Wednesday January 29 2014

What it means to be an ex-rebel child soldier

For more than two decades about 30,000 children abducted from northern Uganda provided the fuel for Kony’s cult-like LRA. One of such children shares what it was like living in the rebel camp and why he can never go back home.

From your perspective, I might not come off as a particularly threatening person. You see a bright smile and a politeness that comes with good breeding. This is not as it has always been. I am a former fighter in the rebel ranks of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

I am 22-years-old and a student at a technical institute. I am studying a course in agriculture.
Because of the nature of my past, I cannot come out openly about where or who I am. I understand, though, that one of the ways I can combat the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that I battle with every day is through opening up about the activities I was involved in.

In 1999, the rebels came and took my father and shot him dead. My grandfather died in 2001 so we all went for the burial. We were living in an internally displaced people’s camp called Irada in Lira. While we were burying, we were attacked by the LRA and I was kidnapped.

Forced brutality
The LRA chose young people from the group and as a sort of initiation; we each had perform our first kill. A rebel commander asked me, as he had asked the other boys, “What have you come to do here?” It was a trick question. The life of the recruit depended on how he answered this question. If the recruit answered that he had not come to do anything, he would be killed. The answer that would save the recruit’s life was that he had come to work.

I was lucky to have interacted with some boys who had escaped from the rebels and they had told me what to answer should I be asked this question. There were so many activities I was supposed to do as work. I was charged with cutting of lips of those captured. I would first ask the captive: “Do you want to laugh or not?” If the captive said he wanted to laugh, I would then slice off their lips. If they said they didn’t want to smile or laugh, I would then put holes between the two lips then put a padlock on them.

Alternatively, I would ask the captive if he wanted to wear a long sleeve shirt or a short sleeve one. If they said they wanted a short one, I would then proceed to cut off their arms at the elbows.
If they said they wanted to wear a long sleeve shirt, I would cut around their neck and leave them to bleed to their death.

If a captive was asked if they wanted to see God or not, the answer that would save them would be that they wanted to see God. The rebels had a strange belief that if a person said they wanted to see God and lay face-up, killing such a person would bring a curse upon the LRA.

However, those who said they don’t want to see God were fated to a grisly death. They would be forced to lay face-down and a rebel would hit them on the back of the head with a blunt object until their brains poured out.
If the rebels started killing a group of people, they would strangely leave those who were laying face-up. It was something that always puzzled me.

I was captured in a dramatic way. In January 2002, our unit went to Pajule in Pader District and we got into a fierce fire-fight with the Yoweri rebels (the LRA referred to the UPDF as rebels). I was surrounded, shooting at the advancing UPDF soldiers until I ran out of ammunition. The fire from the soldiers cut the tree under which I was hiding and it fell. There was a big snake, which was also trying to escape the bullets and it came face to face with me. I could not move. That is how the soldiers found and arrested me.

The aftermath
Living with the rebels was a lot better than being away from them. We were given everything we needed. We had no cause to fear venereal diseases because we were all given a drug, which we slipped under our tongues. This served to kill off our sexual urges, so VDs were rare among the rebels. Only the commanders were exempted from this.
I live in constant fear of the people whose relatives I killed. I can never go back to Lira and that goes for many others who were part of the LRA. I have met a number of them around Kampala but they all seem to say the same thing; they are not going back.The Platform for Labour Action (PLA), an advocacy pressure group, was my salvation. They found me at the Rachele Rehabilitation Centre and dissuaded me from joining the UPDF. I thought that was the only job I was capable of doing.

I was diagnosed with PTSD and the doctors told me I would have to rely on drugs for the rest of my life. Today, I have to fend for my sisters and brother, all younger than me. One of my sisters is in Lira and I hear she is involved in bad groups. I have to work at PLA to support my other siblings, who live with me here in Kampala.
Sometimes, it feels like I cannot go on. But I have seen people who have lived through even more adversity picking up their lives and excelling in whatever they do. That is what I know I will do. I shall not give up.

As told to Steven Tendo Send your experiences to