“I can forgive but I can’t forget”: one woman’s harrowing story of her life as a child soldier in Uganda

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Jackie Apio, 26 from Kolo Village, near Gulu in North Uganda isn’t your average 20-something.

Abducted from her family in 1997 when she was still a little girl, Jackie was forced to become a child soldier in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Led by the notorious Joseph Kony, the LRA claimed it was fighting for the freedom of the Acholi people in North Uganda but its systematic raids on villages and child kidnappings showed the group up for what it really was: a collection of drug and drink-fuelled rebels resorting to unimaginable brutality and cruelty for the sake of it.

It’s been over ten years since the conflict officially came to an end (it’s believed the LRA still exists in a greatly reduced incarnation outside of Uganda) but is it possible for women like Jackie to rebuild their lives? Here, she tells her story. 

As told to Nathalie Bonney

"I was abducted when I was just seven years old.

I was in my house when the rebels came. It was midnight and they started knocking on the door asking for the father of the house to come out. Then they just came into our home and started beating my mother and father; they stared at my chest to see if I had breasts, then they took me away. I started crying and one of the rebels said “if you don’t stop crying, we’ll kill you.” So I had to stop.

That first night, we travelled a long distance, stopping only in the morning. I was hungry and the stones and thorns on the ground pierced my feet.

Gradually I got used to life in the bush; I joined the raiding teams that went into the villages to find food and new people to abduct - children, women and men. I would beat those we abducted - if you didn’t do this, Kony’s men thought you wanted to escape.

One day we had nothing to eat in our camp so we waited for the aid people, who gave food to the IDP (internally displaced people) camps to come. Knowing that child soldiers were hiding in the bush, sometimes government soldiers from the IDP camps would shout out so we knew where to run for food: we would find cassava in the fields.

I would beat those we abducted - if you didn’t do this, Kony’s men thought you wanted to escape

By the time I was 12, my breasts had started to develop and the rebels told me I should have a husband now.

To decide who, they put their guns in a pile, each with a different number on it that matched up with one of the rebels. The girls were then made to pick a gun and whichever rebel had that number became their husband, just like that.

It didn’t matter how old the men were. I picked gun number eight and the man was very old, maybe even in his 70s. He was so old he couldn’t carry his gun himself. I shouted ‘no he can’t be my husband!’ and the rebels just threatened to kill me. The older women in the new wives group told me, ‘If you carry on they WILL kill you’, so I had to accept this elderly man as my husband.  

I suffered wounds and bruises in my private parts from when he raped me but in the bush there was no medical treatment or hospital you could go to - you just had to suffer the pain.  

One day fighting between the LRA and government soldiers started. 

I saw bullets flying across the air and  I remember seeing something resembling a phone on the ground: I didn’t realise it was one of the radios Kony’s men used to communicate with each other in the bush. When the government soldiers were near to me I put my hands up so they could see me and called out, ‘don’t shoot, I was abducted.’

They rescued me from the rebels. A government soldier carried me on his back and took me to GUSCO (Gulu Support the Children Organization) rehabilitation centre in Gulu town in northern Uganda.

I was in poor health from living in the bush and being hungry all the time. I had skin rashes and bruises from when I was raped. I received medical treatment and when I finally started to feel better I was taken to the headquarters of a local radio station, Radio Mega, so I could inform my parents that I was safe. [The station would alert Gulu town and the IDP camps of newly rescued child soldiers to try and reunite them with living family members].

Because I was so young when I was abducted, I could only recall the name of my mother.

Because I was so young when I was abducted, I could only recall the name of my mother.

I was eventually reunited with my  mother and went back home. When I got there she told me, ‘the day you were abducted, your father was killed.’ In tears I replied: ‘I wish I never came back. It would have been better if I’d stayed in the bush killing people, then knowing that my father had been killed.’

Even after we were freed, if you were a child soldier, there was a stigma. Girls would taunt, ‘you’re a killer, if you stay in this village people will want to kill you.’ Boys stayed away from the child wives too.

And then I heard about Warocho Kwan Kwawa, a woman’s group for former child soldiers and wives who meet together to support one another. The group was supported by farming charity Send a Cow - but although we learnt about farming and together sold our milk to bigger co-operatives, the group didn’t just offer agricultural assistance.

A counsellor called Alison came to Warocho to help us all share our stories - it’s about trying to move on from the past.

I am chairperson of the group. We also have a football team and  work as a dance group, performing at social functions and weddings. I like dancing very much: it takes away the trauma of being raped by the rebels. It’s also something we used to do when in captivity to dance away our hunger. So when I am happy, I dance and sing.

Warocho also works as a tailoring group: we sew bags and clothes that we sell in town and to tourists;  the group has contracts with two primary schools to make their uniforms.

Through the money we have made we are also going to buy more sewing equipment and want to invest in a tailoring centre near the South Sudan border. If I continue making bags, I can save money and will look to buy some land where I can build a house for my family.

I met my husband Owin Francis walking along the road on the way to Koro village. He just said ‘I want to be your friend.’ I said: ‘OK but I am from the bush and was a child soldier. If you accept me the way I am that’s OK but you have to know this about me.’

We now have three children. Lamuno Blessing who is six years old; Abey Timothy, who is four and Aloyo Diana, who’s one and a half year’s old. I have agreed with my husband that Diana will be our last child. 

If the rebels were to come back I couldn’t kill again, even if I  was forced.

The Bible tells me if someone did wrong to you, you have to forgive. I can forgive but I can’t forget."

Images: Aggrey Nshekanabo/Send a Cow