Agago- Just about 25 years ago, Obua Nyeko was an innocent school-going child in Primary Three [P3] at Olupe Primary School in Omot Sub-county, present-day Agago District.
One early morning as he prepared to go school, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels attacked the village; his relatives hurried off into hiding but the 12-year-old did not make it into hiding.
The rebels thus abducted Nyeko and scores of other children from the village and it was the last time his relatives heard of him.
“He was the last born in the family and the joy he brought to us was immeasurable,” Nyeko’s elder brother recounts the events seared forever in his memory. “I have never forgiven myself as the oldest brother that when the rebels attacked the first thing I thought of was my life. I could have saved him.”
Mr Santino Odida narrates: “I remember our mother cried for days, weeks, months and later for years, until she died in 2001” after suffering bouts of epileptic episodes and trauma, but she always cried for her son.
Guns went silent in 2005/2006 and consequently Joseph Kony and his LRA band retreated to present day South Sudan and eventually further East into the Mangrove jungles of Central African Republic (CAR).
But Nyeko’s family is yet to heal from the scars inflicted by the war.
When the war intensified, the family shifted to an Internally Displaced Camp (IDP) in Gulu but later relocated to Olupe Village; a village that to this day comes out as a lonely hard-to-reach place. The population is sparse and communities are inestimably isolated from each other by shrubs and thickets.
Nyeko’s family says he was conscripted into rebel activities and every day they toil with the idea [of possibility] that their son was always part of the band that struck the unbridled tragedy everywhere they passed. The little solace is that he was taken as young boy and whatever he did, if any, was as a result of the conscription.
Ms Achiro Hellen, a sister-in-law in the family, however, says they never heard from him from 1989 until 2005, when one former abductee from the village tattled that he had seen a face familiar in Sudan, and later another said “he was a high ranking officer in the LRA in CAR” and his new name was “Okure.”
“We always dismissed this talk as rumours,” another brother, Paul Oneka recounts. “We had lost all hope. All attempts to locate him yielded nothing and in fact both parents died” dejected lives of the thought of their son vanishing into thin air.
In December 2013, a group of 19 LRA fighters surrendered to the UPDF detach in CAR. The group, according to the army spokesperson, Lt Col Paddy Ankunda, “under the Commander of self-styled Lt Col Nyeko surrendered with 9 SMGs.”
Col Akunda, then, said all “the defectors were Ugandans of Acholi and Itesot origin” including six children and would be availed psycho-social rehabilitation and be repatriated later.
The defection, so far the biggest, was widely celebrated and covered in the media but Nyeko’s family deep in Agago did not hear or read about it until three weeks later in January 2014.
The family says, through one returnee who had been rehabilitated at a phsyco-social centre, Child Protection Unit (CPU) in Gulu and was being repatriated to the village, they heard of the name Nyeko for the third time; this time being in Uganda.
“This time we had to find out first,” Odida, speaking through a translator, narrated. “We first discussed this as a family for quite some time and later mobilised resources by selling one of our pigs to go to Gulu two weeks later.”
The little disappointment was he could not remember any of their faces but the family says the joy of seeing a familiar face was immense. They hurried to hug him but he seemed totally confounded by the merrymaking and was a little indifferent to them.
“It took three hours with him for his memories to come back slowly. The first person he familiarised with was one of our uncles whom he was so close to as a child.” Odida says. “At CPU, I was accompanied by six other relatives but we’re all shedding tears [of joy]. We wanted to come back with him home but there were restrictions.”