Around 2006, Desmond was abducted by rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) when he had started going to school in Kitgum District.
The 18-year-old former child soldier remembers one of the names of his former teacher was called John.
He also recalls his father was a UPDF soldier and was living at Pajimo Barracks (Kitgum). He was called Nelson Okello.
“I recall I was abducted when I was in Primary One. I don’t remember my mother’s name but people used to call her Mama Mukasa or Mama Boy,” he says.
Desmond, whose mental coordination is improving progressively, says he was abducted together with two other boys, Okot and Opira but “all of them were killed.”
In LRA captivity, Desmond says abducted children often use pseudo names to conceal their identities and to protect themselves and their families in case they escaped from LRA captivity. They continue using different names and those are the names they are known with. They use pseudo names such as Acel me apar (tithe).
What actually confirms Desmond was formerly abducted by the LRA is that two former abductees have recognised him. A former child soldier from Agago District, Bosco Nyero, says Desmond was very young when they were still in the bush.
Mr Nyero says they had been together in the same group with him for some time.
“Around 2006, as we attempted to cross to South Sudan for the second time, I was shot in crossfire between the LRA and the UPDF soldiers and was rescued by the latter,” he says.
Desmond says they crossed to South Sudan and continued to the Democratic Republic of Congo and down to Central African Republic (CAR). In CAR, he escaped with 14 other boys.
“We left in a truck pretending to be going to a trading centre in Central African Republic in June 2017 but our intention was to escape. When one of the LRA commanders sensed that we were escaping, he shot at us killing seven of my friends. We ran in disarray and we were able to regroup in the jungle,” he says.
Three remaining boys abducted from Uganda went up to South Sudan.
“I remember we met a man there who kept us in his house and gave us clothes to change because he feared that if anyone saw us in military attire we would be harmed. He then prayed for us. That man negotiated with some truck driver who brought us up to the border,” he says.
“Since my father had told me that he comes from Lango, they handed me to another truck driver who brought me up to Gulu and from there I was brought to Lira.”
The North Kyoga regional police spokesperson, Mr David Ongom Mudong, said Desmond was later arrested in Lira by a security guard after being found stranded. The guard then handed him over to police upon which he was kept under custody at Lira Central Police Station for several days before he was handed over to the Uganda People’s Defence Forces,
This reporter understands the army only wanted to extract information from the former child soldier apparently to help them track down LRA leader Joseph Kony. After failing to extract any vital information because of his unstable mental coordination, the military handed him to a Lira-based child rights organisation, Children of Peace Uganda (CPU) in August 2017.
To date, the former child soldier’s home or parents have not been identified. CPU has created a space in their office, which he now calls home.
“We are here with him and we don’t know for how long,” says Ms Jane Ekayu, the executive director of Children of Peace Uganda.
“When he was brought, we first welcomed him, greeted him with a smile and he returned back our greetings with a smile. He was looking round, unsure who is going to hit him.”
“When asked what he wanted to eat, Desmond replied he wanted ringo amor (bush meat). Eventually he zeroed on chicken after realising that bush meat was not found in Lira Town, when we brought him fish, he asked whether it was not a snake,” Ms Ekayu says.
At this point, Desmond was asked to draw anything. Unsurprisingly, he drew pictures of different guns and military trucks, and wrote his name as Desmond Mukasa.
Later, he was taken to a mental health unit at Lira Regional Referral Hospital where experts at the facility established he was suffering from high level of psychological trauma.
Mr Geoffrey Ojok, the programme manager, says while at CPU, the traumatised young man is always taken through a series of counselling sessions. He is also provided with food, accommodation and medical care.
“I made contact with Kitgum Primary School but unfortunately the new head teacher there failed to trace any record for Primary One to Primary Three for 2004 and 2005,” he says.
Slowly but surely, Desmond appears to be recovering from the trauma he suffered while in captivity. Today, he likes eating rice, chicken and fish.
Ms Ekayu explains one of the signs you will see when somebody is recovering from psychological trauma is that they begin to care for themselves. Boys begin to make cut on their hair while girls begin to plait their hair.
The second stage is when they begin to dream about their future; some of them want to go back to school and get skills.
“I am seeing that happening with Desmond. He wants to grow tomatoes and maize when rain returns,” she says.
Currently, Desmond participates in projects such as fish farming, poultry keeping and operating a grinding mill. He is also taken to speak to other children in the community.
“I always tell them how lucky they are, they have opportunity to study unlike the abducted children,” says Desmond.
Mr Bernard Akaki, an agriculturalist says Desmond is very active and happy. “He likes work so much,” he says.
While interacting with the child on January 9, 2018, the Lira woman Member of Parliament, Ms Joy Atim Ongom, says the parents of the abducted children could be dying to see their children.
“The pain of mothers is not healed because of losing a child who is not dead and buried,” she says.
Led by Joseph Kony, a rebel leader who claims to be religiously inspired, the LRA waged war across five countries in East Africa and Central Africa for over two decades.
The group has been blamed for the deaths of more than 100,000 people and the abduction of 60,000 children. It relied on the abduction of largely defenceless villagers and refugees, more so children, to provide combatant and labour. Girls were forced into sexual and domestic slavery while boys were forced to take up arms. Their major target was children of the ages between seven and thirteen.
Figures from Uganda’s amnesty commission show that approximately 26,000 people have so far been pardoned on returning from LRA captivity. More than 5,000 of these are female – and two-thirds of them are under the age of 27.