Book review: Ex-LRA abductee revisits horror experience, escape

Book cover. 

What you need to know:

  • Book Title | Escape by Grace: A Story of Abduction and Escape from the LRA
  • Author: Fr Kilama Stephen Raphael
  • Pages: 140
  • Price: Shs20,000
  • Where: Aristoc Bookshop

Escape by Grace: A Story of Abduction and Escape from the LRA by Fr Kilama Stephen Raphael is one of those books that stay with you long after you have put them down.

In dramatic fashion, the book begins in 2003 when 41 minor seminarians were abducted from Sacred Heart Minor Seminary Lacor in Northern Uganda by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Kilama and several other abductees eventually escaped or were rescued from the death grip of LRA conscription and thereby returned home.

However, eleven of these children, the author himself was 16 at the time, are still missing with no information about them.

The LRA struck as the night sky was aglow with an incandescent light. Still, there was a nip in the air. And the pale crescent moon shone like a silvery award each second of the night.

There seemed to be a subdued studding of the sky as an array of stars stretched to infinity. It was somewhat serene. Then, the sudden sound of gunfire tore through the air to rent the silence of the night.

“I still could not believe it not until a bullet was fired in the dormitory, smashing one of the window glasses into pieces followed by a chorus of ‘Yabo dogola’, literally meaning: ‘Open the door!’ From the way the voices sounded, I guessed they were young people—a suspicion I later confirmed to be true. They continued breaking the window glasses with the aid of small axes, pangas and the butt stock of their guns,” writes Kilama.

Soon, Kilama and his fellow seminarians were taken by the LRA. As was the rebel group’s wont, the children were distributed to the various LRA commanders who carried the dubious title “Lapwony” or teacher as Uganda People’s Defence Forces helicopter gunships roamed above with menacing intent.

“The system was: Kamdul would call a commander and then instruct him to choose say three or two of us of his choice. The cycle would continue until all were distributed under the leadership of the various commanders,” writes Kilama.

Initiation ceremony
After being given a “Koi” (gang), the initiation of the boys began as they were taken aside and prayed for before being anointed with moo yaa (shear nut oil). The moo yaa came out of a small container with a thread worn around the neck of a rebel called Ojok.

This was nothing new, says the author, for the entire rebel commanders carried moo yaa in small plastic or glass containers with threads worn around their necks.

One of the first to be anointed was a seminarian called Patrick. Then Kilama’s turn came as the anointer prayed in silence with his eyes firmly closed while holding the moo yaa container in his hand.

“I was then ordered to take off my shirt, after which he made the sign of the cross with his right hand thumb which had been dipped in the moo yaa on my back and chest,” Kilama writes, adding, “He then told me that what I had just gone through had qualified me as one of them and that should I risk trying to escape, the moo yaa would lead them to catch me or it would make me lose my way and instead return to them unknowingly.”

Parallels with Lakwena
Here we see the mystical and mythical powers of the rebels as they use mind games to control their conscripts.

This initiation brings the reader to the eerie remembrance of Alice Lakwena, the self-declared prophetess and priestess-warrior who claimed magical powers in the mid to late 80s. She founded a sect, the Holy Spirit Movement, which in 1986-87 came shockingly close to overthrowing the then fledgling regime of President Yoweri Museveni.

To do so, Lakwena convinced some 7,000 to 10,000 believers that if they smeared their chests with shea nut butter-oil, the bullets of Museveni’s forces would turn into water. They did not. Instead, the fighters of the Holy Spirit Movement were mown down in large numbers.

Unlike Lakwena, Kilama does not get involved in pitched battles with government forces. However, that does not stop him from witnessing his first murder. This is described in lurid, if mercifully facile, detail in chapter 6 of the book.

“A boy, probably 15 years of age, attempted to escape but unfortunately he was caught. Lapwony Oryem and other armed rebels ran fast to the scene. Without wasting time, they began raining blows at him from all angles and battering him with the butt stock of their AK-47 rifles,” Kilama writes.

“While already on the ground, the poor boy screamed at the top of his voice, pleading, ‘Lapwony tima kica! Weka do! Dong pe abitemo lwii doki’, meaning: ‘Please Teacher, forgive me! Spare me, I will never attempt to escape again.’ That did not stop his tormentors from continuing to beat him.”

The boy was soon dead, but the beatings continued to be inflicted on his lifeless body. This did not make sense and recalled a scene from Albert Camus’ book, The Outsider (also known as The Stranger.). Mersault, the protagonist of Camus’ opus, repeatedly shoots at the already dead body of an Arab he killed. This brings about the absurdity of life as Camus vividly shows how our lives amount to very little in the overall scheme of things. And so, whether we are killed and killed again, does it really make any difference?
After all, we are all going to die.

Riveting second part
Experiences in Captivity, the second part of Kilama’s book, is riveting. At one point, a rebel called Ojara is caught stealing and his punishment is to take on, in a trial of strength, eight other rebels in a fistfight. As fisticuffs ensue, the book draws you in.

“The eight recruits circled Ojara in the middle as the other rebels cheered them on. Ojara took off his grey long-sleeved shirt very fast and tied it around his waist. He then clenched his hands, making very firm fists, ready to fight. His readiness to fight seemed to scare the eight recruits up against him as none of them was willing to make the first move to attack him,” Kilama writes.

Ojara acquits himself fairly well.
“Ojara began shouting, ‘Binu! Binu! Anekowu weng’, meaning: ‘Come! Come! I will kill you all.’ He then raced directly towards one of them who in turn took off at a terrific speed past the rebels who were cheering them on,” the book narrates.

However, Ojara is soon overwhelmed when the rebels ranged against him are given the stark option to kill him or be killed themselves.

Indeed, throughout the book, there are grisly scenes in which blood is routinely and macabrely spilled. You simply will not be able to believe the brutality of these savages. But then again, you are also implicitly reminded that if you were in such a situation you may have acted in similar fashion.

To be sure, the classic book “Lord of the Flies”, a novel by William Golding which was first published in 1954, reminds us how cruel we can all be. Through the story of a group of British boys stranded on an uninhabited island, Golding ably evokes the theme of the inherent savagery of humankind as the boys become more and more savage and animalistic as they spend more time on the island.

Kilama and his fellow “recruits” are also children who degenerate into barbarism. Thankfully, though, he finally escapes this pass by grace.