Former Ugandan child soldier tells of 15 years trapped in rebel army

by Katie Nguyen | Katie_Nguyen1 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 19 October 2009 12:13 GMT

Martin, who declined to give his real name, was 10 when he was kidnapped by northern UgandaÂ?s LordÂ?s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels in 1994. He escaped last month after 15 years in captivity and spoke to AlertNet about his experiences. Close to 2 million people were uprooted at the height of the conflict, one of AfricaÂ?s longest-running, and tens of thousands were killed.

It was in the middle of the night when the LordÂ?s Resistance Army knocked on my door and ordered me out of my home in Kitgum district. I was terrified because I had heard all about the atrocities they were committing.

I was taken along with four cousins Â? but only after the rebels looted my house, taking chickens, a goat and even some clothes. We were all tied together with rope and ordered to walk. We spent the following day trying to dodge the UPDF (Ugandan army), which was scouring the area for the LRA.

We were so close to them that the smoke from their lit cigarettes still hung in the air as we crossed the paths where they had been. Because the soldiers were so near, we had to walk very fast through the bush to evade them. Soon after, we entered southern Sudan.

Initially we walked for a week. Days would start with a parade and then training on how to handle a gun. The commanders told us we were being trained because President Yoweri Museveni had ordered the Karamoja (tribe) to come and raid all the cattle in the countryside and that he had inflicted numerous abuses on our community.

We were told that the most important thing was to fight to overthrow the government, Joseph Kony would then be president and life would be better for us Acholi.

In the early days, we young children were not forced to commit violent acts, but the older boys were forced to kill some of the other children especially when they tried to escape. When that happened someone was ordered to bring a wooden club, then all the children had to gather around and watch as that child was beaten to death. It was meant to be a warning to us all.

You would also get beaten if you broke the rules Â? for example, not eating pork, white chicken or shea nut butter.

I was 12 when I was first sent to the battlefield. We were going after the SPLA (Sudan PeopleÂ?s Liberation Army) and attacked one of their barracks at dawn. I was afraid and cold, my heart was beating so fast. It was only after the battle as we were walking away that I felt my strength return to me.

I used to think about home and going back to school all the time. I used to think if one day I was chosen to be part of an operation in Uganda I would escape. But it never happened. Instead, we moved from south Sudan to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The LRA is now full of people from Central African Republic, Sudan, Congo as well as the Acholi. These foreigners were also abducted. Although they speak their own language, they are also learning Acholi.

As the years passed, I was still thinking about escaping. The LRA leaders promised that in 2006 the war would end and we could all go back home. It didnÂ?t, and eventually I decided with three others to escape. I told them I wanted to go back to school even if I was getting old.

We managed to sneak off, walking three days until we reached a place near Aba in Congo where we surrendered to the UPDF and the Congolese army.

News of my arrival was broadcast over the radio. Hearing about it, my younger brother came to see me. We hugged each other, overjoyed.

ItÂ?s difficult to say what the future holds Â? except that if I can get an education then I believe my life will really change.

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