The first time I met Ojok Charles it was August 2006. I was travelling in central and east Africa, specifically Uganda, on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was researching my novel, which is set amid the prolific brutality of the region, and I was looking for characters. Within hours of meeting Ojok, a 14-year-old with a pronounced limp and a heavy scar on the top of his head, I knew I'd found my co-protagonist.
His slight build and baby face belied the horror experienced in his short life. Before he'd even hit puberty he had shot enemy troops, looted villages and brutally murdered civilians – and all against his will: Ojok had been abducted at the age of 10 by the Lord's Resistance Army, a Ugandan rebel group led by the atavistic cult leader Joseph Kony, and forced to fight as a child soldier for three years, during which time killing became routine. But as a child soldier Ojok was as much a victim as his victims.
Currently, across the border in eastern Congo, this is happening to other children, too. Child-soldier recruitment has soared during the current wave of violence and children are targeted by militia groups precisely because they are children: they can be broken down quickly and be killing in no time.
Though it seems strange to say, because his horrific experiences will never be erased, Ojok is one of the lucky ones – he, at least, escaped alive, still young enough to recover – and when we met he was being helped to recuperate by a charity in Kampala.
I told him about the book I was writing – a novel about the friendship between two teenage orphans, one a boy, the other a gorilla, a young silverback, both of whom are on the run: the boy, from the horrors he has committed as a child soldier; the gorilla from the violent hand of man. Then I asked whether he could help me. Looking at me through big, brown eyes, sad but determined, Ojok said, "Let me tell you my story."
It was 2002 and he was 10. He was living in an internal displacement camp in Kitgum, northern Uganda. Africa's longest-running civil war, between the Ugandan government and the Lord's Resistance Army, was raging. Hundreds of thousands of people were being driven from their homes and forced to live in temporary shelter, and thousands of children were being abducted by the rebels and forced to fight. Ojok would be next.
"They took me from my bed in the middle of the night," he said. "They tied me up and dragged me into the bush. I didn't have any shoes on, and I was wearing only my underpants and a T-shirt." He was made to walk for 12 hours, then permitted to rest, briefly, on hard ground, on a bed of leaves, in the dirt, damp and rain. He was not fed, just given water. And then he was ordered to walk again, for another 12 hours. This went on for three days. "By the end I was so tired and so hungry," he went on, "and my feet were swollen with blisters." Then he was stripped naked and paraded in front of a number of men in uniform. He was told he must obey these men at all times, and that if he didn't, he'd be killed. Finally, he was fed.
He spent his first week of captivity as a porter, carrying munitions. Next, he was trained to fight: to use a machete in hand-to-hand combat, to load and shoot a machine gun, to fire a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and to lay landmines. His training lasted for just one week, after which he was ordered to loot and fight. "Now we have given you the power to kill someone, you must do it," he was told. "If you do not, we will kill you."
Hours later he helped to raid a small village for food and supplies. It was full of women and children, and his orders were to kill them – all of them. When he said this, he paused, looking at me with almost excruciating pain and anguish. I didn't push him to elaborate. His look said enough. Over the next few years Ojok would be forced to commit many more atrocities. After his first year of fighting he was orphaned, his mother and father murdered by fellow rebels; and in his second year, he was seriously wounded, shot in the head and lower leg. In 2005, after slipping away during an ambush by Ugandan government forces, Ojok finally escaped.
He lived off the land for a number of days, before being captured and taken, first, to government barracks, where he was questioned; then to a rehabilitation centre for child returnees, those recently escaped or freed.
At first, Ojok ate as much food as he could and slept day and night. "It was wonderful to sleep in shelter, on a bed and mattress, with clean sheets," he told me. "After three years sleeping on the forest floor I thought I'd never sleep in a bed again."
For the first few weeks he barely spoke, other than to utter his name, and he never smiled. He was numb inside, and had been for a long time. However, as the weeks became months he started to feel more, receiving counselling and emotional support at the centre. Many former child-soldiers are unable to live with themselves post-conflict, the burden of guilt and sorrow is simply too great. Ojok was encouraged to be totally honest about all he had done. "I was scared to tell them at first, I felt so ashamed. But they helped me understand that I did what every other child would have done in my situation. They said they would not punish me and so I told them everything."
While at the centre he met someone from Outside the Dream, a charitable foundation that helps former child-soldiers get back to school. Ojok was determined to resume his education despite his years of absence, and dreamt of attending university.
I spent several weeks with Ojok, and before I returned to England I became his sponsor. While writing the novel he was always close by: I had recorded our conversations, and listening to his words from the privilege an comfort of my London flat, I saw more and more quite how extraordinary this boy was. He had suffered terribly, and he had been forced to inflict terrible suffering on others, yet he had found a way through; he had reclaimed his humanity. Could I have reclaimed mine, had I been forced to do what he did? I'm not sure.
When I finished writing I returned to Uganda. I was anxious to see Ojok, to give him a copy of the book. Back at school, I'd heard that he was near the top of his class. I waited at the school gates. It had rained that morning, but now the grey sky was slowly clearing, the sun pushing through a black bank of clouds. A young man walked towards me: he was smiling.
When I left Ojok that day, the clouds had cleared, the sky was blue, and the sun shone strongly. I know, somehow, that despite everything, Ojok will be OK. Yes, he'll still have nightmares and times when he'll agonise over what he did. Yet these cries of his conscience are also what make him human once more. n
To order 'Gorilla Guerilla' by Nick Taussig (Revolver, £10) at a special price of £9 with free p&p to UK mainland addresses please call 08700 798 897 or visit independentbooksdirect.co.uk
A nation at war: Uganda's civil strife
Since the late 1980s over two million people have been displaced in Uganda, and more than 25,000 children have been abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and forced to serve as combatants.
Two years of peace talks between the LRA and government stalled this year. Meanwhile, the LRA has become more active in neighbouring eastern Congo, already in the thick of its own complex civil wars. Capitalising on the surrounding chaos, the LRA has begun abducting Congolese children to bolster its numbers. And it is not the only militia group to do so – it is a practice rife in the region: according to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, there are more than 7,000 children fighting in government forces and armed groups in eastern Congo, and an estimated 5.5 million people have been killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo since the beginning of the armed conflict in 1998.
Outside the Dream offers education and hope to those whose lives are collapsing under the burden of extreme poverty and war. Former child-soldiers, orphans, the homeless and the vulnerable are given the opportunity to attend school. The charity has three main programmes: student sponsorship, educational partnership and micro-enterprise. NT
For more information about the charity, go to www.outsidethedream.org