SHOCKING CONFESSION: I was a nine-year old warrior
GULU/UGANDA – “He can transform into a fox or a dog, he can evaporate like water in the sunshine. If you try to catch him, he will transform into a bird and fly away. No one can harm him. He is a man with special powers!” This was just one of the statements by the average resident of the town of Gulu in northern Uganda, when asked about Joseph Kony, leader of the rebel Lord Resistance Army.
Joseph Kony was born in Gulu, but is not loved in the town. The Acholi people who inhabit that area have been suffering the terror of his paramilitary group for the past twenty years. He has looted and pillaged, kidnapped, raped and maimed. Allegedly he has retreated into the Congo, and according to the most recent information, he is now in the Central African Republic, where he and his mercenaries are battling against the Muslims.
Many have tried, but to date, no one has captured him. This fact is the root of the superstitions stated by the population. Every Gulu resident that I spoke with believes that Kony has special powers; that he is a type of magic man, a master of the black forces.
He has become known worldwide due to his abduction of children whom he later transforms into blood-thirsty warriors. It is for that reason that campaigns were held for a time in which the children from the surrounding villages were brought into the city each night to sleep, and in the morning were returned to their homes.
Not all of the children were able to avoid this terrible fate.
Okema Santos, now 18 years old, was born in a village outside Gulu, and was one of these children. He was abducted and was well on his way to becoming a soldier. Often times, the initiation for these children involved killing their parents as they slept. He was fortunate, as this was never asked of him.
Okema is a perfectly normal young man. He mind is clear and calm, regardless of the fact that he slaved away in one of Kony’s brigades for almost a year.
This is his story.
“I can exactly remember that afternoon. I was with my father in our common garden in the village Kirkum. My mother was in Gulu with my brothers, and that afternoon we were also supposed to head for Gulu,” Okema told me, continuing with the memory of that day that changed his life forever.
“All at once, a number of soldiers just appeared from behind the bushes. My father hid, because he knew that if they saw him, they would kill him. They tied my hands and took me with them. We walked about five kilometres and then met up with another group of soldiers, who were also leading some children with them. We walked that whole day, and the soldiers gathered together, and there were more and more of us children. Each new group of soldiers lead boys with them. Finally, there were about 30 of us. Some were younger, like me, only 9 years old, others were 15 or 16 years old. We slept on the floor.”
Okema thus became one of many abuducted by the Kony soldiers since 1987, when the group was formed.
“I never saw Kony, because I was only with my brigade the whole time. They were organised like a real army, with a real hierarchy. The older boys were immediately taught to shoot, and after just a few months, they became real killing machines, very brutal. We younger boys served as carriers. Every day, I walked and carried baskets with food or weapons. We were not allowed to ask for food or water, because we would be punished with beatings. We ate and drank only when they gave it to us. I was worried about my parents.
“Kony’s soldiers also abducted young girls. The prettiest were sent directly to Kony where they would become his concubines, servants and sexual slaves. The others remained with the soldiers of the other brigades, though their role was the same.
“I remember when five soldiers from our brigade went out on patrol. They were very hungry and they put their weapons down for a minute to climb a mango tree to eat. One boy saw this, a soldier about 16 years old. He told the commander what they had done, and after that, they were ordered killed. I was frightened,” said Okema.
Love for his parents kept him alive
Deserters received the harshest punishment. Most often, they were executed immediately. Okema remembered a soldier who tried to escape. He simply got up, threw down his weapon and started to run. They caught him and sprayed him with bullets. He was dead by the end of the day.
Okema says that the only thing keeping him alive was his love for his family and his desire to return to him. Friendships were forged among the boys.
“There was a boy my age with me whom I became friends with. His name was Paul. He too, like me, carried the baskets. I often remember him, and later I tried to find him, but I just didn’t succeed. I don’t know where he is or what happened to him.”
He spent eight months as a captive. A relatively short time, seeing as many remained for years. One night, Okema decided to escape, regardless of the consequences. As everyone in the camp was asleep, he snuck out of his quarters under the open sky and quietly crawled to outside the camp where the weak light of the camp fire could no longer reach him. He succeeded in getting through without being sighted by the watchman, who was also dozing.
“Once I got out, I started to run. I ran and I ran for hours. It was already day by the time I reached the road. It wasn’t difficult, I knew which directly my home was. On the road, I saw a car. I told the man what had happened, and he took me to Gulu. From there, I headed straight home and ran right in front of my father and mother. They were in such shock that they started to cry. They hugged me and kissed me. They must have thought that they would never see me again.”
Okema’s wounds have all healed, except for an injury to his leg that he received while escaping, and he is now waiting to have an operation. He wants to get an education and make something of his life. The opportunities are not great, but they are there. And with respect to Kony, Okema too believes that he has magical powers, that he is a magic man, a black priest.
“He will put a spell on you, he will evaporate, he will disappear right before your eyes,” he said.
Kony today has 60–70 followers with him who believe that he is a prophet, called upon the Earth to enforce the Ten Commandments. The diminished movement today hides out in the jungles, at times in the Central African Republic, at times in Southern Sudan, and least often in northeastern Congo, where it once had a strong foothold.
The invisible children are now just an ugly memory.