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.”
When the family inquired, officials at CPU, a charity organisation under Save the Child and a UPDF partner, that seeks to assist the returnees, told them it would take another two to three weeks for him to be handed over.
To this day, close to five months, the poor family that survives on lesser subsistence farming and rearing a handful of pigs and chicken, say they are waiting for answers about their son’s repatriation back home which no one is providing.
“To us, it seems like he is in another captivity or they are not telling us something. And we don’t have that money to travel to Gulu every time to visit him,” Achiro explains.
CPU says all is well
The in-charge of CPU, Mr Charles Omonyo, acknowledged Nyeko’s whereabouts but said he was still undergoing treatment.
“Yes, he has been here but we have now handed him over to World Vision” another charity organisation that avails psycho-social support to former LRA fighters before being integrated back to the community.
Mr Omonyo adds that when he was brought to CPU Nyeko had a bullet wound and needed treatment.
Nyeko’s family also indicated that his amnesty certificate has not yet been processed because of his delay at CPU.
But what makes Nyeko’s family edgy about his delayed return home are reports that some returnees, who are mentally fit, are recruited afterwards into the UPDF; because of the Kony intelligence information they know.
Mr Ankunda, however, dismissed such reports, calling them “recycled accusations.”
“We do not keep returnees at CPU for long. It’s just a psycho-social support centre and a transit to other organisations which handles the reintegration,” he said. “But even for recruiting, we have a very competitive process which these returnees would likely fail if they wanted. So it’s not true.”
Amnesty Commission says it’s impossible
In an interview with this newspaper, the Amnesty Commission principal spokesman, Mr Moses Draku, said it is unusual for a returnee/reporter to be in custody for more than a month.
“I am personally not aware of this case but what I know is that a reporter (a person who defects from rebellion) is usually held for a maximum of three months, during the process as they receive the necessary help,” he said. “Usually, when the army receives the reporters, they disarm and bring them to us….
….“We then assess them to ascertain who is eligible for amnesty or not, process their amnesty certificates and later recommend them to our partner organisations for psycho-social help. Depending on their situation, they will be equipped with life survival skills like carpentry and later repatriated.”
They are also given start-off package of Shs263,000. “Those who feel are fit to interact with communities are released early enough and those who cannot, remain under evaluation.”
In early 2000, the government assented to the Amnesty Act, which gave birth to the Amnesty Commission, to cater for Ugandans involved in acts of war-like nature since January 26, 1986.
Amnesty says the repatriation of reporters to society takes two forms, Resettlement or Reintegration.
The body put estimates of those resettled at 26,390 reporters and other 7,129 reintegrated to this day.
Under reintegration, reporters are equipped with survival skills like agriculture, pottery, and bricklaying and others. For resettlement, they are simply settled back into communities where they came from.
“We first agree with them on what they want, so one cannot say they are being held because they are being taught this and that. And also from what I know CPU is not mandated to hold reporters for a very long time,” Mr Draku explained. “It’s organisations like World Vision or Gusco which have large facilities that can do so.”
He, nonetheless, said they would look into the matter.
In Lagwee Dola Village, Lakwana Sub-county in Gulu District, Silvano Odoki’ family equally tells a similar story but on a different script about their son.
Odoki, in his 70s, says his son Alex Opoka was abducted in 1996 aged 13.
“It was early morning as prepared to go to Parak Primary School, in P6,” he recalls. “He was home with his other siblings, while my wife and I had gone to the garden. From a distance we only heard bullets and screams….”
On that day rebels shot dead several people in the area, so when Odoki came back, he thought that perhaps his son had been taken and killed.
“They had killed some children elsewhere so I hurriedly rode my bicycle to that place thinking I could find one of my son but I didn’t. That’s when I lost all hope and I never heard from him until 2013.”
The family heard Opoka’s name mentioned on Christmas Day when about a group of returnees were held at CPU and they decided to give it a try.
“We never had any thought it would be him,” Opoka’s mother, Veronica Auma, narrated. “What was the best day of our life is that when we reached the place he easily remembered our faces. He told us of his ordeal in captivity and what he was forced to do but expressed remorse.”
Like Nyekos’ family, Opoka’s family says they have never met any official at CPU after their first visit but they are longing for the return of their son back home.
His mother, Ms Auma, says she wants to cleanse her son of the blood of innocent people on his hands and other wrong doings, and also perform other welcome rituals.
“The only happiness I live is knowing that my son is alive; but his whereabouts, being still in captivity. Let them give him back to us to perform our rituals then afterwards they can take him back.”
CPU officials told this newspaper that the two were in transit to the World Vision centre in Gulu for rehabilitation.
But Freddie Opoka, an information officer at the centre, denied any knowledge of the two.
“From the group which defected in December, we were only given five returnees in early March but those names are not among them.”
Where are they? At this stage it’s difficult to tell where they are but as a matter of fact; their families are anxiously waiting and hoping that someday they will return home.
CPU declined to comment again insisting the boys had been taken to World Vision.
THE WAR AGAINST KONY
Kony launched the LRA insurrection against the NRM government in the early 1990s and to this date has remained at large, believed to be hiding in CAR.
An estimated 66,000 children are believed to have been abducted to have been conscripted.
Recently, this newspaper reported that Joseph Kony’s son had taken over command of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army field operations in the Central African Republic (CAR).
Brig Sam Kavuma, the Ugandan commander in charge of the African Union Regional Task Force (RTF) pursuing the LRA in CAR, said although Kony is still overall leader of the rebel group, his son, Salim Saleh Kony, has increasingly become more influential and taken over most of the field operations from Dominic Ongwen, who is now sidelined.
The RTF is composed of troops from Uganda, DR Congo, South Sudan and Central African Republic.
“Number one of course is Joseph Kony, Dominic Ongwen is still there, but not active. Kony’s son is actually the most influential commander now,” Brig Kavuma told the Saturday Monitor in an interview in CAR.