Saturday, April 9, 2011

Former Ugandan Child Soldiers Brace Studies

 Story by Joe Ombuor

After decades of civil strife Uganda’s students of war are striving to re-construct their lives through education to put the frightening bush, blazing guns and brutal blood letting past behind them.In schools across northern Uganda where the Acholi and Langi bore the brunt of a 20-year war led by Joseph Kony’s Lord Resistance Army (LRA), neat school uniforms conceal physical and psychological scars left by a past punctuated with killings, eating of human parts, rape, endurance of horrific torture and maiming, among other atrocities.Many girls were turned into sex slaves or forced into being wives and unwilling mothers of their abductors’ children. Few escaped unblemished.

Patrick Odom, 18, like many students suffered lifelong afflictions that loom distractedly between him and learning whenever the chilling images of darkness and death in the hands LRA come flooding back in his mind.He was a naive seven year-old and in Class Four when, in his own words: "I had a close shave with death that left me without a jaw and several irreplaceable teeth. I would not be like this if Kony was not born," he says. The fugitive rebel leader’s name leaves him mope with disgust.

Painful experience

When he speaks, words leave Odom’s mouth with difficulty. At seven years of age, a bullet shattered his lower jaw, knocking off all the teeth as he and other abductees were caught in a fierce exchange of fire between LRA rebels and the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF).

Eleven years and elaborate surgical operations later, Odom who has undergone plastic surgery in Europe to correct the shape of his mouth courtesy of a non-governmental organisation, carries hideous scars on his face, and complains of pain amid laboured speech.

Now in Senior 4 (Form 4) at Gulu High School, Odom is determined to beat all the odds and realise his dream to one day become a lawyer of the High Court of Uganda and probably a judge to try LRA criminals who almost killed him.Lisping to convey his message across, Odom relives the dramatic moments leading to the near fatal shot that changed his life. "I had just returned home from school when LRA rebels stormed our home. They captured me in my school uniform. "At gun point, they ordered my father and I to accompany them. Three kilometres later, my father was dropped on ‘humanitarian grounds’. We went on to raid a house whose owner stocked sugar, salt and other items. We were looting the shop when gunfire suddenly rented the air. UPDF had surrounded us," he says.

He adds: "When the gun battle died down, lives had been lost and scores, including myself, were nursing serious injuries. UPDF took me to hospital, thanks to my school uniform," he concludes, with tears coursing down his jowls."
Atto Juliet, 20, was in Class Five when rebels struck her grandmother’s house where she lived and took her away in the dead of the night. For several days and nights, she walked barefoot in the bush through Pader and Kitgum to Lira and Soroti. "At base in the bush, I and other girls were taught how to use guns and occasionally were used to humiliate errant men whom we were made to cane with sticks until they, messed on themselves, fainted or bled to death," recounts Juliet."We had to beat them mercilessly or else risk being raped or subjected to other forms of punishment," she adds.

She says since she was only eight-years- old and was therefore lucky not to have been taken in as a wife.

"It was a tough life as many girls were turned into wives by rebel leaders. I was too young and was therefore ‘preserved for the future’. My duties included oiling soldiers’ guns and carrying food," she says.

Juliet who is today a student in Form Five at Gulu High School says life in the bush was hardest during the dry season."We were forced at such times to search the bush for moist earth that we had to dig and use our hands to squeeze out muddy water for cooking and drinking. At times we simply sucked the mud to extract water," she recalls, wincing at the memory.

Nicknamed tin tin (the little one) for her size, Juliet was two days away to a forced marriage to a rebel leader when she and a friend who had also been identified for marriage plotted their escape. She had been in the bush for three months. She says her friend, a Teso girl whose name she gives as Oscar, had failed to honour summons to be a sex guest of a rebel leader, earning all the girls in the camp 50 strokes of the cane each. "Sensing death, we started scheming our escape, knowing well that we would be buried alive if discovered. When the time was ripe on an overcast evening with rains just around the corner, we excused ourselves for a short call and went down on our bellies once our escort appeared distracted and turned his focus elsewhere," she says. Juliet says the escape was scary and the pounding rains made it harder.

Escape from camp

"Several minutes later, we came across a soldier snoring in deep slumber with his gun on his chest. We crawled on into a dense thicket under a tree moments before the skies burst open and the rain started pouring down. We squatted there, drenched to the skin until morning.

Daybreak complicated the situation since they could easily be spotted.

"Marooned by the thickets, we could see the soldiers moving at day break. Only leaves separated us from certain death. For two hours, they continued moving, but three remained behind. A flock of birds suddenly perched on our tree, drawing the men’s attention. We held our hearts in our hands until the men finally left without taking much interest in the tree. Unsure of where they were, Juliet says they walked until they developed blisters on their feet before good Samaritans took them to Soroti from where they were airlifted by army helicopter to Lira barracks where her aunt came to pick her.

Juliet returned to primary school to continue from where she had left and went to Gulu High School after passing her Primary Leaving Examination (PLE). During holidays, she goes back to live in the very house from where she was abducted, thanks to the prevailing peace. Juliet hopes to become a doctor.

Kenneth Kaunda Okelo had just joined a technical school in Kitgum west of Gulu after passing his PLE when rebels raided their dormitories at night and abducted 70 students.

UPDF rescued 67 students but Okelo was not lucky. He and two others ended up in the bush as child soldiers. As fate would have it, the rebels attacked his home soon after his abduction and killed his parents. He was 15.

"Once in the bush, we were trained on combat, use of guns shooting tactics and laying ambush. To gain practical experience, we went out to raid villages and trading centres, shooting and killing as we looted," he says. His education background came in handy as he was assigned to read novels and magazines to the rebels alongside washing their clothes.

"It was this washing duty that gave me the opportunity to escape one and a half years later. People were eating when I pretended to be checking on the clothes that I had hang out to dry. Convinced that nobody was watching me, I ducked into a thicket and slipped into an ant bear’s hole where I remained until nightfall as they searched around with threats to skin me alive," he says.

Okelo walked for six hours under the cover of darkness and another six hours after daybreak.

"I ran into a woman who informed me that rebels had passed by hardly 30 minutes earlier. ‘You are lucky, my son,’" she said, after hearing my story and gave me maize and raw cassava to eat. Another four hours of brisk walk brought Okelo to Pader village where he re-united with his guardian. His prayer to further his education and become a university lecturer some day was answered this year when Invisible Children, a non-governmental organisation agreed to sponsor him at Gulu High School where he is in Form 6.

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