Innocence lost: The child soldiers forced to murder

How does a former child-soldier cope with civilian life? Nick Taussig discovered the awful truth when he met Ojok Charles, a veteran of the Lord's Resistance Army

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

Sport
sportGareth Bale, Carl Froch and Kelly Gallagher also in the mix for award
News
Japan's Suntory Beverage & Food has bought GlaxoSmithKline's Lucozade and Ribena
news
News
A tongue-eating louse (not the one Mr Poli found)
newsParasitic louse appeared inside unfilleted sea bass
Life and Style
The reindeer pen at the attraction
lifeLaurence Llewelyn-Bowen's 'Magical Journey' and other winter blunderlands
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
Tana Ramsay gave evidence in a legal action in which her husband, Gordon, is accusing her father, Christopher Hutcheson, of using a ghost writer machine to “forge” his signature
peopleTana Ramsay said alleged discovery was 'extremely distressing'
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Windsor and Aljaz Skorjanec rehearse their same-sex dance together on Strictly Come Dancing
TV
Money
Anyone over the age of 40 seeking a loan with a standard term of 25 years will be borrowing beyond a normal retirement age of 65, and is liable to find their options restricted
propertyAnd it's even worse if you're 40
Arts and Entertainment
Perhaps longest awaited is the adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road with Brazil’s Walter Salles directing and Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart and Viggo Mortensen as the Beat-era outsiders
books
Arts and Entertainment
theatreSinger to join cast of his Broadway show after The Last Ship flounders at the box office
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Employment Solicitor

£30000 - £60000 per annum + Excellent: Austen Lloyd: Employment Solicitor - Ke...

Argyll Scott International: Risk Assurance Manager

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: Hi All, I'm currently recruiting for t...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Ashdown Group: IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

£23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

Day In a Page

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital
In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'