When Justin Isa escaped from the Lord’s Resistance Army in 2004, he bore scars on his back from being beaten with machetes. Yet he also bore raw inner wounds from his 10 months in the L.R.A., a Ugandan rebel group turned transnational terror force.
Isa was forced to participate in the killing of other abducted children whom L.R.A. commanders did not trust or wished to punish. Sometimes the orders came directly from Joseph Kony, the spirit medium turned military commander now wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for crimes against humanity.
“In the evening [Kony] leads prayer, quoting from the Bible, and after the prayer he predicts people’s lives, he describes people’s sins,” Isa remembered. “He would move among us and touch us. Sometimes when he touches you, it’s to promote you. He’d say, ‘This is a good person.’ With others, he would touch you and say you were useless or thinking negative thoughts about the movement. Those people were immediately taken outside, and he would point to another boy, any boy, and order him to go kill the other boy. You killed them with the machete,” Isa recalled.
The young man said he was constantly afraid. “If you talk about escaping and the other person tries to flee and is caught, he will be tortured and will give them other names, including yours,” Isa said. “So you keep quiet, and keep your thoughts about escaping to yourself.”
Isa finally did escape when his unit was attacking a village near the northern city of Gulu, Uganda. He was turned over to the United Nations and received some counseling from a church group. Isa’s return to his family’s thatched-roof hut in a refugee camp was dramatic. His mother had been informed that he was dead, and when she saw him alive, according to Isa, “she went crazy” and has never recovered.
In 2008, Isa and his family returned to southern Sudan, where he works in a church-sponsored agricultural project in Riimenze, a village about 22 miles outside Yambio in Southern Sudan’s Western Equatoria state. The area has suffered repeated L.R.A. attacks in recent years, and he is afraid of being abducted again. If that happens, he will likely be executed as a deserter.
Isa’s greatest fear, however, is not of his former captors, but rather of the family of another boy who was kidnapped with him. Isa said that the day after their abduction, one boy managed to escape, but he was quickly recaptured. L.R.A. commanders forced Isa and the other children to crush him to death as punishment. When the dead boy’s family learned how the killing took place, they swore to take revenge on Isa and the other boys. So as southern Sudan votes in January on independence and a step toward peace or, some fear, renewed violence, Isa is always looking over his shoulder.
“I feel good that peace is coming to southern Sudan, but there’s no peace for me,” he said. “I can’t enjoy it. I have nightmares about what I lived through. I’m afraid of the L.R.A.; and if I go home, I have to worry about people who don’t like me. I have to worry they’re going to come get me.”