By Achiro P. Olwoch
As Owilo faced the wall, Patrick the rehabilitation counselor could see that his mind was not with him in the room. Owilo was recapping the events in the bush before he had been rescued by the government soldiers.
Now 17 years old, Owilo had been abducted when he was 12 years old while he was farming in the garden with his family. The rest of his family was killed before his eyes and he was the only one who had survived the ambush. One of his sisters had been kept alive for a while but when she fought the rebel who was trying to rape her, she was beaten with a club to her death.
That was a memory that Owilo would never forget for as long as he lived. Even now as Patrick was trying to help him tell me his story, Owilo saw her blood spurted all over the ground where she died like it was yesterday. He winces painfully like he has seen something that makes him uncomfortable.
“Owilo, it is okay to cry”, Patrick says when he sees Owilo fighting back his tears.
Owilo quickly wipes his face and says, “We are not allowed to cry”.
Patrick knows that he is talking about the bush. “Who told you that?” he asks kindly and Owilo starts to tell his story;
“We heard a gunshot and we started to run. We knew that the rebels were near. Then we saw that we were surrounded. They came out from every corner of the bush and it was hard to escape. Anyone who tried to was killed on the spot. My father and Mother were shot dead as they run. The man who shot them just smiled when he saw them fall down dead.”
Owilo stops talking almost like he is thinking about something else. For a moment he says nothing and just stares blankly into the wall. Patrick simply observes him for a while and also says nothing. He wants Owilo to break his pattern of thought and tell his story. After a couple of minutes have gone by and Owilo is still quiet, Patrick is just about to stir him from his thoughts when he starts off again softly.
“They tied us up in a line and marched us into the bush”, Owilo says.
“How many were you?” Patrick wants to know.
“They had gotten more boys from the village so we were about twenty altogether but I am not too sure”, Owilo answers.
Patrick writes slowly in his book as Owilo speaks. He has to write down every single detail of Owilo’s story. Owilo continues to speak;
“Along the way most of them were killed as they tried to run away. We often stopped by a water source to rest and they would untie us for a little while. That was when some of the boys took a chance and tried to run. It was always a big mistake.”
Again Owilo stops speaking, flinches and hangs his head like he has seen something gruesome. Patrick encourages him on, “What is it Owilo, what do you see?”
Owilo pauses a bit before he answers and says, “They did not waste bullets on those who tried to escape. Since we were walking for many days without food, we were very weak so they could not run very fast. It was not too hard for the rebels to catch up with them and drag them back. Running away was considered an act of treason and abandonment of the cause. The punishment was very severe and they would order one of us to carry it out as an example. Refusal meant that you had accepted to trade your place with the other person.”
Owilo shakes his head as tears roll down his eyes.
“There was this boy, he was about 9 years old I think, and he had run with his older brother. His brother managed to elude the rebels as they pursued him and he got away. The younger brother was caught and brought back to where the rest of us were. The leader was very angry. He gave all of us big sticks and ordered us to beat him till he told us to stop. The sticks were so big they were like clubs and they often used them in the bush to hunt and kill animals for food. We were hesitant at first but then we were warned that anyone who refused would face the same treatment.”
The tears stop flowing down his face and he hardens his look. Owilo looks like he is going into battle.
“We started to beat him slowly at first…then the leader started to shout and we beat him harder. The little boy was screaming and begging us to stop. We could not, we just continued beating him. It got to a point when I did not want him to scream anymore…I just wanted the screaming to stop. I hit him on the head and he stopped. His body was still moving and the others continued to beat him….there was blood all over. Then he was still…he was dead.”
Owilo goes silent. Then he says slowly, “We killed him…we beat that little boy to death.”
He cannot speak any more and he turns to Patrick. “Do you think I am a monster?” he asks him.
Patrick speaks softly and kindly, “No Owilo, I do not think that you are a monster.”
“I killed people…many people…innocent people”, Owilo continues.
“You were forced to do so. It was not your fault”, Patrick convinces him.
Owilo looks back at the wall, consoled and feeling better. He continues to tell his story;
“After that, it was not too hard. We were all covered in blood and we were forced to carry his body and throw it into a small pit in the forest. The leader congratulated us and said that we had proved our loyalty. He said that now we had been initiated and we were all part of that big family. He promised to look after us as long as we did not try to escape. He told us that even if we returned to the village, we were all killers and we would be killed. That was that, there was no turning back after that.”
Again Owilo keeps quiet and he does not look like he is about to say anything more. He is so dazed and distant. Patrick urges him on, “Owilo, did you make friends while you were in the bush?”
Owilo lights up like a candle. He starts to smile as he talks about that experience;
“There was this one time when we stopped to rest by a water hole and there was another rebel ‘family’ there as well. There were many such ‘families’ in the bush but we all belonged to the same rebel group and we met often even though we lived in different parts of the forest. Our leader told us to mingle with the other boys as they rested. That was when I met them. I walked to two other boys my age and sat down next to them.
‘My name is Owilo’, I told them. They introduced themselves as Ojok and Oringa. We started talking and we realized that we were from the same village. We were not allowed to speak about where we came from and we made sure that the leaders did not hear us. Ojok had noticed that I was wearing a t-shirt from my school so he asked me if I came from that village. He knew the school even though he used to go to another school in the same village. I was so happy to see someone from my village.”
Owilo is smiling; it is so plain to see that he loves this part of the story. He turns to make sure that Patrick is listening before he continues with joy in his voice;
“It was decided that we would become one ‘family’ since most of the boys in the other ‘family’ had been killed during a failed ambush of a bus. They were now few and they needed back up if they were to function properly. They had planned on getting new recruits from the village but the camp had been surrounded by the government soldiers who outnumbered them by far.”
Owilo’s countenance changes and he gets serious. The smile is wiped off his face;
“They started to trust us as a team and they made us do things together.”
Again, Owilo keeps quiet and turns to look to Patrick as if asking if he should continue his tale. Patrick encourages him on, “What kind of things did they make you do?”
Owilo turns and faces the wall before he continues;
“We started robbing villages and abducting children together. Sometimes even from our own village. It was really bad because we had to kill anyone who recognized us.”
Owilo pauses for a while before he says, “There was this one time when we had gone to raid a village just for supplies and we managed to pretend that we were one of them. We did not have guns on us and even though we were dirty, we still pretended to be a part of them. Just like that we succeeded in stealing a goat that was grazing. We acted like we were leading it to another point to graze. Then one of the boys saw us and started to shout, ‘It’s Ojok…it’s the rebels’ and he was running toward us. He started to draw so much attention toward us and the rest of the people were running toward us now. The boy had reached us just as we were disappearing into the bush and he continued to follow us shouting Ojok’s name. Ojok had a knife in his belt and turned with it in his hand and slit the boy’s throat. He had just reached us. After that we disappeared into the bush leaving him to bleed to death.”
Tears have welled up in Owilo’s eyes again.
“I knew that boy. He went to Ojok’s school but his father and my father were friends. We often met in the fields as we grazed our goats. His name was Francis Onen. He had only recognized Ojok from afar but I could see his mouth mention my name after Ojok had cut him…he recognized me too as he died.”
Owilo breaks down and starts to cry…
“I never meant any harm. I did not mean to kill those people. I did not mean for Onen to die”, he says sobbing.
Patrick kneels by his side and puts his hand on his shoulder. Owilo shakes it off him.
“Don’t”, he says, “I am a bad person!” He continues crying even harder.
Patrick puts his hand on his shoulders again and lets him cry. This time Owilo does not refuse Patrick to touch him.
When Owilo has composed himself, Patrick is concerned. “Do you want to continue or we can talk another day?” he asked him.
Owilo just shakes his head and holds it limply in his hand. He looks so distressed and Patrick takes it as a cue to stop for the day.
Owilo is one of the many former child soldiers that he has been assigned to work with. Talking to them is one of the ways that he helps them to cope with their past. When the boys come back from the bush, they are disoriented and need help to re-integrate in the society they come back to. The boys are first taken to live in a large dormitory while they go through counseling before they are taken back to live with their families. When they are deemed fit to live with society again, they are relocated to the villages and they families are sought out.
Right now, Owilo lives on his own in a small hut that he has been given. His whole family was wiped out during the insurgency and none of his other living relatives will have anything to do with him. They all still look at him like he is still a rebel soldier. Truth is that they are more worried about what their neighbors will think about them harboring a former rebel. They all know that he killed their relatives, forced or not, they do not really care. Thus Owilo has been left to fend for himself while he goes through rehabilitation.
The only friends he has are the other former child soldiers’ and child mothers’ like his friend, Ayaa. Those that did not live with their families all had houses next to each other. Like Owilo, most of them have been out-caste by their surviving families.
The boys’ can only play football in the village field when the other children were done using it. The former child soldiers do not really fit in even if they tried and they cannot not look the other boys their age in the eye. Some of them who had just come out like Owilo are still guilty for all the atrocities they had participated in when they were a part of the rebels.
“Sometimes I think I had more friends when I was in the bush”, one of the boys tells Owilo as they wait for the other children to clear the field.
Owilo nods in understanding. He knows what his friend is talking about. Sometimes he thinks that way too.
During his next session with Patrick, he tells him just that;
“I know they are upset with us because of what we did. If we could turn it all around we would. Did you know that some of the boys still address us as ‘rebels’?”
Owilo stops to see what Patrick has to say and when he does not say anything, he continues;
“They do not even let us use the field with them at the same time. Sometimes I think it is for the best. Maybe it is a good thing that they do not want us to mix with them. After all that we did…”
Patrick interrupts him, “Owilo, let us concentrate on you. How does all that behaviour make you feel?’
Owilo has a small smile on his face, “I feel terrible sometimes, but not all the time.” He turns and looks away from Patrick.
“The other day, I came across Onen’s mother by the borehole. I could not face her even after she greeted me. I think she knows and she is just trying to test me. Do you think she knows?” Owilo turns to ask Patrick.
Patrick replies, “Maybe she does and she has forgiven you, or maybe she does not. Do you want her to know?”
“No!” Owilo answers quickly. “She would be very disappointed in me.”
Patrick wants to change the subject, “And what about Ojok? Whatever happened to him?”
Owilo looks sternly at Patrick. Then the look on his face softens and he speaks slowly…
“Things went well for a while and we were happy. ‘The three bandits’, they called us. Then Oringa came up with an idea for us to escape. It had been four years together already and we had started getting used to the idea of being ‘the three bandits’. All our leaders liked us and they knew that they could depend on us to get a job done well.”
Owilo pauses for a while.
“You sound like something went wrong? Did you follow through with the plan?” Patrick asks him.
Owilo nods his head slowly…
“We wanted to but we never really got a chance to carry it out. The government soldiers started to attack us almost every day and we were too busy fighting back to keep from being killed. Then Ojok did the unimaginable. He reported us to one of the leaders and told them about our plan to escape.”
Owilo stops and shakes his head, “He should not have done that.”
“Was Oringa punished for that?” Patrick wants to know.
Owilo turns and looks at him, “No, Ojok was the one punished for that. As far as the leaders were concerned, he was a traitor and the next time they worried that he would be telling on us to the enemies.”
Owilo looks down at his feet and he is shifting in his seat. Patrick waits patiently for him to compose himself.
“As usual it was us to whom they turned to administer the punishment. They asked us to cut him up into little pieces with machetes. Almost as soon as the words came out of the leader’s mouth did I know what he was going to say. It was a hard decision that he made and both Oringa and I knew that if we did not comply, we would take Ojok’s place.”
Tears start rolling down Owilo’s face…
“When I lifted my machete, all I could tell him was that I was sorry. He did not even cry for mercy…he just took one look at me and looked down and waited for the first blow. I knew just what to do; hit him once on the neck and kill him with the first blow. That is exactly what I was about to do but the leader stopped me. He could read my mind and he followed my eyes. He wanted Ojok to suffer and he knew that just killing him instantly would not do that. He told me to step aside so that he and some of his other trusted men could show us how it is done. He took the machete from me and started cutting Ojok. He did not even lift the machete but just run it across his skin like he was skinning him. Ojok started to scream in pain as he was being cut up. There was nothing that we could do to save him. The others just laughed as they watched him suffer. After almost thirty minutes of that torture, when he was covered in blood and there was no where else to cut, our leader turned to me and Oringa and told us to finish him off.
“Now you can give him that blow that you wanted to”, he said.
“Even then, I could not cut him. Ojok was wriggling on the ground in his blood. He was in so much pain. He begged us to kill him but I could not. ‘Please…please’ he begged. It was Oringa who lifted his machete and hit him at the back of the neck. Ojok went silent…he was dead.”
The tears have stopped flowing down his face. Owilo has no emotion on his face.
“It was then that I and Oringa knew that we had to escape. We were not indispensable like we thought we were. We had been the favorites but now we knew that we were going to be the next targets. We were not safe now that they knew our plan. Even if the lesson with Ojok had scared us, it was also a lesson to show us what they would do with us when they no longer needed us. We had seen that happen before. Even the most trusted and the most loved in the ‘family’ could easily be killed if the leader thought that their loyalty was wavering.”
Owilo stops talking and looks at Patrick.
“That was when you made your escape?” Patrick asks.
Owilo nods his head;
“That was when we really decided to escape. It was late that same night and Oringa was on night duty with another one of the other boys. He pretended like he was going to ease himself in the bushes and he came to where I was sleeping and woke me up but asked me to be quiet. He went behind the other boy and when he was not looking, he hit him at the back of his head and he blacked out. That was my cue to get up and run. We did not even know where we were running to but we just kept running. We did not know that one of the leaders had woken up after we took off. He alerted the others and they came running after us. They split into different groups in search of us. I heard gunshots and I was separated from Oringa. I heard him scream and then he was quiet; I think he was hit. Maybe he was killed. I could not hear him anymore but I did not wait to find out, if I did, I would have been killed. I run and kept on running until I came to a clearing in the forest…I knew that was where the government soldiers always were. The rebels never crossed into that area. I was really scared but I had decided that if I was going to die, I would rather die in the hands of these other soldiers. I figured that it would at least be less painful.”
Owilo starts to smile…
“I was not killed. The soldiers got me and took me to their barracks. I was questioned for two days and when they were sure that I was not a spy, they let me come to the rehabilitation center. The rest, you know.”
Patrick writes some notes for a while then he looks up at Owilo.
“Owilo, do you ever think about going back?” he asks him.
Owilo smiles lightly, “Sometimes I do because of the hardships I face here, until I remember the point before I run off. When I think of Ojok and Oringa, then I am not in a hurry to return to the bush.”
Patrick goes ahead and asks Owilo to tell him about the issues that he is facing now that he is back. Owilo tells him about the segregation that he faces. All the former child soldiers are easily identified because the community is small and close knit.
“There is still the issue of sleeping”, Owilo says.
“Sleeping?” Patrick wants to know more.
Owilo starts to explain;
“The whole time we were in the bush, we slept on the ground and sometimes we made a bed of leaves and grass depending on where we were. It was always hard and the grasses we used itched us a lot. I think for me it is because of the hard surface. Even when I sit for too long, I itch badly and I feel like there are things walking all over my body. It pains and swells up when I scratch. The doctors gave me some cream to put on my body but it does not help at all. Even when I think about it, I start to itch.”
He looks at Patrick for a solution.
Dr. Patrick thinks that it is all in Owilo’s mind but he does not tell him so. Even now Owilo says that he feels things walking on his skin and he starts to scratch.
“I have to go now, Dr. Patrick. It is almost lunch time and they are going to give us food at the center.”
Dr. Patrick knows that the free food means a lot to the boys so he does not stop Owilo from leaving. Owilo jumps up to leave. He thanks Dr. Patrick for his time.
Dr. Patrick has noticed a change in Owilo since they started the sessions and he feels like he has improved tremendously.
When Owilo had just returned from the bush, he was very timid and shy. He did not easily open up to anyone and the last thing he wanted to do at the time was talk about his experience in the bush. Dr. Patrick took a while with him just to gain his trust. His first sessions with him were full of tears and moaning. He hardly got a word out of Owilo at the start. The fact that Owilo could now smile after and even during a session was quite an improvement.
In association with his friends, the only person he used to communicate with was Ayaa and one or two of the other former child soldiers. He only talked with the army because he was afraid that he would get into trouble if he did not tell them what they wanted to know.
Owilo is looking forward to being cleared by the center so that he can start school. He will have to go to a much lower level but he is determined to study so that he will one day be able to go to the university. His ambition is to become a doctor so that he can help other children like himself get rehabilitated. For now though, Owilo has to be content with going through rehabilitation himself. So far, so good; he is making progress.
Achiro P. Olwoch is a Ugandan writer and filmmaker. She is the author of Achiro’s Daily Nuggets, Achiro’s Kamunye Conversations and Achiro’s Taste. She is also the director of Coffee Shop, an award-winning Ugandan drama television series. For more on her works, visit http://www.achiropolwoch.com/