At 14, Okot was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda – a paramilitary group that fought the state and made it a child soldier. Okot murders and loots. Until he realizes at some point that there is no future for him at the LRA. He cannot go to school, cannot go up. Okot flees and returns to his family. But the memories remain and plague him until he has to face them: he is doing therapy. That helps, but Okot’s guilt and fears remain until he finds forgiveness in the church.
Note: This text is the basis for a radio contribution. This includes stresses and feelings that are not necessarily conveyed by reading them. In addition, the spoken words sometimes differ from the script. It is therefore worth listening to the audio for this text.
Okot: I escaped from deep inside Sudan, I walked for seven days, and came to Kitgum, bordering Uganda, and Sudan, so I came there and reported to one of the residents, and then they took me to government soldiers and I was brought back home.
This is okot. He is 36 years old today. Here he tells of his escape 20 years ago. There he was 16: for seven days he fled from Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. He walked from Sudan, where the LRA had withdrawn for fear of the Ugandan army, back to Uganda, to the border town of Kitgum. A march of over 300 kilometers.
In 1999, the fighting between government soldiers and the LRA was just beginning to decrease. The government has imposed impunity on Joseph Kony’s former child soldiers. When Okot meets government soldiers while fleeing, he doesn’t have to be afraid. They even bring him back to his home village in Eppo – to his family.
Okot: All of them were crying, it was as if somebody had died, but I think those were tears of joy, also I joined them in crying so much.
When the villagers and his family saw him again for the first time, have to they cry – especially Okot’s mother.
Okot: My mother thought I was dead, not coming back, it was already two years, she went to a number of witch doctors, to consult the spirits, to many houses of prayers to pray that I should come back.
No one expected that Okot was still alive. When Okot comes home, he is emaciated, sickly – but alive. But he can’t just enter his family’s house like that.
Okot: We have a culture where you have to perform certain rituals when coming from the bush, because they believe that you shall have killed somebody, you shall have done atrocities, so when you come home, you have to be cleansed of all that you have done.
First, he needs to be cleansed of all the evil he did when he was in the LRA. His mother, relatives, neighbors, all gathered in front of Okot’s family house. In front of him, on the floor, is a raw egg on two crossed branches. The egg stands for innocence, for purity. Okot climbs on the egg. When it breaks under his feet, the tension breaks. His mother hugs him.
At that moment, he has to think of another ritual. One that was forced on him two years ago – and that made him a member of another community. A community that gave him a gun afterwards.
At 14, Okot became a child soldier
Sultry heat, mosquitos, scrub. Okot is just 14 years old and he’s somewhere in the middle of nowhere. The LRA rebels raided his village. They took him along with other children from his village and dragged him into the wild somewhere between Uganda and Sudan.
Okot is there with a dozen other guys, they’re all teenagers. Joseph Kony, the leader of this Christian terrorist militia, the LRA, uses the boys for his insane plan. He wants to establish a state of God in Uganda – he sees himself as a prophet. Nobody knows whether this is pure calculation or real delusion.
Okot: What I can remember as the rites performed to us, it was the shea nut oil, the person would tap in on his thumbs and put it on your forehead, your chest and your toes and your feet.
Okot is just saying that the adult LRA rebels smeared the boys with shea oil. They smeared them on the forehead, on the chest and on the feet. And they tell them that this ritual binds the boys’ spirits and souls to the leader Joseph Kony, that escape is impossible.
Okot just wants to leave at first, he tells us. But he’s also scared. He has heard from the other guys that the leader of the LRA has supernatural powers. Kony’s followers believe that he can see the future, that he can fly – and that he can even read the children’s minds. It was dangerous to just think of fleeing, Okot tells us.
Okot: If you are discovered to be planning about your escape, or you have been discovered to be plotting with a friend to escape from the bush, you would be killed. Actually, your comrades would be the ones killing you, either by beating, or walking on you until you are dead. Several people I have witnessed them being killed like that.
"If you are discovered to be planning about your escape, or you have been discovered to be plotting with a friend to escape from the bush, you would be killed."
The very person who is caught planning an escape dies. Anyone who wants to flee is murdered by their own comrades, Okot has noticed that himself. He also killed other children who wanted to flee. That was almost 20 years ago. But he still feels guilty about it – even if he says he had no choice at the time.
Just a few weeks after his initiation ritual, the one with the shea oil, Okot got his first weapon. The boys have to go "training". And Okot quickly learns what the LRA expects of him: he has to shoot. He has to loot. And he has to kill.
Okot: Immediately we finished our training we were selected to go and have a tryout, so we went and laid an ambush and these soldiers banged on us, so we killed them, we engaged in a fire.
"I was feeling very sorry that I started killing people almost for nothing. But on the other side you hear your colleagues, peers are yelling up."
The boys are dispatched just a few days after training. They are designed to ambush government soldiers. Okot shoots a man, a government soldier, with this first test.
Okot: I was feeling very sorry that I started killing people almost for nothing. But on the other side you hear your colleagues, peers are yelling up.
The LRA child soldiers celebrate every victory. "We won", they call and praise Okot. But he cannot be happy about his success.
Okot: You also try to cheer up, but deep inside you are cut, you are cut too deep.
You shouldn’t kill, the Bible says. And yet he kills – apparently for no reason. Deep inside he feels that something has broken in him because he has killed. But externally, Okot doesn’t show his doubts. He fights, kills and doesn’t ask questions.
The alleged war criminal Dominic Ongwen becomes Okot’s model
He became the shortly after his kidnapping "Escort", So the bodyguard of a high-ranking commander: Dominic Ongwen. This Dominic Ongwen sits today as a suspected war criminal on the dock at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. He is said to have looted villages with his troops, he is said to have raped and murdered. Back in the late 1990s, Ongwen became something of an Okot mentor.
Okot: Hey was a lovely man. You would not see him as a commander or as somebody of high authority. He would always down to us.
Okot is talking about Dominic Ongwen as if he were family. He tells of evenings together with Ongwen’s women. How to prepare food together.
Okot: So he was more like a father.
Okot still speaks with the appreciation of Dominic Ongwen. Even though it was this man who made him commit the deeds for which he still feels guilty today. Maybe it’s because Dominic Ongwen knew Okot’s situation well himself. Dominic Ongwen was also kidnapped by the LRA as a child. That was in the late 1980s, when the civil war in Uganda had just started. Ongwen grew up with the militia, he had to loot and he had to kill, just like Okot. Over time, he has become an important commander within the LRA.
"I loved to fight because he also loved that. So I would feel good. I would really feel good."
For Okot, Dominic Ongwen is a father figure, he looks up to him, he emulates him. And he wants to be just like him. In every battle, when Dominic Ongwen storms in the front line, Okot is always right behind him. And like his mentor, he burns down huts, kills the residents and kidnaps other children.
Okot: I loved to fight because he also loved that. So I would feel good. I would really feel good.
Fighting next to Dominic Ongwen feels good. Okot feels good. And after every battle, when the huts burn, the residents are dead and their children kidnapped, Okot and his comrades reward themselves with what is left over with what they have looted from the huts.
Okot: I would get biscuits. I would get soda. Something that was edible. And also other thing I would get new uniform, because we would kill soldiers. They have blood on it.
Okot has changed. It’s not like it was when he just wanted to get out of the LRA. Okot now has a family and a surrogate father in Dominic Ongwen. And even if he now has to go out every day and raid villages and kill people – that doesn’t matter to him anymore. Meanwhile, he wants to fight. And he wants to kill.
Okot: I was now free. But of course still attached to the bigger team. But I would also go and abduct others. I would even try to command the civilians to do certain things. Life was good for me, it was good.
Escape to go to school
Okot is no longer the school boy, the innocent boy he was. He has power, he is a soldier. And he wants more. Ongwen, who promises to support him and send him to school. Either to Kenya or to Sudan, where the situation is quieter. But the promise remains. Okot’s wish to ascend is not fulfilled.
Okot: I never witnessed anybody being taken to school. That was one of the things that really disturbed my mind. I saw those ones, that were abducted before me, they were in the camps in Sudan.
None of these child soldiers were sent to school by the LRA, Okot says. Why should it be different with him? At that time a decision matured in Okot: he has to go. He needs education, he has to go to school, he needs a feel for tactics if he wants to become like his mentor like Dominic Ongwen.
"I never witnessed anybody being taken to school."
Okot: My intention of leaving the bush was to come, study and be big, go back and be big like Dominic, because he was encouraging me so much.
And so Okot ends up with his family again, in his home village of Eppo. Here he is again "son of" and no longer the man he was in the LRA. He is no longer a soldier, but a student. After his time at the LRA, he comes back here – down to earth. The country was exhausted from the fighting at the time.
In 2000, the Ugandan government set an amnesty in hopes of persuading fighters to give up. This means that the child soldiers who come back will not face any punishments. This amnesty is gradually working. Many former child soldiers can flee, like Okot.
Finally at home, but another: Okot is traumatized
But that everything is OK when you return, that’s not true. Because Okot suffers from flashbacks at home when things remind him of his time at LRA. For example a whistle.
Okot: In the bush we had a number of ways of communicating, if you wanted to move, you’d whistle (OKOT PFEIFT) so you’d get your guns and luggage and go, so that kind of trauma got instilled in me that whenever I heard anybody whistling, I would try to gather up my things, my belongings next to me, and begin to carry them and move.
A whistle and Okot gets up, tries to pack up all his stuff and run away. At Okot, such flashbacks come unexpectedly, in the middle of everyday life. He has no peace even at night: he dreams. He dreams of death, he dreams of torture.
Okot: I would dream that I was killed myself, that somebody killed me and chopped me into pieces, put me in a wheelbarrow and command me to continue wheeling, pushing that wheelbarrow with my flesh inside the wheelbarrow.
"I started to feel a lot of anxiety, insecurities, fear and sleepless nights. I wanted to be alone, there was no appetite. I had lost interest for many things in life I tried to commiting suicide three times. But thank god, it was unsuccessful."
Every night he is killed in a dream and chopped to pieces. Sometimes a giant elephant appears, turning into an evil spirit and chasing it. Okot’s dreams are disturbing and get worse over time.
At the LRA, he was always live, when one robbery was over, it was about the next. His group had to search for a new camp every few days, constantly fleeing government soldiers. Now he goes to school, has a normal everyday life. Sometimes nothing happens for hours. He cannot cope with this calm. He has fears, panic attacks, cannot sleep.
Okot: I started to feel a lot of anxiety, insecurities, fear and sleepless nights. I wanted to be alone, there was no appetite. I had lost interest for many things in life I tried to commiting suicide three times. But thank god, it was unsuccessful.
What Okot tells so casually here that he has three suicide attempts behind him is an inner struggle that lasts for several years. Nothing interests him anymore, everything looks irrelevant and gray.
Four years later, when he was twenty years old, he suddenly felt a sting in his chest. This pain doesn’t go away. He goes from hospital to hospital to clarify this. None of the doctors can find a cause – physically, Okot is completely healthy. One of the doctors who suspects post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD for short: A mental illness that arises as a result of severe traumatic experiences.
Okot: I was also a bit hesitant about why they were taking me there. Because I didn’t know anything about PTSD, so at first I did not like it, I thought it was only those who were mad, only those who were acting queer who would go to counseling. But when I went to the doctor of course he did a lot of experiments, and so I felt a bit calm.
Okot does therapy – and relives the worst moments of his life
So Okot is a bit skeptical at first when he starts his therapy. The psychologist does experiments with him, as Okot says: He travels through his past with Okot. From the day he was kidnapped until the day he returned. Everyone around him knows that Okot was kidnapped by the LRA – and was also involved in crimes. Okot doesn’t hide that. But details about his worst deeds, he has kept to himself. Now he’s going through the worst moments of his life with a psychologist. Also the day a girl wanted to flee the LRA.
Okot: When she was caught, she was brought back and one of the soldiers, he was commanding a smaller team, so he ordered the recruits to line up, so we lined up, after lining up, we started stepping on this girl to death.
Okot had to kill this girl along with other child soldiers. His voice becomes very quiet when he tells us about it. Even then, when he told his psychologist, the memory of it made him feel ashamed – but he also noticed that it was good for him to talk about it.
"When she was caught, she was brought back and one of the soldiers, he was commanding a smaller team, so he ordered the recruits to line up, so we lined up, after lining up, we started stepping on this girl to death."
Okot: There was no treatment to this problem of the mental problem that I was going through, the nightmares, there was no treatment except by talking to me and accept it, that really I went through this problem and to embrace myself once again. I also regretted what I did when I was in the bush.
During therapy, Okot realizes that he has to face his past in order to be able to look ahead again. He feels guilty about the things he did in the bush. But he also understands that he cannot hide from it. He went to the psychologist for three months, during which time he learned to like himself again – even with his past.
After the therapy, he finally wants to finish school, he finances the school fees with a job as a plumber. Later, Okot will even be the first in his family to go to university and become an engineer.
The guilt continues to torture him – Okot longs for forgiveness
Therapy helped Okot in this way. But Okot is far from over with his past and especially with the things he saw and did at the LRA. His coarsest wounds may have healed, he can sleep through again and has no flashbacks anymore.
But Okot’s conscience still torments him. What happens to the soul of a criminal, a murderer? He wonders that. Okot killed people and he has many other children done the same thing that was done to him – he kidnapped her and brought her to the LRA.
Okot: I also abducted and I don’t know whether they are still alive or dead, so I also regret of that. So for me, I also feel very sorry, for abducting other people, for recruting them.
Okot’s guilt depresses him, this past weighs on him like a heavy weight. He longs for forgiveness. But where should he get it from? He cannot bring the dead back to life. And the children he kidnapped, he still doesn’t know whether they ever made it out of the LRA alive.
"I also abducted and I don’t know whether they are still alive or dead, so I also regret of that. So for me, I also feel very sorry, for abducting other people, for recruting them."
Okot: I was not really religious in whatsoever way, I had a mindset that those people who are religious are kind of lunatics, are people who are very poor, not wise in class.
Okot, he doesn’t really trust religion. Also because the LRA fought for Joseph’s Konys version of a Christian God state. "You should not kill", the Bible says. But Joseph Kony’s child soldiers were made murderers. The world of the LRA was full of violence and magic – a world in which ghosts were sent by God to help Kony and his child army. Before every fight, the so-called "priest" the LRA interviewed these spirits – and gave the children a blessing on the way before they stormed in the name of God.
Yes, and when Okot comes back home, religion plays an important role again role. His mother and siblings are religious – all of Uganda is predominantly Christian. But Okot usually stays at home when the others go to church.
Until a day when he hears guitar sounds from a church. Spontaneously he sits in the fair. From then on, he comes regularly to listen to the music. He always sneaks out for the sermon, he doesn’t care. But once he doesn’t make it out of the church in time. The pastor is reading from the Bible, from the book of Isaiah. He thinks of all the dead, all the murders that he committed and witnessed during the civil war in Uganda.
Okot: Because there were many people who died, the government soldiers that I killed, and many civilians they died, many of us the LRA soldiers they died, even my good good friends, they died and I saw them die, some of them I tried carrying on my back and they died, so for me when the preacher was explaining, I thought: Oh, it was really God who was protecting me. That not a single bullet got me in the bush.
Okot now sees, he explains to us, that despite his sins, God was always there for him. That he was protected by him during the civil war. And: That he doesn’t have to earn forgiveness to get it.
Despite his past, his family took him back and forgave him. And God also let him come to the church with him. In his first confession he tells the priest everything: about the many murders, the raids, the violence.
"I felt a bit good, I felt like I was forgiven of all the sins that I committed."
Okot: The priest was so moved and he asked me, don’t worry, the lord God will cleanse you because he has promised that even when your sin is red like scarlet, red like blood, I the lord will still cleanse your sin and make you holy, at that I felt a bit good, I felt like I was forgiven of all the sins that I committed.
But unlike therapy, where he has to learn to forgive himself, the priest promises that God will forgive him. So Okot drops a huge load off his shoulders.
Okot has forgiven himself and is helping others today
Okot is happily married today, he has two children and works as an engineer. In his spare time he is actually in the church all the time: his wife and he sing together in the church choir, he hosts in the church radio, he is active as a youth group leader. In his parish, Okot always meets returnees who have experienced the same thing as him.
Okot: By that time, we had a number of returnees killing their own parents, killing people, going to loot people’s properties, they were not going to school, so they were doing a lot of atrocities because of the PTSD.
Many former child soldiers are traumatized, so they slip into old patterns, into violence. Instead of going to school, they continue to rob and murder. Because talking about the past as a child soldier is still a taboo subject for many in northern Uganda. Okot wants to help the former child soldiers – just as he was helped.
"I know I may not do much, but those who I meet I will try to save their lives and they will live happy again."
Okot: So I decided to be a little drop in the ocean. I know I may not do much, but those who I meet I will try to save their lives and they will live happy again.
Okot therefore trained as a lay psychologist, later studying psychology. He has recently had his degree in his pocket – and is using it immediately. With several friends, some of them also former child soldiers, he founds an aid organization that offers "Counseling" on – so psychological counseling.
With his example he wants to give others hope. With his stories, he wants to help people in northern Uganda, i.e. the perpetrators and victims of the civil war, to accept their memories as part of themselves – just as he did with his psychologist: talking about the past and his own actions , accept them, also accept the guilt feelings. The child soldier of that time grew up. A big man. But not as an LRA war criminal. But as a father of the family, as a believing Christian.
Okot: Actually, I am healed of my memories. I don’t forget them, they are very painful, but to this day I don’t feel pain anymore. I wanted to commit suicide. But today, I am somebody. There was a day I was even starved but at the moment I have a lot of things to eat, I can eat anything I want.
- One hundred February 22nd – 22nd, 2019
- moderator: Paulus Müller
- authors: Minh Thu Tran and Elsbeth Bräuer
Forgiveness comes from within
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