BY Peter Diamond | March 29 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print

Children Photographed in the Gulu region of Northern Uganda on the 27th Jan 2019.

Robbed of their childhood: Untold casualties of war in Uganda

In the second article from his trip with SCIAF, Peter Diamond interviews three former child soldiers who receive vital aid from the Wee Box Appeal.

Patrick’s story

Perhaps the most extraordinary person I met on my travels to Uganda with SCIAF was Patrick Odinga, a 22-year-old man who was born under a tree in the bush as his mother, a child soldier, ran away from government soldiers.

This tall, striking man was consumed with a look of sadness that had probably been chipping away his character all of his life, and yet he spoke with such anguish about the solitary path he has trodden since escaping the wrath of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Sitting outside his house paid for by one of the local Catholic nuns, under the extremely hot Ugandan sun, Patrick told me how his mother was abducted by a man now facing trial for war crimes at The Hague: “My mother was running from government soldiers the day she gave birth to me—she was heavily pregnant and I was born under a tree in the bush.

“She had been captured by the LRA at the age of 20 by Dominic Ongwen, a rebel commander who abducted her from the village. He is now on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

“My mother was forced to marry another rebel commander, Julius Okello, who was later shot and tortured by the government soldiers.”

Fighting the government

Just like his mother, Patrick had to undergo training but he revealed how his mother’s story as women was slightly different.

“She had an AK-47 gun that was used against government soldiers but the women were always sent to the frontline along with the children,” he said.

“She told me that one day they were surrounded by government soldiers in the field and she had to shoot her way out. As she ran past the soldier she had murdered she took his gun and stole his uniform.

“She then said, ‘My son I didn’t wish any of this but I did it under force.’”

Patrick told me of the day his mother tried to escape the torment of the LRA with other rebel women who were fetching water but the government soldiers had been spying on them and ambushed them at the well.

“We were with the women who were planning to escape but when the soldiers started shooting at us my mother received a bullet and told me ‘run my son save your life,’ and I did along with three other children.

“We did not run far from them but we just hid for hours and then when the shooting stopped we went back.

“I was constantly crying after seeing my mother lying shot dead and spent three days by her side as I kept checking to see if she was dead.

“The two other children and I lived off wild fruits for the three days but one of the children died and then the LRA found me again sitting beside my mother crying.”

No funeral

The mother never received a burial; instead her body was thrown and hidden to cover the rebels’ tracks and the children from that moment were trained to become soldiers themselves.

“I was only four but they trained us immediately after that day, they gave me sticks and I was told to pretend it was a gun.

“Then they made guns out of wood and all our schooling was structured around warfare.

“Teachers who had been captured taught us mathematics about guns and distances and how far the target was.

“We were made to run holding the guns with stones in sacks on our backs for one kilometre.

“They wanted us to be true rebels and they anointed our heads with oil at the age of six, telling us we were true soldiers.

“At eight years old I was so dangerous. They told us to destroy anything around us; they wanted us to defeat the government.

“I slapped a commander out of anger one day and he laughed in my face and said, ‘this is good.’

“By the age of nine I was participating in robberies in South Sudan with real guns but I struggled to carry mine.”

Patrick Odinga, ex child soldier shares his story and the help he gets from SCIAF. Simon Murphy Photography

Patrick Odinga, ex child soldier shares his incredible story of survival and the help he now gets from SCIAF. (Simon Murphy Photography)

Regret

Patrick began sobbing as he revealed that one dark night during his years as a child soldier he was forced to murder an old man. He insisted it was the only time he ever killed anyone, which still haunts him.

“We were burning grass hut roofs in a village and under instruction of the commander I pointed a gun at a man who was trying to run away.

“The man was very old and he stood and laughed and told me, ‘I give you a blessing,’ and said he was desperate to die because people in the village had been mistreating him.

“He gave me Rosary beads before I shot him with my eyes closed because I didn’t want to shoot him.

“Under the instruction of the rebel commander I was forced to drink some of the man’s blood in a cup because he didn’t want the spirit to haunt me.

“I felt bad. I did it under instruction, I couldn’t refuse. One day when I escaped a priest told me that God has forgiven me and that I was free again but sometimes I am not satisfied. I still ask for forgiveness every time I go to prayers on Sunday.”

After the murder Patrick felt sick, lost his appetite and promised himself he wouldn’t kill again. Seven months later at the age of nine he managed to escape with a group of women and children.

“My friends really loved me and one of them told her mum, ‘Let’s not leave Patrick, he has nobody,’” Patrick said.

“For three weeks we walked day and night and it was very difficult because I had no family. One day they segregated me for three days and I wished I was dead.

“They tried to chase me away and at one point I planned to go back to the rebel camp but I had come too far—I was only 10 years old.”

‘I think today will be my last’

Patrick travelled alone for three days in the bush without water and he revealed how he came face-to-face with a lion during that time. Naturally, he thought he was going to die.

“I had to climb the trees to escape lions and I remember thinking, ‘God I think today will be my last,’ but it wasn’t and after three days I managed to find my friends,” he said.

“They felt pity for me, they took me in again when they were fetching water and said, ‘Patrick, we thought you were dead.’”

It was again at a well when they were captured by the government and taken to army barracks for interrogation about the LRA before being sent to Gulu, where they were rehabilitated.

“The charity that helped us got us on the radio and tried to help us trace our relatives.

“A man once claimed to know my mother and took me to his village for two days but it was a mistake, he didn’t know my mother.

When they found I had been a child soldier they chased me like a chicken. I was now on the streets, I had no hope and I became addicted to town life.”

Life on the streets

On the streets Patrick started stealing to feed himself and lost a close friend, Issac, who starved to death. He couldn’t bury him so he had to dump him in the river.

“My only friend on the street, Issac, died and I carried his body and dumped him in the river —I couldn’t bury him because I had no spade. He was 11.

“I decided to travel to Kitgum, a town 100km from Gulu. It took me five days to get there on foot because I thought maybe I would find someone I knew.

“Within one week I was back in Gulu and began stealing again but this time I used the money to start a business and that’s when I started selling boiled eggs on the street.”

After one year on the street, begging for food and ravaging bins, Patrick met an old friend from the bush, Stella, who helped him get into school. There he was bullied and faced stigma for being born in the bush.

However, in 2015, SCIAF and Comboni Samaritans assisted Patrick with counselling, training, tools and rented land for farming.

Patrick said: “Comboni Samaritans did a lot for me I got counselling, training and I now help child soldiers and people born from the bush. I help them with forms and meetings.

“SCIAF gave me farming tools and skills to grow crops like cassava in order to pay for my education.

“My prayer is that it will continue as I am beginning to feel better about my life and one day I hope to become a journalist.”

 

Brenda’s story

Brenda Angom, ex child soldier revisits the horrors of her past and explains how SCIAF have transformed her life. being provided aid by Scottish charity SCIAF. Simon Murphy Photography

Brenda Angom, ex child soldier revisits the horrors of her past and explains how SCIAF and their partners have helped transform her life. (Simon Murphy Photography)

 IN a rough part of Gulu town in a basic mud hut structure Brenda Angom revealed she was married off to a Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander at the age of 13.

As she told her already horrifying story to my group, who were vistiting with SCIAF, that the man whom she wed was 70 years old and brutally raped her ‘wedding night,’ no one could hold back the tears as we learned of how Brenda’s entire childhood was snatched away leaving her broken and dehumanised.

Captured with six others from her village in Uganda at the age of seven she was spared a few years as a prisoner before she was trained as a child soldier.

Brenda said: “I was eight when the LRA trained me to be a soldier. They’d put an object 100m away and we would shoot at it or they would carve a tree into a figure of a person to shoot at, starting at the head then the body.

“They told us that young people couldn’t die, that we would dodge the bullets if they shot at us, but then my friends were killed and I learned that they lied to us.

“I didn’t really feel frightened at the time because I thought it was a game, a game that we couldn’t lose because Joseph Kony told us we were angels that couldn’t be killed.”

Kony

Joseph Kony was and still is the leader of the LRA and remains at large somewhere in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the Central African Republic.

When asked about whether she knew him, Brenda’s eye almost light up, intimating that at one point in her life she thought he was a good man.

“I knew Joseph Kony very well,” she said. “He decided to put me into a class with his children and there we would be educated like being at school to write and given military training, but he was kind to me. He treated me like one of his own children.

“Later I realised he was bad when he shot dead commanders in front of me—they had been disobeying Kony’s orders and two of them wanted to escape.”

After being abducted in 1996, Brenda started fighting as a child soldier in 2002, the same year she was married off to the 70 year old.

She said: “I didn’t accept him but I was forcefully given and then beaten and stabbed in the foot with a bayonet by the men who were restraining me.

“I was then violently raped to the extent of creating wounds in my private parts. It was so traumatising I thought I was going to die.”

Young and innocent

When Joseph Kony found out, Brenda’s ‘husband’ was beaten with canes 150 times she said, adding that Kony ‘really loved me.’

She added: “He would call me ‘benab’, meaning young and innocent, and he looked out for me.”

For the seven days after her ‘wedding’ Brenda stayed in bed, letting her wounds heal, but the husband threatened that if she ever told anyone about the rape again he would kill her. It started again.

The same year Brenda discovered she was pregnant after feeling ‘sick’ and ‘confused’, she endured and described having a ‘painful miscarriage’ in the bush with ‘a lot of bleeding.’ She said she was too young to fully understand it.

“I became more traumatised and when I was 14 I fell pregnant again with the same man but this time I escaped from the LRA during a battle.”

Family

After giving birth to Dorcus, now 15, Doreen found herself at a rehabilitation centre where she was reunited with her father.

It wasn’t however a fairytale ending, she told us as she quietly cried into her dress.

“I saw my father in the rehabilitation centre and I was so happy to see him, but he was not happy to see me,” Brenda said.

“I later found out that my mother had been killed by the LRA and when I went to visit my father in the village he said I was responsible for killing my own mother, but this was false. Then he chased me away from my home and he ordered my brothers to beat me with canes and sticks.”

Brenda, dehumanised by a life of destruction, showed our group the scars she received that day from her brothers by removing her dress, showing chunks of flesh missing from her bottom where the canes repeatedly struck.

Intervention

Since that awful day, Brenda and her four children have received assistance from Comboni Samaritans and SCIAF, so much so that the family have now reconnected as they are growing pride in the transformation of Brenda.

SCIAF gave her farming tools, a loan and training that has enabled her to grow crops, make a living and send her children to school.

Brenda added: “I currently rent two acres of land and I plant vegetables that harvest within a few weeks such as eggplant and greens. I grow them for my family’s own consumption and the surplus I sell.

“With the profits I am able to pay for my girls Sonia and Beyonce to go to school. Without the support of the people in Scotland and SCIAF I wouldn’t have survived.

“Before I wanted to kill myself but now I have a bigger hope for the future thanks to SCIAF and Comboni Samaritans and take comfort that they have helped me have a relationship with my family again.”

 

Doreen’s story

Doreen Ayet is now farming cassava thanks to SCIAF but thought she was going to die at the hands of the LRA. Simon Murphy Photography

Doreen Ayet is now farming fruit and vegetables thanks to SCIAF but she thought her life had ended when she was abducted by the LRA. (Simon Murphy Photography)

Doreen Ayet was abducted from a Northern Ugandan village by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) when she was 14 years old.

That petrifying evening, as a rebel battalion surrounded her family, her mother and father begged them not to take Doreen and five of their other children.

Her grandfather also insisted none of them were to be taken to be trained as child soldiers in the Ugandan Bush but that resulted in him being viciously beaten to death with a mortar in front of his kin.

14 years on, Doreen is now living freely back in a village near Gulu, one of the biggest towns in the north.

However, she has her own broken story to tell, with scars to bear, and I am left wondering if she will ever truly escape the horrors she endured.

Doreen, 29, said: “They captured my whole family that night—my two sisters and three brothers. I felt it was the end of my life witnessing the killing of my grandfather in such an inhumane way.

“As soon as they had finished they marched us into the darkness of the bush and from then we had to fight to survive. At points we were starving. At other points we had to fight government soldiers.”

Each battalion of the LRA had a commander and usually these savage men would have multiple wives.

Forced marriage

Sadly, Doreen’s fate was no different and she was married to a commander one month after being captured at the age of 14, resulting in the now mother-of-four being raped, beaten and infected with HIV.

“After one month I was given to a commander to be married and from that moment my mind was broken and out of fear I accepted my situation, but it was never my wish,” said Doreen.

“He was a rude man who didn’t want anyone else near me and I was not allowed to talk to another man.

“He also raped me and that is when I became pregnant and contracted HIV,” said Doreen as she quietly sobbed in front of two of her children.

Beaten and scarred

One day Doreen attempted to escape the torment of her situation but was caught by her rebel husband and beaten with a cane.

As she tried to evade the stick caught her right eye, impairing her vision and looks forever.

Doreen added: “I have no sight in my right eye, at the time there was no treatment so it was extremely painful and swollen.

“I was given three months bed rest from being a child soldier but it was then that he raped me again.”

At eight months pregnant Doreen was released by her husband and told to go back to her village, which was about 20km away.

After a day of walking barefoot in the baking heat she arrived at the nearest village and was escorted to a government military barracks and there Doreen gave birth to Ivan, her eldest son.

She was reunited with her mother and father who ‘were constantly crying’ and was given counselling and treatment for her eye and HIV.

Despite living in a village where 120 households are affected by HIV, Doreen still faced stigma and torment from other villagers.

She used to make 50,000 Ugandan shillings every three weeks, which equates to 47p per day, and would struggle to pay for the HIV medical consultation and her children’s education.

A bright future

Now however, Doreen’s farming business is thriving thanks to an intervention in 2015 by SCIAF and their partners Comboni Samaritans of Gulu.

“When I returned from the bush I did small farming and thanks to SCIAF I am now growing my business.

“I grow oranges, bananas, mango, tomatoes and onion and I now own a goat but want to get a chicken soon.

“These fruits are grown for my family to eat and the surplus I sell for some income.

“I was given a loan of 200,000 shillings (£41) between 15 people. Part of the loan I saved and with the rest I started a small business selling salted fish and tomatoes.

“Without the income I have now I wouldn’t be able to send my children to school. My husband is also a small farmer with me and we work together on one plot.

“Although I am HIV positive I live a healthy life and I know Jesus is helping me and my children, who are my strength.”

 

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