Children who braved LRA death traps to attend school

Friday March 13 2020

In memory. Willy Chowoo points at a monument

In memory. Willy Chowoo points at a monument bearing names of people who died in the Atiak massacre in 2001. PHOTO BY STEPHEN OKELLO 

By Irene Abalo Otto

Willy Chowoo was an errand boy for Vincent Otti, the commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), who was a family friend.
But later, the LRA rebels shot Chowoo’s father, leaving him seriously injured. At the age of five, Chowoo went to enroll at Pupwonya Primary School in present day Atiak Sub-county, Amuru District.
But the teachers sent him back home on first day of reporting, saying he was too young for school. The second attempt at the age of six was also frustrated.
Chowoo enrolled in Primary One in 1988 at the age of seven to learn letters of the alphabet and rhymes that contemporary kindergarten children learn at the age of three.
Chowoo, now aged 39, says having an exercise book and pencil those days was for a privileged few. He says children would sit under mango trees and write on the bare ground under the close watch of a teacher who carried a stick.
Chowoo says he remembers walking to school on bare feet as was common among the village folk in the 1980s and 1990s. But he has defied all odds to become a successful IT and digital journalist today.
Before the LRA rebels led by Joseph Kony began plundering villages in northern Uganda, killing people and abducting children into rebellion in 1987, his deputy Otti was a friend of Chowoo’s family in Atiak.
“I remember Otti telling me: ‘Willy, you are going to be a very intelligent boy.’ I was only seven years old and I used to bring for him chairs. We sat around the fireplace with my dad and I would overhear some of their conversations about how the people of Atiak would be taught a lesson if they continued sleeping at the centres,” Chowoo recounts.
Chowoo, like other children in his village, remembers nothing else but war. “From 1993 to 1995 when the LRA insurgency intensified in northern Uganda, the situation at Pupwonya Primary School became unbearable,” he says.
“The LRA were everywhere. They picked two of our brothers and killed them this side. The situation here was not favouring education,” Chowoo recounts.
It is estimated that 10,000 people were killed during the two-decade insurgency while twice the number of children was abducted. More than 1.7 million people were displaced from their homes to live in squalid camps for internally displaced persons, which the rebels occasionally attacked.
The children used to hide in the bush with their parents or relatives to avoid abduction. Chowoo would revise his books under moonlight in the bush to keep pace with others at school.
He adds that residents found themselves sandwiched between two hard dangers.
“If you do not get land mine on the road, you are captured. If you are not captured, a colleague is murdered somewhere. If a colleague is not murdered, a mother or father of your colleague is killed. The thinking was, ‘why should I continue with education yet the next day I will not be alive? So many people dropped out of school due to the insurgency in Atiak,” Chowoo recalls.
The rebels would appear from anywhere unexpectedly and wreak havoc. The army unit could at times be overwhelmed.
“Living here became Lam dogi (a matter of life and death). The trauma was too much. For me I survived two close attempts to capture me. The first time they got us inside the house. I had to move out through the window. They chased me for about half a kilometre at night. Then the second time they got us outside in the compound at night. I ran away. So the imagination, the psychological torture in your mind was, ‘will I be alive tomorrow?’” Chowoo recalls.
He says pursuing education was a challenge given that his father, a former police officer, entirely relied on his pension of Shs120,000 to look after him, his four siblings and other dependents.
Then the burden turned into a tragedy. The rebels shot his father in the collar bone a year before Chowoo could sit Primary Leaving Examinations in 1994.
His father was attacked by the rebels on his way from Gulu District where he used to pick his pension from. After his father’s injury, hopelessness hovered high. The hope for tuition fees diminished. His family relocated to Gulu Town for safety.
Chowoo says most children used to sleep on shop verandahs, hospitals and schools for fear of abduction by LRA rebels in the countryside.
In 1996, Chowoo enrolled for first term in Primary Seven at Murchison Falls Primary School in Gulu Town. The school no longer exists today. He says he did casual labour such as laying bricks to pay his school fees. That year, he sat his exams and passed in second grade.

School struggles
“I got a second grade with Aggregate 13. I was admitted to Gulu Secondary School but I decided to repeat. During the short holidays I would do some quarry work. We used that work at Holy Rosary Primary School to raise school fees. Another friend and I joined Primary Seven again,” he says.
Chowoo finally scored Aggregate Seven and was among the best five in Gulu District.
He later joined St Joseph’s College Layibi but he could not afford tuition for boarding. He left the school to do casual work to raise fees to enable him continue his studies.
Chowoo says he would sneak into school to borrow notes from other students. He copied and read their notes without attending class for most of his Senior Four year.
He sat Uganda Certificate of Education exams after clearing the fees arrears and passed in second grade with Aggregate 36.
“Now another hard journey for Advanced Level started. They gave me a combination of Physics, Biology, Chemistry and Mathematics. My dream of becoming a medical doctor was there. I wanted to do that combination,” Chowoo says.
But due to lack of school fees, he stayed home for a year.
Chowoo returned to doing casual work in order to get money to pursue a certificate course at Makerere University branch in Gulu. He went through a lot more hardships until finally he got formal employment. He then took himself back to school and now holds a Bachelor’s Degree in IT from Gulu University.
He works with a team on new technology that uses smart phones to replace a radio studio and affordable solar power to replace expensive national grid electricity or generator.
According to the Gulu University vice chancellor, Prof George Openjuru Lada, the end of the LRA war has seen more children in the region attain education.
“There are programmes, what we call the high end ones, such as medicine. Not many people from this area are pursuing them. Out of a population of 70 new graduands, you get like five. I believe the recovery of these schools after the guns went silent have started, students who studied from schools around here are coming,” Prof Openjuru says.

The Uganda National Bureau of Statistics 2017 report indicates that Uganda’s literacy rate was at 72.2 per cent of the population aged 10 years. In Acholi Sub-region, 14.4 per cent had never been to school. The literacy rate in Acholi stood at 65.9 per cent (633,283 people).

Efforts. Mr David Mwaka and wife Susan at their
Efforts. Mr David Mwaka and wife Susan at their farm store in Omoro District. PHOTO BY STEPHEN OKELLO

After LRA, locals now wary of land mines
In 2007, Ambassador David Mwaka abandoned his diplomatic privileges in Kampala and returned to his ancestral home in Ongako Sub-county, Omoro District.
Mr Mwaka returned home a year after government had declared voluntary return of people from the internally displaced people’s (IDP) camps in northern Uganda after the end of the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency.
At his home, you are welcomed by geese, turkeys, chicken, ducks, goats, pigs and sheep, among others. At 74, he looks physically fit and his polished British accent has not deserted him.
Mr Mwaka, a former ambassador to DR Congo, says his return was intended to show his community that peace had been restored so people could emulate him and return home to rebuild their livelihoods.
However, a lot had changed during the two decades of violence and death.
The deserted former homesteads had turned bushy and in their place stood ruins, human skeletons and unexploded ordnances.
Mr Mwaka says he was perturbed by how his father’s grave had been vandalised. He adds that he had returned to an empty home.
“My father’s grave was vandalised by rebels. They wanted to open up the grave. I don’t know what they wanted. This was a very difficult period for people in northern Uganda,” Mr Mwaka narrates.
He says together with his wife Susan, they started rebuilding their retirement home.
“My wife and I came here alone. It was a very daring thing to do. All people in this area were still in the IDP camps in Alokolum,” Mr Mwaka says.

“But I came and stayed here. No matter the risk I wanted to stay in my home. I have a home in town but I was tired of staying there. I wanted to live here, my home village,” he adds.
He says as time passed by, many people started leaving the IDP camps and returning home.
However, Mr Mwaka says since people returned to their homes 15 years ago, they live in constant fear of being killed by unexploded bombs which were abandoned during the insurgency. Mr Mwaka says one time when his sister was digging in the garden, she retrieved a big number of live ammunition. He says he called the police and the bomb squad removed them.
Mr Mwaka says later, his sister hit a bomb, which exploded, but she survived unhurt. He says a few months ago, another bomb was found near a local school.
Mr Patrick Jimmy Okema, the Aswa region police spokesperson, says the districts most affected by unexploded ordnances are Amuru, Nwoya, and Pader which were the epicentre of the insurgency.
He says police and army have mapped 206 locations with unexploded ordnances in the region.
“We have been doing a lot of removal of these unexploded ordnances with the help of the army’s engineering department. Last month, they moved to Paicho and removed about four of them [unexploded ordinances],” Mr Okema says.
However, he says they have faced a challenge of some residents who demand compensation before bombs are removed from their land.
“Some of those things [compensation] were being done during the insurgency when the NGOs were still there but now they are not there and government cannot commit itself on compensation,” Mr Okema explains.
Growing Threat
Over the years, unexploded ordnances (UXOs) such as landmines, grenades, mortars and artillery shells have claimed many lives and crippled others in northern Uganda. Last year, at least six people were reportedly hit by UXOs, claiming lives of four of them.