Roof – Child Soldier

Roof, Shelter’s Magazine, October 2008

Imagine this. You are forced from your bed at gunpoint in the middle of the night, tied up and dragged off, half-naked and barefoot, into the wilderness. You are made to walk for twelve hours, then permitted to rest, but for no more than two hours, on hard ground, on a bed of leaves, in the dirt, damp and rain. You are not fed, just given water. And then you are ordered to walk again, for another twelve hours.

This goes on for three days, and by the end of it you are starving and exhausted, and your feet, swollen and blistered. Then you are stripped naked and paraded in front of a number of men in uniform. You are told that from hereon you must obey these men at all times, and that if you don’t you will be killed. And then finally, you are fed.

You spend your first week of captivity as a porter, carrying munitions for the men in uniform. Next, you are trained to fight: to use a machete in hand-to-hand combat, to load and shoot a machine gun, to fire a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and to lay landmines. Your training lasts for just one week, after which you are ordered to loot and fight.

‘Now we have given you the power to kill someone, you must do it,’ the men in uniform insist, ‘and if you do not, then we will kill you.’

Kill or be killed.

Hours later you are with the men in uniform as they raid a small village in search of food and other supplies. It is full of women and children, and your orders are to kill them, kill all of them.

I wish this were fiction, but it is not. This is what happened to Ojok Charles. He was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Kitgum, Northern Uganda, in 2002. He was just ten years old.

They took him precisely because he was so young: they could break him down quickly and have him killing in no time, without compunction.

He slept on the forest floor, living and fighting rough, and soon the only thing which distinguished him from the other animals he shared the forest with – the gorilla, the bushbuck, the golden cat, the duiker, the giant hog – was that he was crueller than them. Homo sapiens, as a species, has an extraordinary propensity for cruelty, which far exceeds that of other animals.

Ojok fought for three years, and during this time killing became routine. After the first year he was orphaned, his mother and father murdered by fellow rebels. And in his second year, he was seriously wounded, shot in the head and lower leg. Though his head healed his leg did not, and not given adequate medical attention he risked losing it. His escape came just in time. He and a few others were returning to camp having looted a nearby village. Ugandan government forces lay in ambush. They attacked the parade and, in the resulting chase, Ojok managed to escape. On his own, he lived off the land for a number of days before finally being captured.

He was taken, first, to government barracks, where he was questioned about his time in the bush and who his leaders were; then, to a rehabilitation centre in Lira which cared for child returnees – those recently escaped or freed. His leg was, at long last, treated, and he was fed well and encouraged to rest.

At first Ojok ate more food than he could eat, and slept day and night. It was wonderful to sleep in shelter, on a bed and mattress, with clean sheets. After three years sleeping curled up on the forest floor he had imagined that he would never sleep in a bed again with a roof over his head.

For the first few weeks he barely spoke, other than to utter his name, and he never smiled. He was numb inside, and had been for a long time. However, as the weeks became months he started to feel more, receiving counselling and emotional support from those who worked at the centre, and it was not long before his smile finally returned and he was able to talk about, and come to terms with, what had happened to him and what he had done.

While at the centre he met someone from Outside the Dream, a foundation which brings education and hope to those whose lives have been shattered by war and poverty. Ojok was determined to return to school despite his years of absence. He would have to sit in a class with children four years his junior. He would have to re-sit one academic year. He would have to forego the life typical of a teenager his age. But he would do all these things as he now had a dream in mind – to finish school and attend university.

He is now back at school and doing very well. In fact, he is very near the top of his class.

My first novel, Love and Mayhem, had been a study of homelessness and destitution resulting from personal tragedy, and I quickly realised while researching my third novel, Gorilla Guerrilla, based on the experiences of Ojok Charles, that this would also be a study of homelessness and destitution, though born of political, not personal, tragedy. Just as Leonard Gold, the protagonist of Love and Mayhem, overcome with grief after the death of his wife, is forced to live on the streets, so Kibwe, the child protagonist of Gorilla Guerrilla, is forced to live rough in the bush after he has been abducted. Both characters are stripped of their humanity and forced to live as animals. However, whereas the cause of Leonard’s tragedy was unavoidable, the cause of Kibwe’s was not. His was driven by the pursuit of power, political power.

Millions in Uganda have been affected by this pursuit. Now twenty-two years long, the conflict between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan government is Africa’s longest-running civil war. More than twenty-five thousand children have been abducted and forced to fight as child soldiers, and over two million people have been driven from their homes and forced to live in temporary shelter in internal displacement camps. Uganda has been described as ‘a nation of orphans’. Currently 2.2 of its 27 million population are orphans, but by 2010 the UN predicts that this number will have risen to 3.5 million. When will it end?!

Gorilla Guerrilla, from Chapter 24

The rain tumbles down; it does not relent. The forest is hazy, saturated, obscured by the downpour, and during those brief periods when the rain abates, steam rises from the canopy, the thick dense jungle within giving off a great heat.

We hear an unfamiliar sound and my father rises. He arches his great back, its silver fur catching the light, which almost seems to make it glow brightly like a giant leaf wet with dew at sunrise, then digs his knuckles into the ground, his arms erect, shoulders tense, head held high and alert. I look at his lips, which are compressed, then watch him as he stands up and beats his chest, this great rondo of pok-poks resounding throughout the forest. I hoot and chest-beat also, as do two other young males in the group, but we fail, even collectively, to make an equivalent impression. My mother pulls Lisala close to her chest. My father looks to his left, next his right, then lowers himself onto all fours once more. Other females and children in the group scurry behind him, to where my mother and sister are.

I stand beside my father, a few feet back from him, as does Kibu.

And then there is a sudden explosion of noise, and I see my father rise up again, beat his chest, roar, then charge, his knuckles thumping the ground, bulldozing through foliage, and his screams high-pitched, possessing a deafening intensity, as he opens his mouth wide and bares his enormous canine teeth, the hair on his head crest erect.

The last time I had seen my father so angry, it had terrified me, and I realise, at this moment, that the threat posed to us must be from humans: for it is only them that can make him this angry…

View the book Gorilla Guerrilla

Gorilla Guerrilla, from Chapter 1

The sound of a voice wakes me.

I am still tired, it is black outside, it must be the middle of the night.

I am not with my mother and father, no, but with my friend, Oleé. His mother has gone to the town for a few days, she is sick, has the disease, the one that you get from being bad even though she is good. She needs to get medicine to make her better, and I said I would stay with him while she is away. He is a year younger than me, he is nine, and does not like to be on his own, not because of his age but because he is scared, like all of us are, scared of them.

Oleé kneels over me, shaking me and speaking. He says, “Come on, we must go, they are here.”

“How do you know?” I mumble.

“I can hear them. Listen.”

Sitting up, I concentrate on my ears, hear nothing, then see him lift the curtain to the banda and step outside. “Come on,” he says again.

I follow him, but as I reach the curtain and make to leave as well I am pushed back in by two pairs of hands, which seem to come from nowhere, out of the darkness. I fall hard on my bottom, then on my back, the straw mats not cushioning my fall, and the back of my head goes thud as it thumps against the hard ground…

View the book Gorilla Guerrilla


Gorilla Guerrilla, a review by M. Hewitt

“I read, and liked, Nick Taussig’s first novel, Love and Mayhem, but somehow missed Don Don, so I’m glad I came across his third book, Gorilla Guerilla, a book I really enjoyed from cover to cover.
Told from the twin perspectives of a 12 year old African boy mercenary (Kibwe) and a 12 year old silverback gorilla (Zuberi), Gorilla Guerilla is a fascinating and captivating insight into two opposing, yet so similar, lifestyles within an (unnamed) African country.
Both characters provide an innocent, yet philosophical view of their situations and surroundings as they face hazards that raise questions about our own human desires of power and struggle and how these affect our environment and other creatures that co-inhabit our world. Yet somehow the book manages to keep these weighty issues fairly light, and although brushes on very dark elements and probing questions of humanity, it has an air of optimism, an air of hope.
Gorilla Guerilla is the sort of book that should be required reading for all twelve year olds and above, whether from the UK or Africa, or indeed anywhere else in the world. Right, I’m now off to find Don Don.” M. Hewitt

Gorilla Guerrilla, a review by N. Phillips

“I thoroughly enjoyed this beautifully written novel. Based on the true story of a child soldier, Kibwe, Taussig powerfully sets the nightmare brutality of civil war against the lush, calm, jungle setting of the silverback’s domain – just as the story of Kibwe and Zuberi is both brutal and beautiful.
Taussig’s description of Kibwe’s journey is a stronger, more poignant account of how a young child can be affected by civil war than any piece of journalism I have read. Fast paced and compelling to the end.” N. Phillips

Gorilla Guerrilla, a review by Nicholas J. Green

“In this book Nick Taussig evidences his intelligence, humility and humanity by juxtaposing the lives of two higher primates – one of which writes books. The author also thus renders the barriers we erect between our species and others to protect our sense of uniqueness otiose – or at least calls them (quite rightly) into question. Good research lends insight and texture. Avoidance of grandiose prose renders the text unpretentious and distinctly moorish! Perhaps the world would do well to read and ponder? Congratulations, Nick.” Nicholas J. Green

Gorilla Guerrilla, a review by E. Panizzo

“One of the best books I have ever read and Nick Taussig’s best novel so far. Like the ‘brown brown’ forced upon the African child soldiers the story takes you on a savage trip, smashing you in the face with its emotional power and honesty. Never before have I been transported into a world so different from my own, either as the child soldier Kibwe or the silverback gorilla Zuberi. We can learn about our own humanity from both of them.” E. Panizzo

Independent on Sunday – Forced To Murder, Aged 10

Independent on Sunday, New Review, 7th December 2008

I first met Ojok Charles in August 2006. I was travelling in Central and East Africa, specifically Uganda, on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was researching my novel, which is set amid the prolific brutality of the region, and I was looking for characters. Within hours of meeting Ojok, a fourteen-year-old with a pronounced limp and a heavy scar on the top of his head, I knew I’d found my human protagonist.

Ojok’s slight build and baby face belied the brutality experienced in his short life. Before he’d even hit puberty he had shot enemy troops, looted villages and brutally murdered civilians – and all of it against his will: Ojok had been abducted at the age of ten by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan rebel group led by the atavistic cult leader Joseph Kony, and forced to fight as a child soldier for three years, during which time killing became routine. But as a child soldier Ojok was as much a victim as his victims were.

I wish this were fiction, solely the narrative of a novel, but it is not. And currently, in eastern Congo, it is happening to other children too. Various armed militia groups such as the CNDP (National Congress for the Defence of the People) led by Laurent Nkunda, the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) and the Mai-Mai are doing the very same thing, abducting children to fight their wars. Child soldier recruitment has soared during the current wave of violence, children targeted precisely because they are children: they can be broken down quickly and be killing in no time without compunction.

Though it seems strange to say, because his horrific experiences will never be erased, Ojok is one of the lucky ones – for he at least escaped alive, still young enough to recover – and when we met he was being helped to recuperate at the home of a charity in Kampala. I told him about the book I was writing – a novel about the friendship between two teenage orphans, one a boy the other a gorilla, a young silverback, both of whom are on the run: the boy, from the horrors he has committed as a child soldier; the gorilla, from the violent hand of man. Then I asked if he could help me. Looking at me through big brown eyes, sad but determined, Ojok said, “Let me tell you my story.”

It was 2002 and Ojok was 10. He was living in an internal displacement camp in Kitgum, northern Uganda. Africa’s longest running civil war, between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army, was raging. Hundreds of thousands of people were being driven from their homes and forced to live in temporary shelter, and thousands of children were being abducted by the rebels and forced to fight as child soldiers. Ojok would be next.

“They took me from my bed in the middle of the night,” he said. “They tied me up and dragged me into the bush. I didn’t have any shoes on, and I was only wearing my underpants and a T-shirt.”

He was made to walk for twelve hours, then permitted to rest, but for no more than two hours, on hard ground, on a bed of leaves, in the dirt, damp and rain. He was not fed, just given water. And then he was ordered to walk again, for another twelve hours.

“This went on for three days, and by the end of it I was so tired and so hungry,” he went on, “and my feet were swollen and had lots of blisters.”

Then he was stripped naked and paraded in front of a number of men in uniform. He was told that from hereon he must obey these men at all times, and that if he didn’t he’d be killed. And then finally he was fed.

He spent his first week of captivity as a porter, carrying munitions for the men in uniform. Next, he was trained to fight: to use a machete in hand-to-hand combat, to load and shoot a machine gun, to fire a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and to lay landmines. His training lasted for just one week, after which he was ordered to loot and fight.

“Now we have given you the power to kill someone, you must do it,” the men in uniform insisted, “and if you do not, then we will kill you.”

Hours later he was with the men in uniform as they raided a small village in search of food and other supplies. It was full of women and children, and his orders were to kill them, kill all of them. When he said this he paused, looking at me with almost excruciating pain and anguish. I asked whether he wanted to stop, but he insisted he go on and tell me his full story.

After his first year of fighting he was orphaned, his mother and father murdered by fellow rebels; and in his second year, he was seriously wounded, shot in the head and lower leg.

Over the next few years Ojok would be forced to commit many more atrocities, and, sleeping on the forest floor, living and fighting rough, soon the only thing which distinguished him from the other animals he shared the forest with – the gorilla, the bushbuck, the golden cat, the duiker, the giant hog – was that he had become crueller than them. He finally managed to escape in 2005.

“Me and a few others were returning to camp having looted a nearby village,” he explained. Ugandan government forces lay in ambush. They attacked the parade and, in the resulting chase, Ojok managed to escape. On his own, he lived off the land for a number of days, before finally being captured.

He was taken, first, to government barracks, where he was questioned about his time in the bush and who his leaders were; then, to a rehabilitation centre in Lira which cared for child returnees – those recently escaped or freed. His leg – which had never healed and which he nearly lost – was, at long last, treated; and he was fed well and encouraged to rest.

At first Ojok ate more food than he could eat and slept day and night. “It was wonderful to sleep in shelter, on a bed and mattress, with clean sheets,” he told me. “After three years sleeping curled up on the forest floor I thought that I would never sleep in a bed with a roof over my head ever again.”

For the first few weeks he barely spoke, other than to utter his name, and he never smiled. He was numb inside, and had been for a long time. However, as the weeks became months he started to feel more, receiving counselling and emotional support from those who worked at the centre. Many former child soldiers are unable to live with themselves post-conflict. The burden of guilt and sorrow is simply too great. Ojok was encouraged to talk about exactly what he had done, and he had to be totally honest. “They said they would not punish me when I told them about all the bad things I did … and they didn’t,” he said. “I was scared to tell them at first, I felt so ashamed, but they helped me understand that I did what every other child would have done in my situation. And so I told them everything.”

While at the centre he met someone from Outside the Dream, a charitable foundation which helps former child soldiers get back to school. Ojok was determined to resume his education despite his years of absence. He would have to sit in a class with children four years younger than him. He would have to re-sit one academic year. He would have to forego the typical life of a teenager his age. But he would do these things as he now had a dream in mind – to finish school and attend university.

I spent a number of weeks with Ojok, and before I left to return to England I became his sponsor. While writing the novel he was always close by: I had recorded our conversations to help me capture the heart of his story. Listening to his words over and over from the privilege and comfort of my London flat, I saw more and more quite how extraordinary this boy was. He had suffered terribly, and he had been forced to inflict terrible suffering on others, yet he had found a way through, he had reclaimed his humanity. Could I have reclaimed mine, had I been forced to do what he did? I’m not sure I would have possessed the courage to confront the full horror of my actions.

When I finished writing I returned to Uganda. It was June this year. I was anxious to see Ojok, to give him a copy of the book. Back at school he’d been doing very well, in fact he was near the top of his class. Had I done his story justice? I did not know. And more importantly, had I done him justice?

I waited at the school gates. It had rained that morning, but now the grey sky was slowly clearing, the sun pushing through a black bank of clouds. A young man walked towards me. He appeared to have a limp, but only a very slight one, far less prominent than Ojok’s, and he was smiling – but as he got closer I realised that it really was him. We embraced. And then we talked.

That afternoon I felt like I was with an old friend – even though Ojok is half my age. For he possesses a wisdom and humility rarely found in young men. And when I finally left him, the clouds had cleared, the sky was blue, and the sun shone strongly.

I know, somehow, that despite everything, Ojok will be okay. Yes, he’ll continue to suffer nightmares. Yes, he’ll have times where he’ll agonize over what he did. And yet these cries of his conscience are inevitable – for these are what make him human once more.