilling courage in us and also, as a sign that we were soldiers ready for combat.
We were under instructions to obey the orders of our respective commanders without any hesitation, otherwise we risked losing our lives. The first step by which I and other abductees had been admitted in the LRA ranks was now complete. What remained now was the second step, which was to undergo training in guerilla warfare and use of various weapons.
While in captivity, I was ordered to participate in the plunder and looting of villages depriving the local populations of their food crops like cassava, millet and sesame and domestic animals and birds like cattle, goats and chicken.
Besides surviving on looted food, especially root tubers like cassava and potatoes, we also ate wild fruits. Food was seldom available and often I was hungry for too long.
Life in the bush was characterized by violence and I witnessed many atrocities, crimes, abductions and armed engagements with the Ugandan Army (UPDF). Young men were forcefully conscripted while young girls and women were forcefully distributed to the top commanders as wives and mistresses. Any resistance amounted to instant killing.
In Gulu, I was forced to commit all manners of atrocities as well. The instruction was clear: Obey the orders and live or refuse and perish.
Two years in captivity was not only painful but very difficult for me as well. It was unbearable. I slept, ate and wandered like an animal in the wild. Since I had been long enough in captivity, I had won the trust of some of the commanders because I had been there for about two years, which reduced the commanders’ fear of me escaping.
I would have the advantage of going out to do a number of things on my own without being guarded, for example fetching water and bathing. In other words, the risk of me escaping was considered low.
The lifetime opportunity to escape this hell came in 2005. Another fellow abductee and I were sent to collect water from a well. We threw away our water containers and used this God given opportunity to escape. We disappeared into the bush and walked a very long distance to a nearby UPDF detachment close to Latanya.
We spent about two days before we were sent to World Vision Children of War Rehabilitation Centre in Gulu, then transferred to Kitgum Concerned Women’s Association (KICWA) reception center in Kitgum. I spent two months at the KICWA center receiving counseling support and rehabilitation.
I would say my spirit was uplifted and my beliefs for the future somehow restored at KICWA. But, empowerment to take charge of my life remained challenging, yet indispensable. I went home when it was declared that I could be reunited with my family.
There I found myself back to square one. I began to live as a displaced returnee in a crowded camp, lacked any tangible means to earn a living, was uncertain of the future and had flashbacks of my bush life experiences.
This marked the beginning of another form of struggle in my life as a human being. In 2008, I was selected by my community to benefit from the skills training program for the vulnerable youth that was offered by Jesuit Refugee Service.
When I joined JRS Community College I opted to do a course in carpentry and joinery. It was very challenging especially because I had been out of school for very long and found it hard to cope with formal school life. Reading, writing, following rules and regulations and my own traumatic experiences made everything challenging.
Yet, I remained with the determination to succeed. At the JRS community college, the work and life skills training reminded me that if I struggled hard today, tomorrow would be more promising. The life skills helped me to cope with communication difficulties and allowed me to integrate well in my family and community.
The works skills also gave me the foundation to earn a living. All these provided me with the determination, drive and the resilience that I needed in order to regain what I had lost as human being: Dignity, self-esteem and resilience.
I was able to complete my course and although I still struggle with life, JRS has laid the foundation for me. I think what I got has placed me on my feet once more. I can face my challenges with hope again. My plans are to work very hard to have a better life after all the terrible experiences I have had.
Thank you JRS, you have to some extent provided an answer to my life struggles.
May God bless you as you bless other people who find themselves in situations similar to mine.
Article courtesy Jesuit Refugee Service – East Africa
202-462-0400 ext. 5946