UGANDA: Charles Opira: "After eight years as a child soldier, all I want is to forget the past"

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Charles Opira was 10 years old when the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) abducted him as he walked to school in Gulu, northern Uganda, in 2000. He recalls fleeing rebel captivity in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in June:

"I was abducted from Atede village in Gulu when I was 10 years old; the rebels immediately took me to Southern Sudan where I was trained in how to fire a gun. I spent most of the years I was a rebel in Southern Sudan where we were commanded to raid the Dinka people for food and animals.

"I suffered a lot while in the bush; one of [LRA leader] Joseph Kony’s bodyguards hated me so much, he beat me a lot, saying he would kill me.

"Later, in 2006, we left Southern Sudan and went to the Garamba forest in Congo. We were the first to go with [deputy LRA commander] Vincent Otti and Okot Odhiambo to Congo. We cleared the way for Kony who later joined us.

"We finally settled in Congo and started growing crops for food.

"Then LRA rebels and the government of Uganda started peace talks. Everybody in the rebel camp was happy because we hoped we would finally go home.

"In 2007, things started getting bad, Kony became so angry and started killing some of his fighters. He said some rebels were betraying him. Any time Kony could order your killing.

"Eleven of us decided to escape. We left at 7am one day in June. Kony then ordered other rebels to follow us.

"They followed us for one week but we managed to evade them by hiding in the forest. At times we climbed up a tree and slept there and we could see our pursuers on the move, searching for us.

"Other civilians in Congo kept attacking us but we ran all the time to avoid being caught. When we met an elderly man who was working in his garden, we asked him to take us to Congolese soldiers. They took us to UN soldiers stationed at Kilowa [north-eastern DRC]. We handed over our guns to the UN soldiers and they gave us food. We were brought to the rehabilitation centre in Gulu.

"At the centre, we were treated well and reunited with our families. On the day I reached home, I cried a lot; everything was different and I felt so bad because of the past. I also found that my mother had died a few days earlier.

"Life is now getting better; I am working for a construction company in Gulu. Every month they pay me 120,000 shillings [US$80]. The work is hard but the money helps me to buy food and help my brothers in school.

"Next year I will begin farming in my village; right now all I want is to forget the past."