My friend Sunday Obote was just 7 years old when the Lord’s Resistance Army stormed his family home in northern Uganda one night in 1994. The L.R.A. is a rebellious guerrilla group that opposes the military government of Uganda, a land-locked nation in east-central Africa. And yes, the L.R.A. believes the fighting age begins at seven. That summer night one more small boy lost his childhood. For the past two decades the Ugandan rebels have been coming at night to steal children to swell their ranks. More than 70 percent of the guerrilla rebel brigade is comprised of kidnapped children. Some of these children have even been forced to kill their parents to discourage them from attempting to escape. If they should escape there would be no one at home to welcome them and love them. Once in the L.R.A., these captives are thrown into the front line of battle and endure nightmarish experiences unimaginable to the rest of the world. Sunday and the other children often heard shouts of “Kill or be killed!” Since 1986 more than 25,000 such abductions of youth in northern Uganda have plagued this war-weary region of East Africa. This is decidedly a war on children.
Sunday has written a sketch of his life as part of his healing process. He can recount in detail everything that happened to him while in custody of the rebels. For eight years he was an eyewitness of the terror committed in the name of the Lord. The only part of his life he remembers fondly is his early childhood. Sunday recalls: “I can remember the time before the rebels abducted me. I was living peacefully in the remote village of Pabbo, about two or three kilometers from the nearest road. With some village children my age, I used to go fishing in a river. I was good at catching fish. Those were happy times. We used simple hooks with white ants for bait. We found them in anthills in the months of April and May. They are even good food for human beings. Another interesting activity was hunting birds. We used sling shots. You had to hide in a bush, as the birds must not see you. Sometimes we would catch a bird, and then we would celebrate with joy and share it among ourselves.” This blissful time was in stark contrast to the atrocities soon to be unleashed upon him and his young companions.
Life turned very dark for Sunday when he was forced into the LRA. He remembers his capture: “On a weekend at midnight everything was quiet. We were four in our grass hut—my mother was there, my sister Christine, my brother Joseph, and myself. Suddenly the door was kicked open and men in army uniforms with torches entered the hut. They ordered us to sit. Some were busy removing whatever valuables we had. They said Joseph and I should show them the way back to the road. They told my mother that we would come back soon. It was all a trick.”
For the next eight years Sunday endured the daily savagery of life in the LRA. The worst ordeal was unquestionably the first killings. In a calculated way the rebels tried to destroy the humane instincts of these young children in order to turn them into efficient killing machines ready to strike on command.
Sunday tells of that first day in captivity. “When we reached the road we joined a bigger group. There were about 50 children our age. The next morning one of the children called Odoki tried to escape. He was caught by the guards posted half a kilometer from the spot where we spent the night. This was the scariest thing I saw. Odoki was brought before us all. The commander said: ‘We will prove to you that we don’t like children who try to escape. This boy will die in front of you here because he tried to escape.’ Odoki was then hit on the head with a big axe. He was dead but they continued to hit him until you could not recognize he was human. We were warned not to cry for him.”
Through this savage event and other equally brutal actions, Sunday and the other newly abducted children learned that unswerving allegiance to the group was demanded. Conformity to the will of the rebel leaders was stressed at each moment of the day. No personal emotions were allowed. Empathetic feelings, in particular, had to be crushed.
The boys were soon trained in the use of weapons and told that their guns were now “their mothers, their best friends, their everything.” The young girls who had been kidnapped were given to the commanders as trophies for their military victories. All these girls routinely suffered sexual abuse at the hands of the men who treated them as their personal playthings. Nine out of the 10 girls who were lucky enough to be rescued from the L.R.A. by the Ugandan People’s Defense Force, or who had managed to escape, fled with a sexually transmitted disease, often H.I.V.
The march north from Uganda to southern Sudan caused even greater sufferings for the children, who knew that their only chance to stay alive was to please their captors in every way. Sunday described the march: “Some children became too tired to walk and simply fell down on the ground. We were ordered to beat them to death. Imagine a line of 200 or 300 people all beating one fallen child. The last persons in the line would beat scattered pieces of a human body. Although we were forced to participate we would remember exactly the one that had been killed. All those years I witnessed many such killings.”
The plight of Sunday Obote and the thousands of children brutalized by the L.R.A. has received scant attention in the United States. Jan Egeland, the U.N.’s under secretary general for humanitarian affairs, recently referred to the chaos in northern Uganda as the largest neglected humanitarian emergency in the world. He has asked world leaders: “Where else in the world have there been more than 20,000 kidnapped children? Where else in the world has 90 percent of the population in large districts been displaced? Where else in the world do children make up 80 percent of the terrorist insurgency movement?” Nowhere.
Since the day I met Sunday in the late afternoon of July 4, 2001, he has become part of my life; like a son to me. His own father was slain by the L.R.A. when he was still a toddler. Today we correspond, and I provide for his education, food, housing and, above all, for his security. I return regularly to East Africa to check on his progress and to meet his new friends. He continues to fear abduction and insists upon living far from his family. His fears are well founded, since the L.R.A. still unleashes hell in his homeland. Robbed of his childhood, Obote has had the worst of the world thrown at him. Yet I am still filled with hope for him. Why?
My hopefulness is based on something remarkable Sunday told me during our first conversation. He was then lodged in a camp for war-traumatized children, spending several months in rehabilitation, preparing to rejoin his family and community. As that first conversation drew to a close, with near glee Sunday asked me, “Do you know that there are people here who love me?” This teenager, who has lost so much of his life to an evil that few of us can begin to imagine, obviously had not forgotten what love is. This, I suspect, is the source of his resilience.