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

News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
Colombia's James Rodriguez celebrates one of his goals during the FIFA World Cup 2014 round of 16 match between Colombia and Uruguay at the Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Travel
Fair trade: the idea of honesty boxes relies on people paying their way
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
News
news
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary