The story of a child soldier 0 Comments

The story of a child soldier

This nonfiction piece originally appeared in Voiceworks 85 Other in July 2011.

By Alexandra Fisher (21) – a young Australian writer whose background has fostered a love of different cultures and a desire to understand and report on issues that bring new insight to Australians.

Scovia sits on her top bunk. Her legs stretch across the bed and her hands cup over her knees. She looks vulnerable and I feel uneasy. ‘Just pretend the camera isn’t here and it’s just you and me,’ I tell her.

I was in the Ugandan capital Kampala, volunteering with an American charity organisation that provided mobile medical care to people in some of the region’s poorest areas. We had been called to the Uganda Jesus Village, an orphanage where children were in desperate need of de-worming. After a day of popping orange flavoured pills into the mouths of shy-faced children, I sat down with Scovia to hear her story. I returned a couple of days later – this time equipped with my HD video camera but feeling out of my depth.

Speaking quietly against a background of clunking pans and shuffled footsteps, Scovia recounts her story in remarkable detail. She recites it step by step but becomes disconcerted when she stops to answer questions.

The 12-year-old has lived to tell her tale of one of the most brutal guerrilla armies of recent times. Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) waged Africa’s longest-running civil war, terrorising the Acholi people of northern Uganda for more than twenty years. Kony and several of his top commanders are among the International Criminal Court’s most wanted for their mutilation, abduction and systematic killing of thousands of northern Ugandans. As a self-proclaimed prophet, Kony wanted to overthrow Museveni’s government and lead Uganda according to a warped perception of the Ten Commandments.  The LRA’s tactics were brutal, often involving the removal of lips, ears and limbs from their victims. The rebel group were most reviled, however, for their abduction of children to be used as sex slaves, porters and child soldiers.

Scovia was captured as an 8-year-old. After attending a family burial, she and three of her cousins went to collect firewood. As the sun grew closer to the horizon the four children decided to rest by a tree. Three LRA soldiers ambushed them. The youngest swiped her attacker across the neck with wood and managed to escape. Scovia, with her female cousin Atok, fourteen, and male cousin Ochii, also fourteen, were restrained and dragged into the bush.

‘They started asking, “How old are you?” and I said, “eight”. They put your eyes into the sunlight and if tears are coming then they will say you are young, if you don’t have the tears they will say you are now older and you will become their wife,’ says Scovia.

‘When we reached where Kony [was] they said now you will be carrying his baby.’

Scovia’s age became her safeguard; considered too young for a wife and too slow for a child soldier, she was forced to carry Joseph Kony’s baby across her back for four weeks as they fled government soldiers.

‘Because I was carrying his baby he was good to me, but to others he’d beat them. He would beat you even if you didn’t do anything,’ says Scovia.

Not long after they were abducted, Atok was caught defecating near the tent of a commander. Scovia tells me the fourteen-year-old laughed when she was discovered, but was then violently dragged to the centre of the camp.

‘They put [her] in front of the people then they put an axe like this. Then they cut it off in between.’

Scovia places her hand down the centre of her skull, mimicking how the blade sliced her cousin.

‘Then they removed her clothing and gave it to someone else, leaving the body there.’

Ochii managed to escape the rebels, but was later found and returned to the camp. Scovia watched as he was cut into pieces.

‘I was crying but I didn’t want them to see me, because [if] they see you they will see you are related to that person.’

The LRA’s brutality goes beyond what most can comprehend. Mutilation and killing happens at the whim of a commander and from the moment of capture life becomes a gamble. The LRA are said to capture children because they have an underdeveloped sense of death; while an adult thinks before killing a person, a child could be trained to not bat an eyelid.

As a test for new recruits the rebels send children scampering into a field, carrying nothing but an AK-47 and a fear for their life.

‘They put us to train with others; if you shoot they will not kill you, if you didn’t shoot anyone they will kill you instead of that person,’ says Scovia.

‘If they train you and you know how to shoot, you will go and kidnap other people.’

‘After you shoot you will go and stand on top of that person.’

I take my eyes away from the LCD screen to look at Scovia.

‘Did you shoot anyone?’ I ask.

‘Yes.’

‘Did you stand over them?’

[nods]

‘Did you know them?’

‘No.’

Scovia falls silent.  She bites down on her lip as tears emerge. Her words have fallen somewhere between us. Neither of us knows how to pick them up. Everything is still but the distant clunking of a steel gate and the murmur of school children. Suddenly I find myself on the other side of the interview.

I wondered if it was ethical to probe a child to relive a traumatic experience. And yet I never considered switching off the camera. Scovia’s story reveals the trauma Acholi children had endured and the immense task they face in rebuilding their lives. Once Scovia felt someone was prepared to listen she spoke without pause, entering almost a trancelike state as she recounted her story from beginning to end.

Scovia was freed after two months with the Lord’s Resistance Army. After a long journey on foot, a rebel told her to go home as she could no longer walk and he did not want to carry her.

‘[He told me] if you go back, don’t tell the soldiers that we’re here. If we find you in the garden [bush] we’ll kill you.’

Scovia arrived home to find her father had died from HIV/AIDS, which he’d caught during an extramarital affair. Scovia attended the burial with her mother and sister but left alone after her mother disowned her. Scovia does not know why.

‘She said, “Don’t call me your mum,”’ recalls Scovia.

With both parents gone, Scovia ended up in a camp for displaced civilians. Destitute amid a sea of suffering, she grappled with hunger and sickness and faced abuse in the care of her grandparents. During the war, the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) herded more than two million people into these ‘protective’ camps as part of the government’s counter-insurgency strategy. But the camps, overcrowded, disease-ridden and heavily reliant on aid food, offered little protection from the rebels and were almost universally grim.

After surviving one year in the camp, Scovia’s plight came to an end with the arrival of the Uganda Jesus Village (UJV). The organisation works to rehabilitate war-affected orphans from the north by offering education, shelter and care in Kampala.

Jennifer Mitchell, abducted by the LRA for one year as a child, runs the UJV with her Canadian husband Cameron Mitchell. Jennifer offers both her expertise as a trained psychologist and an understanding of what it was like as a child living through the LRA war.

‘They treat me well,’ says Scovia. ‘They teach us how to respect others.’

After twenty-three years of conflict, the UPDF forced Kony and his rebel group from northern Uganda. Today, having eluded capture, Joseph Kony dwells in the immense spaces of central Africa, continuing to wreak havoc on small villages near Congo and southern Sudan. Peace and normalcy is slowly returning to northern Uganda. Communities are rebuilding their lives and most former camp dwellers have returned to their original homes.

It was a war that baffled many: how one maniac leading an army of abducted children could hold half a country captive for nearly a quarter of a century. In his book The Wizard of The Nile, journalist Matthew Green says the war’s longevity was not so much a tribute to Kony’s skill as a leader, but could rather be attributed to President Yoweri Museveni’s abandonment of the Acholi people in the north. His primary response to the conflict was to force most of the population into squalid displacement camps where disease killed more people than the rebels. Many victims of the war have called on the Ugandan government to investigate the violations by both the LRA and UPDF and bring perpetrators to justice. But the government is worried investigations would unearth its own crimes, committed by the UDFP.

I’ve used Scovia’s story as the centrepiece for a documentary, which is in its final stages of editing. The documentary explores the dilemma faced by children affected by the LRA war. It covers not only those who were abducted by Kony but the scores more forced into displacement camps by the UPDF, where they fell into the care of frail, dying or immensely poor guardians because their own parents had been murdered by the rebels. I began my journey in Kampala, where I spoke with children at the UJV. From Kampala I travelled to northern Uganda and spoke the former guardians of children.  They told me of their continued struggle to find adequate education, shelter and financial stability for their families. They said it was best the children were sent to Kampala because they are offered education.

It’s time to return to school. Scovia slips from her bunk and heads for the door. In her fleecy, maroon t-shirt and black-strapped sandals she is the image of a 12-year-old. But I sense the real child was left behind the day rebels dragged her to the bush.

I ask her if she’ll ever return to the north. She nods.

‘I would like to help people.’

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