Boy Soldier: Memoirs of a Child Soldier From Northern Uganda
The war had begun right after I was born and I had lived under its shadow for so long that it had become a part of me. Although the encounter that I had with the rebels on the first day of 1995 was the most dramatic so far and would also have the most profound effect on the rest of my life, it wasn’t the first encounter that I had with the rebels nor the first time that the war had struck me and my family right at the core of our existence. The war had loomed over me and my family for all of my life, and it had slowly deprived us of all our wealth, freedoms and means of proper existence. Eventually, it even took away our happiness. However, this was after I had a small taste of Acholi life as it was before the war. Please, let me start from the beginning.
My early childhood
My name is Norman Okello. I was born on 25th of November in 1982 in the village of Pabala, in Pabala Sub County in Gulu District. My father descended from a royal clan and at the time of my birth he still had considerable wealth which continued to grow throughout my early childhood. My father had pursued a higher degree but had not completed it because he had inherited the farm from my grandfather. This made him a wealthy man with much status in our small community. At the height of his wealth, my father possessed more than twenty cows and dozens of goats. He had met my mother when he was still in advanced school in Lira district, south of Acholiland. Lira is where the Langi live. The Langi are a different tribe who speak a language similar to ours. They always met each other at the borehole where they came to fetch water. Although my mother was illiterate, my father fell madly in love with her. After a long period of courtship, which is custom in these parts of Uganda, my father and mother married. My dad had to pay a dowry of two cows and several goats, which sealed the contract of marriage. While many marriages in Uganda were brokered by the parents to establish good relationships between clans or to add to a family’s wealth, theirs was not a marriage of convenience; they really loved each other. Five years later, I was born.
Although I was the third-born in my family, my parents always considered me their firstborn, as my two older brothers had died of the measles even before I was born. At that time, the measles was a very common disease in Uganda that killed many children in their first few years. Yet, few people bothered to go to the hospital. They just prayed to God that it would go away, as my parents did when I was inflicted with the disease. My two older brothers and the two siblings that followed me weren’t so lucky. They all died of the same preventable disease. When the first of my younger siblings died, I was still too young to remember. The second one, however, died under my guard. My parents spent most of the time away from the village, to work in the gardens or to herd the cows, so I was in charge of the babysitting. I had to carry my younger sister around with me all day, and I was the first to see that she was becoming ill. She had a terrible fever, and after a few days, she got spots all over her body. This time, afraid of losing yet another child, my parents decided to take her to the hospital, but it was already too late. She died on the way to the hospital. Four out of the first five children of my family had died of this horrific disease. I remember that we gave her a burial, but it is too long ago to recall any of the emotions that I felt at that time. Fortunately, all the siblings that followed did survive. First, there were my three younger brothers Victor Ocitti, Jimmy Komakech, and Johnbusco Peter followed my sister, Janneth Akech.
The Acholi tribe is divided into many clans and the clan I was born into was called Atuo. A long time ago, when Acholi land was still divided into chiefdoms, our clan was a royal clan within the Koc chiefdom. My father always told me that I was in line to become the next clan chief. Although everyone in our clan was a Christian, there were still remnants of our old religion, which some people continued to adhere to. For example, our clan had a clan goat. This goat was chosen by the clan to be our protector. When there was no rain for a long time, we would exalt the goat. And when the rain would come, we would praise the goat. So this was a remnant of the old religion and the old traditions that were common in this land long before the white men came to bring Christianity.
The village was an extended village. This means that everybody in the village is related. My uncle was my immediate neighbor, and the hut next to him belonged to my aunt. When my grandfather was still alive, his hut stood in the middle the village, but in 1995, this hut belonged to us. The families in Uganda are usually very big, and although everyone in my village was family, it was certainly not a small village, as there were a few hundred people living there. In Acholi culture, the men were supposed to only marry women from other villages and other clans. The land that surrounded the village belonged to everybody. We all sowed the seeds together and we shared the harvest. Money was not a factor in our village; it barely existed. Much more was done by trade and sharing. Only when some of the women went to the markets of Gulu or other towns, would they sometimes return with money. The village was located at about a 30 minute walk towards the main road to Gulu, which was six more hours away.
I remember my early childhood as a happy time. Although the rebellion started not long after my birth, the first few years of the war were not too bad for us. We heard stories about terrible violence that was committed by the government soldiers under our new president Yoweri Museveni. My dad sometimes talked with his neighbors about the terrible acts of slaughter that occurred in Namakora and many other places. We also heard about the many acts of theft, arrests and public torture. Because of this, my father warned me to stay far away from any men carrying guns or dressed in uniforms. However, while this violence was unfolding in other parts in Acholi, none of it reached our village in the first few years of the war. The battles were often located far away from us, even up to Jinja near the capital Kampala, and the rebel armies of that time didn’t terrorize the local population that much. Life pretty much proceeded the way it had for hundreds of years in these regions.
As my family worked on the fields, I was mostly preoccupied with babysitting and playing games with my friends. We used to play all kind of games. One of these games involved making music together. The percussion was always my favorite instrument. We often went swimming together. Not that there was a river nearby. The stream was too small the swim in, but there was a pond where we would let our cattle drink. I went to this place very often to swim with my friends. The game that I played most, however, was football. We always made a football out of garbage and banana leaves, and we improvised a goal. When this was done all the children of my village would be divided in two teams and then we started to play. There was nothing organized about these games, no set lines, no timeframe, and the teams were rarely equal. Often it was impossible to tell which team had won, because all the kids, including me, constantly shifted to the team that had the ball. Yet, on the few occasions that we could decide who the winning team was, I was extremely delighted if I belonged to it.
Another thing that I liked very much was hunting birds and edible rats. We made our own slingshots and catapults, which we used to kill our prey. The interesting thing about hunting was that you never knew what the day would bring. You never knew what you would catch, if you would catch something or if you would come home empty handed. Sometimes we would take the dog with us. We had one dog in our home, both for hunting and protection; although for the latter he was not very good. When the dog saw a squirrel he would hunt after it, and we would run after the dog. For hunting the birds, we mainly used the slingers and catapults, but for the edible rats, we also used spears and bows and arrows.
Still, the memories that I cherish most were the times that I went with my father to herd the cows. Whenever I grew tired of walking, my father would put me on the back of one of his cows. These were truly happy times. On the back of the cow I felt like a god, overlooking the bush on a mighty animal. Nowadays you see them again, the cows, but for a long time these cows were absent from northern Uganda because of the war. It was mostly the government and raiders from neighboring Karamojong who took them. The cows took a central place in the Acholi culture, and they were almost like what currency is today. Whenever there was a conflict, a council of village elders would take the two conflicting sides together and in case of a fine, the loser had to pay it in cows. Also the dowries were paid with cows and goats. Without the cows, there would be no marriages and no new generations of Acholi youth. Cows were also the primary means of trade. Yet as the war progressed, the cows slowly disappeared from the northern landscape due to cow raids. With their disappearance, many aspects of Acholi culture dissolved, as people could no longer marry, settle disputes or trade in our traditional ways. I had the feeling that with the disappearance of the cows from the northern landscapes, our natural Acholi happiness also disappeared.
A first encounter
For us, our happiness also started to fade when they took away all our cows in a single event. This event happened while the web of the war was stretching and entangling us and our ways of life evermore. While the disaster that occurred was certainly related to the war, it had a much older origin, one which was very common in Africa for as long people could remember.
It happened when I was just five years old, I think during the dry season because I remember that this specific day was very hot and in some places the grass had turned completely yellow. My father had gone to the gardens to work on the land and my mother and I had stayed behind to do some domestic work. Not long after my father left, we saw a big group of men appear from the bushes. I will never forget this moment because some of these men were naked apart from the rifles or clubs they were carrying. I had never seen such a sight before. Those who were not naked wore purple robes. The men talked to each other in very loud voices, but I didn’t understand a single word of what they were saying. It was obvious that these men weren’t from the Acholi tribe or any tribes related to the Acholi.
Although I had never seen one before, I immediately recognized these men to be Karamojong, the most feared cattle warriors in the entire region. My uncle used to tell me stories about them. About how they purely lived on the blood and milk of cows and never ate anything. Every day the Karamojong would make a small cut in the veins of a cow, from which they would tap the blood. The combination of milk and blood was not only nutritious enough to keep them alive, but also to make them grow very tall. They would only slaughter a cow on very special occasions. My uncle further told me that the Karamojong had a very strange religion. He told me that they deeply believed that all cows in the world belong to them. In the beginning of time God had given to them all the cows, and since that time, many other tribes had stolen the cows away from them. So whenever the Karamojong set out to go on a huge cattle raid, they were, in their opinion, not stealing any cows, but merely reclaiming them. This unwarranted belief, in addition to their large stocks of AK-47s, which some said was given to them by the government to oppress the Acholi people, made them the most notorious cattle raiders of the entire region.
As I saw the Karamojong coming from the bush, I realized we were in big trouble. Adhering to their reputation, the Karamojong immediately proceeded towards our cattle, without even paying attention to us. As they were opening the fences to release the cows, my father came running from his garden and he started to argue with the Karamojong, who didn’t pay the slightest attention to what my father had to say. My mother and I were in our hut, watching from a distance. I was really afraid they would kill my father, and I only hoped that he would give up and just surrender the cows. After only two minutes the Karamojong grew tired of the pleas of my father and they knocked him on the ground with a club. Afterwards they tied him up and put a strap in his mouth so that he couldn’t say anything else. After that, there was nothing in their way of stealing the cows. I was too afraid to do anything to stop them. It was obvious that the Karamojong were in no rush. They took their time to lead all the cows out of the fence where my father and I had put them the day before. After they were done, they entered our hut where my mother and I were shivering in fear, but they never even touched us. They just came in, stole some pots, pans and flour, and afterwards left towards the east, where I had been told their homeland was. We never saw them, or our cows, again. Immediately after they left, we went to my father and untied him. Although his face was only bleeding a little bit, we could see from his body language that he was deeply wounded. Not because he was hit on his head, but because he had just seen his entire wealth stolen from him. The Karamojong had taken away not only his wealth, but also his pride and status while he was lying half-conscious on the ground, unable to do anything to stop them.
Cattle raids were as old as the tribes of Africa, and although it was a cruel practice, it was almost part of our culture. Although the Karamojong were the most notorious, they were not the only tribe guilty of cattle raiding. Like most tribes in the past, the Acholi had also been active in stealing other people’s cattle. In the past, raiding cattle was one of the ways in which the men could show their masculinity and in some tribes stealing cattle was even used as an initiation rite for the young men. Up to this moment I had only heard stories of cattle raids and I always listened to these stories with great interest. The stories almost reflected a romantic picture of bravery and cunning. Never had I realized the huge impact it had on the bereft. After this event, our live changed. We used to be among the wealthiest of my village, but as we lost over two thirds of everything we possessed, we also lost our opportunity to flee the war zone while we still could. We were of course not unique in this. Other members of our village also lost everything and my father sometimes told me that what was happening in the rest of Acholi was the greatest theft of Ugandan history, mostly perpetrated by the government and the Karamojong cattle raiders, who were allowed to roam free by the government. Eventually, the raiding of our cattle and our loss of wealth would have a great consequence on my life, but for now I just noticed the little things that changed. My father didn’t laugh as much as he used to and we had to live with and less food. After this event we rarely had any meat on the menu. I also played less with my friends since my father forced me to help him in the field much more often. This event and the events that followed robbed me of my life’s joys.
The end of happiness
It was not until 1990, three years after we lost our cattle, that our lives were really ruined. The end of all happiness began when the so-called holy armies of the Lord paid a visit to our village. The rebels came in the morning hours. While my mother was grinding the Sorghum, a local grain that we used to make bread, my father and I had gone to the bush near our house to chop down some trees because we needed a new garden for our crops. Just as my father started hacking down a tree, we saw a young man come running from the bush while being chased by two soldiers who were carrying machetes.
From where we were, we saw the man running towards our hut, which he bypassed. The man was a distant relative from another village. The moment my father saw what was happening, he took his axe and took off to chase the hunters. My father could not let a boy from our neighboring village be hacked to death, just like that. While my father was chasing the two hunters, a bodyguard of the local counsel saw this whole ordeal happening from the side of the papyrus. As one of the few people in our village carrying a gun, he started shooting at my father, whom he had mistaken for a rebel. I watched as the bullets flew over my father’s head. Almost an entire magazine was fired at my father, but luckily the guard was one of the poorest marksmen I had ever seen. While the guard was shooting at my father, the rebels entered our village from the east and shot that guard. Just one bullet struck him, but it hit him straight in the face. As I saw his brains being splattered over the papyrus behind him, I started feeling sorry for the man that had almost just murdered my father. It all happened so fast. Before I knew it, the village was surrounded and the rebels unarmed my father, taking the axe away from him and holding him down at gunpoint. I never found out what happened to the young man they were chasing; I never saw him again.
I just stood there, nailed to the ground, not able to run anywhere. I was just looking. From our hut my mum was screaming at me:
- “What is happening, Norman? Who are these people? What do they want from us?” I wanted to reply, but I couldn’t find the words.
I was just standing there in shock, totally traumatized. My mother kept on screaming, but I was unable to answer. My younger sister, whom I carried with me all this time, stood beside me and grabbed my hand. Apart from this sign of life, she looked like she had already been dead for several years. While my mother was still screaming at me, a soldier came to the hut she was in and ordered my mother out of there.
- “Come out the house, right now! I will give you only one second and then I will light the house on fire with you in it, I kid you not,” he screamed.
My mother didn’t even take anything, not even the second that the man had given her. She immediately came out of our house. We all stood there, paralyzed by fear, watching the village as the chaos was unfolding. On my left, I still saw the guard, whose brains were seeping out of his head, which was visible from even twenty meters away. All around me, I saw more rebels coming from the bush. They were entering the houses to force everybody out. After all the people were out, we were told to go to our grandfather’s house. That was the main house, the biggest house of the village. When we arrived there after a two minute walk, we found our grandfather in deep shock like the rest of us. After the rebels had assembled us they started shouting the new rules to us.
- “Why are you supporting the government? Why are you listening to your pathetic LCs. From now on we are in charge. Remember that. WE ARE THE LAW. You shall listen and you shall abide. From now on the Local Counsels will be banished and all local leaders will be shot. Bicycles will also be forbidden. Anyone we see on a bicycle will lose their legs. If you have to go somewhere, go by foot. Any household that has a dog will be executed. We don’t want to see a dog ever again in this country. As a token of our goodwill, we will not execute you today. Today it is just your village that will burn. But as you see your houses burning remember that next time it will be your own flesh, if you do not abide our laws.”
After they had assembled us and told us all their rules, they started setting fire to all our houses. Not a single one was spared. After the soldiers were done burning everything down, they grabbed all our remaining goats, our sorghum and all the chickens, and took off. Just like that. I remember that we just remained seated where we had been sitting. Everyone was in shock. Soon after the rebels had left, my grandfather spoke. He told us that we shouldn’t remain in the village, as the rebels could still return and carry out their threat to burn us alive. He told us:
- “We have seen what they are capable of, they might come back and do us even more harm, we should leave this village and hide.”
Everybody concurred and after the sun went down we started to move with everybody of the extended family. We all moved to another village, not very far away from ours, but we never entered it. We decided to stay hidden in the papyrus. Then we saw the soldiers coming again to that other village. It was as if we had taken the same route as the rebels. Immediately, when the villagers saw the rebels coming, the youth took off. They ran straight to the papyrus where we were hiding, giving away our position to the rebels. As some young men passed me, running for their lives, I also took off. Along with a friend, we followed the young men from the other village, not even sure why we were running and not aware that we were followed by some rebels. I only became aware of this when the rebels knocked me down while they continued to follow those boys from the village. It was clear that they were not after me or my friend. So we stood up and decided to walk back to our families. When we came back we saw that the soldiers had surrounded all the older people and they were questioning them. After just a few minutes the soldiers that were chasing me and my friend came back dragging one young man from the village behind him. They started to beat him seriously. I never saw someone getting such a beating before. The rebels also found a woman from that village that was hiding in the bushes and also started beating her like nothing I had ever seen before. Although they didn’t hurt anybody from my village, the message was clear. From this time onwards, we would never be safe again.
After this terrible night, everything changed. All the people from my village started to send their children to town, with the little wealth that they all still possessed. But we possessed nothing. The rebels and the Karamoyongs had taken everything away from us that we ever possessed. As I saw all my friends disappearing to the towns, it became very lonely for me. Only few children stayed behind, but even with them I could no longer play the games that I used to play. Nothing remained the same. We were not allowed to make any noise anymore during the whole day, every day. I wanted to play with my friends, but our parents had decided that the children should always be close to them, and not play with each other, because together we would make noise and wander off. Because they burned our house we really lost everything, including all our clothes; we only had what we were wearing. The days after the rebels paid a visit to our village, my father fixed the thatched roof again. In the meantime, we were sleeping in our hut, but under the open sky. At night we were always fighting the cold. In the months that followed, we gathered some extra clothes and blankets, gifts from people from neighboring villages. Sometimes we would receive them out of charity, other times we would trade them for some foodstuff that still remained growing on our gardens.
The rebels had made it clear. They meant business when they told us not to support the government and their laws would be enforced with total terror. It was from this time onwards that everybody started fearing the rebels and that the rebels lost all of the local population’s sympathy. This is also around the time when the rumors started to spread like wildfires throughout Acholiland. We heard the most terrifying tales of absolute brutality. We heard many stories of children that were abducted and forced to kill their loved ones. We even heard stories of mothers who were forced to boil their own offspring and eat them. Similar stories came from schools, where the rebels had surrounded a school, boiled the teacher, and forced the students to eat the teacher. These stories were rumours that travelled from mouth to mouth, so it was hard to establish truth. However, as the rumours kept on compiling, we all got scared. Some stories came to us from people who were abducted, but managed to escape again. They told the most horrifying stories about the killings, the long walks and the camps in Sudan. I really didn’t understand what was happening. Sometimes I wondered if I was still alive or had already died and gone to hell. This event, the burning of our village, really was the turning point in my life. After this we heard no more laughter in my village, all happiness had disappeared. Life passed in complete silence as we tried not to attract any attention.
It was also about this time that the rebels became omnipresent in our region. I started to see them almost once every week and sometimes even more often. Whenever I saw them I would try to hide or to run away. But so far they didn’t really seem interested in me. I still tried to go to school, but even that was becoming more dangerous as my school was very far away and I always had to walk there. The stories about forced cannibalism really discouraged us pupils to go to school, but still many children were coming. We were eager to learn and receive an education. That is, until the day that the rebels paid our school a visit. That day we were in class and we were singing a song in Acholi. The song was about how sending pupils to school would help our world develop. That was the meaning of the song. While we were singing this song, we saw the soldiers coming from the bush with their pangas. So all the children started screaming,
- “Teacher, teacher; the soldiers are coming; the soldiers are coming!!!!”
We all started running towards the one door, which was our only escape route. Even the teachers were running and pushing the children aside. Some of my classmates fell at the doorstep, causing us all to get stuck at the door, as everybody tried to push their way out. We were totally stuck. The next moment the head teacher came and pulled us out. We all started running. I never saw what happened to our school or my classmates. I just ran for several kilometers until my legs couldn’t take me any further. After that, I never went back to that school.
It was after about one year after the rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army had paid that life-changing visit to our village that we received another visit from them. By this time we had rebuilt our village, putting new thatched roofs on the huts so we no longer had to fight the cold at night. The rebels came in the middle of the night, when we were all sleeping. My uncle, my cousin and my auntie were also sleeping in our hut. They came to our hut and knocked on the door very loudly. They told us all to come out. I was sure that this time the rebels had come to kill me, or even worse, force me to kill my parents. My parents, auntie and uncle immediately came out, while my cousin and I were hiding in a dark corner of the hut. Luckily, the rebels never entered. They told my family that they needed a guide to take them to the next sub-county and my auntie, to protect me and her son, immediately volunteered to guide them, just to get the rebels away from the hut we were hiding in as soon as possible. We never saw her again. It was after that night that my father sat down to have a conversation with me. He explained that he had no money to take me to the town. In the town he wouldn’t have any money to feed or shelter me, and since we didn’t have family in town, I would starve to death if he sent me there. He was very sorry that he couldn’t take me to town, like so many other parents were doing. I could see total despair on my father’s face as he was telling me this; he felt so guilty. This is what he told me next:
- “From now on, you are going to sleep in the bush. You will only sleep in the tall grass or in the bush, at least one kilometer away from the village. During the day time you will hide and you will be quiet. You will never let your presence be known. Only if we call you, can you come out of hiding. Don’t listen to any strange voices telling you something, only to ours.
After this time I also wasn’t allowed to go to school anymore. My life started to be dominated by total fear. Every time I heard something moving in the bush, I would freeze in terror. The smallest sound could totally paralyze me. From this time onwards, every day brought the same routine. My once so interesting life had evaporated into a life dominated by total fear and boredom. There was no more joy in life. For the next few years, every night I would go to the bushes. In the rainy season I had to battle the cold, and in the dry season I had to be careful not to get caught in wildfires. My life became really miserable, but at least I managed to stay out of the hands of the rebels, until that fatal New Years day in 1995.