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?!

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