Uganda: The struggle to be human again
13 February 2009

A former child soldier during carpentry training in Kitgum, northern Uganda. (Dani Villanueva SJ/JRS)
I felt unhappy being forced to kill, to torture or destroy properties of innocent people but I had no option. The instruction was clear: Obey the orders and live or refuse and perish.
Kitgum, 13 February 2009 – A better life is not something I just want. It is something I struggle for. I wish I had an easy answer to my life’s struggles but I don’t. I am also very skeptical of any one who claims to. 

Living in this state of uncertainty will probably continue for some time yet I have to learn to love these struggles and live my life again. The important thing is that I still have a responsibility, a choice and the initiative to decide how I want to live the rest of my life. 

It was one magnificent night in mid 2002. A breeze kept stirring the trees. While sleeping in my hut at our ancestral home in Kilime village in Kitgum District [northern Uganda], I was picked by the merciless Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). 

I was 16 years old and a primary school student. That night, I was severely beaten and tied with a rope with two other abductees. They forced us to walk a long distance from one village to another and we had to carry heavy loads until we reached Latanya in Gulu District. 

Shocked by the cruelty of the LRA

I was shocked by the bizarre strategies and tactics of the LRA, such as brutal killings, horrible tortures, looting and burning people’s houses. They often terrorised people in the rural areas, leaving behind trails of destruction as their trade mark. 

Villagers were left scared, worried and without hope as the rebels moved from one place to another. The most horrifying were the crude weapons and tools that the LRA used to carry out their horror killings. 

They ranged from simple canes to machetes and axes. Some captives were killed to instill fear in other captives so as to keep them from escaping after witnessing or committing murders. 

While we were in Gulu District I met one of the rebel commanders wanted by the International Criminal Court. He was in charge of conscripting all those who had been abducted into the ranks of the LRA. 

Undergoing the conscription ritual

Under his directive, me and other abductees underwent the conscription ritual which involved severe beatings and torture as a sign of instilling courage in us and also, as a sign that we were soldiers ready for combat. 

We were under instructions to obey the orders of our respective commanders without any hesitation otherwise we risked losing our lives. The first step by which I and other abductees had been admitted in the LRA ranks was now complete. What remained now was the second step which was to undergo training in guerilla warfare and use of various weapons.

While in captivity, I was part of the groups who plundered and looted villages, stole the local population’s food crops, such as cassava, millet and sesame and their cattle, goats and chicken. 

Besides surviving on looted food we also ate wild fruits. Food was rare and often I was hungry for long. Life in the bush was dominated by violence and I witnessed many atrocities, crimes, abductions and fights with the Ugandan army (UPDF). 

Forced to kill

Young men were forcefully conscripted while young girls and women were distributed to the top commanders as wives and mistresses. Any resistance led to instant killing. 

I was also forced to kill. I felt unhappy being forced to kill, to torture or destroy properties of innocent people but I had no option. The instruction was clear: Obey the orders and live or refuse and perish.

The two years in captivity were painful and difficult for me. It was unbearable. I slept, ate and wandered like an animal in the wild. Since I had been with them for long, I had won the trust of some of the commanders. They did not expect me to escape anymore and left me unguarded. I could do things on my own, such as fetching water or bathing. 

Escaping the horror

The opportunity to escape this hell came in 2005. Another fellow abductee and I were sent to collect water from a well. We threw away our water containers and disappeared into the bush. We walked for long, until we reached a base of the Ugandan army. 

We spent about two days with the army before we were sent to a reception centre run by World Vision in Gulu. From there we were transferred to the Kitgum Concerned Women's Association (KICWA) which runs a reception and reintegration centre for children abducted during the unrest and war in Uganda. I spent two months at the centre receiving counselling support and rehabilitation. 

At KICWA, my spirit was uplifted and my beliefs for the future somehow restored. But I found it challenging to take responsibility for my life although I knew I had to. When they said I was ready to be reunited with my family I went home.

Back at square one

I found myself back to square one. I began to live as a displaced returnee in a crowded camp, lacked any tangible means to earn a living, was uncertain of the future and had flashbacks of my bush life experiences. It was the beginning of another struggle in my life. 

In 2008, my community selected me to benefit the skills training programme offered by JRS for young people in vulnerable situations. I opted for a course in carpentry and joinery. 

It was very challenging because I had been out of school for long and found it hard to get used to formal school life. Reading, writing, following rules and regulations and my own traumatic experiences made everything challenging. Yet, I remained determined to succeed. 

A foundation for the future

The training reminded me of the fact that if I struggled hard today, tomorrow would be more promising. The life skills training helped me to cope with communication difficulties and allowed me to reintegrate well in my family and community. 

The works skills training gave me the foundation to earn a living. All these provided me with the determination that I needed in order to regain what I had lost as human being: dignity, self-esteem and resilience.

I was able to complete the course and although I still struggle with life, JRS helped me to get back on my feet. I can face challenges with hope again. I want to work hard to have a better life after all the terrible experiences I went through.