The name ‘Joseph Kony’ – leader of Ugandan rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army(LRA) – is known across the globe, following the ‘Kony2012’ campaign which has seen nearly 85million hits on YouTube.
James Odong from Uganda – now a senior World Vision staff member –was captured by Kony’s army at the age of 19 and came face-to-face with the rebel leader himself.
After escaping his captors in 1989, James worked to set up a Children of War Centre which has helped more than ten thousand former child soldiers. Here, James tells his story for the first time.
I only met Kony once; but I knew immediately it was him. He visited the rebel camp in the bush where we were held as prisoners. I was paraded in front of him by a rebel soldier who told Kony I was a “traitor”.
Kony looked me in the eye. Gesturing to me and five other prisoners, he told the soldier: “Understand them, and deal with them.” Several of my fellow prisoners were later murdered.
Life changed forever
This happened a week after I was taken prisoner – a day I still remember well. I was 19 years old, and the year was 1989. It was a Friday morning and I was riding my bicycle through Gulu, my town in northern Uganda, when I fell off and broke a bone in my hand. I went to a hospital 3km outside town to get treatment.
While the doctor was putting my hand in plaster, there was a commotion outside. He rushed out to see what was going on – and never returned.
When I went outside, there was a scene of chaos as rebel soldiers looted the hospital for drugs. I fled across the courtyard into a basement – but, at that moment, a group of soldiers came back out of the basement and grabbed me.
That’s the moment I was abducted – and my life changed forever.
Facing certain death
They removed my shirt and shoes, and forced me and other prisoners to walk for three days into the bush. They were convinced I was a government spy and that my hand was in plaster because I had been shot – not because I had fallen off my bicycle.
The rebel soldiers told me I had a simple choice: either accept I was a spy, and start fighting for the LRA on the front line – or be killed.
Both scenarios meant certain death. Even if they didn’t kill me, with no military training I would be sure to die on the front line.
Abuse “that you can’t imagine”
Six of us were imprisoned together in a makeshift camp in the bush. One of them, a man my age, had his head cut open with a machete by one of the soldiers. They left him for dead. Miraculously, he survived and is now a university lecturer. We still stay in touch.
Anyone who tried to escape was brought back to the camp and killed in front of us. We were forced to sit in a circle and watch. I was held there for 47 days.
Every day, children were killed in front of me with a machete. Some of them were as young as nine.
I saw all kinds of abuse. Intimidation and sexual abuse that you can’t imagine. If a child cried because their feet were swollen and they couldn’t keep walking, they were killed with a machete. I saw all this.
It was my broken hand that saved me. They knew I couldn’t fight until it had healed, so I was spared being sent to the front line. A school friend, who was conscripted by the LRA, hatched a plan to help me escape.
Looking to the future
Out of every terrible situation comes good. In the years after my experience, I met scores of children who had witnessed the same. Their stories were more than just words to me; I understood how they felt and the devastation it wrought on their lives day after day.
There was no support, and little understanding of what they were going through so I helped to set up World Vision’s Children of War Centre in northern Uganda, to address the needs of children traumatised by war. We have helped rehabilitate more than ten thousand children from Uganda and neighbouring DR Congo.
I’m now Associate Director for Peacebuilding at World Vision International. We work with all people involved to help them overcome the horrors of war, become reunited with their families, and to lead as normal a life as possible.
This is just one part of Africa. Children continue to be affected by conflict right across the globe, across generations. We have a responsibility to support children affected by the horrors of armed conflict – and to shield them from seeing things that no child ever should.
James Odong is Associate Director for Peacebuilding at World Vision International. He has been speaking at a World Vision UK summit, with representatives from nine governments, the UN and the ICC – on how to protect children from armed conflict.