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.