From schoolboys to ruthless killers: Rehabilitating the abducted lost boys

More than a decade after war ended in northern Uganda, the legacy of the conflict lingers on in

From schoolboys to ruthless killers: Rehabilitating the abducted lost boys

Denis Ojara was a schoolboy of 14 who had never laid a finger on a weapon when he was

abducted to fight for the rebel warlord Joseph Kony and his brutal guerrilla group, the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Within a year he had gone from a child crying for the mother who pleaded desperately with the soldiers not to take him away, to a trained killer whose prowess brought him praise from the elusive Kony himself.

His ordeal under the kill or be killed regime in Kony’s bush camps, and the journey of reintegration back into his community, have taken a heavy toll on him.

As many as 30,000 Ugandan men and women have similar tales to tell of their lives as child soldiers or sex slaves for the rebel commanders during the 20 years of havoc the LRA wreaked in the north of the country.

Denis tells his in the office of a local youth organisation in Gulu town, 25km from his home village Koch Goma.

Inside is shaded from the fierce equatorial sun but Denis speaks with his eyes closed as if the spotlight on his past is just as blinding.

He was taken in 1996, he says through a translator. His father had died in the fighting, leaving his mother with four children to support. They were on the road to Gulu when the

soldiers stopped them.

They told Denis’s mother they wanted him to go with them to “help” them in the bush, a euphemism that needed no explanation.

My mother started crying and pleading with them,” Denis remembers. “When I saw her I started crying too. But they said, whether you cry or not it will not change anything.

Life in the army camp was cruel and hard beyond anything Denis could have imagined. Hunger was a constant torment.

“We would pick leaves and eat them just to keep alive,” he recalls.

Kony’s food supply strategy was to raid the local villages. The people might go hungry, but that would be the least of their worries, for the attacks were frequently accompanied by slaughter.

Pangas, the farmer’s machete; hoes, sticks, and other improvised weapons were used, as well as rifles and bayonets. Denis recalls how he was trained to use a gun — first he had to learn not to fear a bullet.

They would take us to a stream and tell us to stand there and start firing at us. If you panic you could easily get shot.

Fear was not tolerated, nor dissent, both crimes punished by death.

Denis’s commander was Okot Odhiambo, one of five LRA leaders later indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity, although he evaded capture and died in 2013.

Odhiambo told the young conscripts they were destined for greatness because Kony would become president and the boys would be his army, but all Denis could think about each day was how to survive to the next.

Every year on February 21, people gather at the memorial for the victims of the 2004 Barlonyo massacre. Local people want the memorial replaced as the plaque refers to 121 victims —  however, it is now widely accepted the figure was at least 301 and possibly as high as 580 when those who died later of injuries and those who were abducted and never heard from again are counted.

Every year on February 21, people gather at the memorial for the victims of the 2004 Barlonyo massacre. Local people want the memorial replaced as the plaque refers to 121 victims —  however, it is now widely accepted the figure was at least 301 and possibly as high as 580 when those who died later of injuries and those who were abducted and never heard from again are counted.

The first person he remembers killing was an old man. “As soon as he saw us, he started using offensive language, calling us chicken thieves. So we got offended and killed him,” he says. After that, he admits, the killing became easier.

Even when he was deployed to raid his own village, he didn’t flinch. “We started chasing the people while others laid ambush to wait for those who ran. We had logs and beat them on the head until they died.”

Possibly that incident was what first impressed Kony, but Denis also remembers a raid on the town of Soroti which earned him praise from senior officers.

We killed so many people and abducted so many that when we came back, they said I was so courageous and strong-hearted that I was the best out of the 65 of us. Kony said I had a strong heart like him and I should stay with him for a while.

As the years went by, the atrocities mounted, and their savagery intensified. Denis was involved in terrorising the village of Omot, where in 2002, 28 people were hacked to death and their remains cut up for cooking.

They began with a local council official. He was chopped into pieces, put into the biggest pot available and cooked. Only for the arrival of a UPDF unit, Denis is clear he would have been eaten.

In 2004, Denis was part of the unit that carried out one of the worst atrocities of the war.

Barlonyo village had become a place of misery and squalor for thousands of internally displaced people moved there under orders of a government whose troops were being outfoxed and outfought by the LRA.

Such IDP camps formed all over northern Uganda and were desperately overcrowded and poorly protected.

Lilly Amony’s kitchen: ‘I am born of this land and I am going to continue farming it,’ she insists, having been widowed in her 20s.

Lilly Amony’s kitchen: ‘I am born of this land and I am going to continue farming it,’ she insists, having been widowed in her 20s.

On the afternoon of February 21, Odhiambo deployed his forces with orders to kill, loot, and

abduct with abandon. They easily overcame the UPDF troops who, by some accounts, were mostly away at a local market and by other accounts, ran away.

They set fire to the straw roofs of the mud huts, burning to death those who could not escape and shooting, hacking, clubbing, and mutilating those who could.

Denis says planning for the attack took a week and the justification provided was that Barlonyo had taken in escapees from the LRA and must be punished.

The extent of that punishment is still disputed. At the edge of the village, a government memorial to the dead states that 121 people died in the attack, but surviving locals say the true toll was almost five times greater.

The guide from the Ministry of Tourism loyally recites the official version — how the people asked to be moved to the IDP camp for their safety, rather than being forced to go there, and how 58 brave government troops were vastly outnumbered by hundreds of LRA soldiers, as opposed to lax troops being easily overcome by just scores of opposition.

But even he says the official tally is wrong. Survivors initially counted 301 bodies, but 71 others died in hospital and when people returned to rebuild the village, a census found scores more had been abducted and never heard of again. In total, it is believed 580 people were lost.

It was a turning point for Denis, who had long thought of escaping but was terrified to try.

When you are caught they kill you, but the way they kill you it’s so horrific,” he says in a near whisper. “They put firewood and start a fire and they roast you until even your eyes pop. I saw it live.

For eight years, Denis stifled his feelings and followed orders. He never had true friends because you could never risk being open with another abductee, but he remembers occasions he can just about characterise as happy.

“When we would raid and get people’s radios, we would listen and dance. We celebrated Christmas and Independence Day.”

Those same stolen radios broadcast government appeals to the abductees to come home, running testimony from former child soldiers who had escaped. The camp commanders said it was lies and that any boy who turned himself in would be prosecuted for murder.

Denis wasn’t sure where the truth lay but he knew he had to leave. One day, exhausted after a raid, Denis watched as one by one his unit fell asleep, then picked up his rifle, a radio and ran.

He made it to a village, turned himself in to a local official, and spent the next two years in a refuge for boys like him. His beloved mother had died in his absence and he was devastated.

He met a girl and she became pregnant with twins but just one, Felix, survived. The relationship failed and Denis was devastated yet again. “She got someone else who is maybe better than me,” he says.

The feeling of not being good enough plagues Denis. With his schooling cut short, he lacks skills and survives by farming part of his late father’s land. It bothers him that it is his brother who pays Felix’s school fees.

He also faces mistrust in his community. “It’s still not easy because of the stigma. People are still talking a lot about formerly abducted children and yet these atrocities that they committed, it was never in our will.”

Remorse is always with Denis, although he does his best to rationalise it away. “Number one, I know my parents never taught me to kill, and two, God doesn’t allow people to kill one

another, but the circumstances that I was in made me do all those things.”

He knows Kony is still at large and believed to be responsible for child abductions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. “It’s so difficult to predict the mind of Kony

because so many things have been tried,” he says.

Soldiers have fought him and there have been peace talks and all these have not yielded results. But one thing I believe in is that everything has an end. One day it will end.

We run, we step on people... they are dead

Daniel Okweng and his family were lucky to escape an LRA massacre and have rebuilt their lives, with education at the heart

Daniel Okweng is like any other 15-year-old boy you might know.

He tries to act cool, but creases up in helpless laughter when a smartphone app takes his picture and adds rabbit ears and whiskers.

He’s a little embarrassed when his mother bursts into song by way of greeting, but his foot taps along unconsciously to her beat.

He stands with awkward stiffness, looking downwards as if trying to hide his newly gained height, but ignites into assured and graceful action when a football falls to his feet.

Yet, Daniel is unlike other 15-year-olds you might know, because his home is a mud hut in northern Uganda and his family is among the survivors of one of the worst massacres perpetrated by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) during the 20 years of terror the rebel group inflicted on the region.

Daniel was 18 months old at the time and his parents, Betty and Joel, had already made the difficult decision to send him and his brother, Emmanuel, then aged six — the two youngest of their seven children — to live with their oldest sister, a teacher who lived in the comparative protection of Lira, a large town 30km away.

Betty, now 55, is vivacious, with an ever-present smile, but her face grows tense as she remembers how life was on the family’s small farm on the outskirts of Barlonyo

village under the constant fear of an LRA attack.

Daniel Okweng, left, with his parents Betty and Joel, and his family. Daniel featured on the Trócaire Lenten appeal box in 2012, aged nine. He has completed his primary schooling, with Trócaire paying his fees, and begun his second month in secondary school as a boarder.

Daniel Okweng, left, with his parents Betty and Joel, and his family. Daniel featured on the Trócaire Lenten appeal box in 2012, aged nine. He has completed his primary schooling, with Trócaire paying his fees, and begun his second month in secondary school as a boarder.

The first time it happened, the young soldiers raided their home and their neighbours for food and took Joel with them to help carry their stolen grains and beans.

Remarkably, after a few anguished days, they let him go, possibly because they needed farmers to keep farming so that they could produce food to raid.

The second time, they found a copy of the gospel in Betty and Joel’s hut and, with the LRA claiming to be staunchly Christian, they ordered Joel into the bush to pray with their unit.

Betty did not dare think what would happen, but Joel’s luck was in again. The soldiers ran into a Ugandan army patrol and, in the fighting that followed, Joel fled back home.

The couple knew they couldn’t stay, though. Barlonyo, a half hour’s walk away, had become a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) and they gathered a few belongings and joined the thousands crammed into makeshift shelters and huts.

They would slip back to their farm from time to time to dig up cassava, the Uganda staple that can keep fresh in the soil for over a year after it has matured. On the day of the massacre, Betty went to get cassava and spotted footprints in the soil.

“Gun boots,” is how she describes them. Nobody else had boots, so she knew immediately there was danger.

As she made her way back to the camp, she met fleeing Ugandan soldiers. “They say, ‘run very fast — they have defeated us’,” she says.

I saw children coming and thought they were our own children coming to protect us, but they were soldiers of the LRA.

Betty ran, joining others who were escaping the slaughter that carried on in the camp for several hours. She kept going through fields of crops, through long grass and bush, soldiers and shooting following closely behind.

When we are running, we step on people, thinking that they have stumbled, but that was the bullets, they were dead.

They were among 300 to 580 people who died or disappeared (the figures remain in dispute).

All night, Betty ran, walked, ran, and walked some more, afraid to stop until she reached another village, where other escapees had gathered. She had no idea what had

happened to the rest of her family and it was the following day before she found them.

By what she calls a miracle, the family had escaped the worst again, though their third daughter had suffered a serious head injury and the physical damage and trauma combined have left her reliant on her parents to care for her and her two children.

There were more minor miracles. When they returned to the Barlonyo camp, amid the devastation, the decomposing corpses and the howling bereaved, they found that their hut, freshly roofed with still damp grass, had repelled most of the flames.

“I find my grinding stone and mortar and the drinking pot with water still in it,” she says, still marvelling at her luck.

The family had to move to another IDP camp in Apac, 40km away, and spent two difficult years there.

“There was 8,000 people in that camp. There was a lot of sickness and I was sick also,” says Betty.

“Doctors were very afraid to travel to us. They came from Lira for two hours and then go back to town. Women with babies were failing. When the time came to deliver, there was difficulty. Many children died and there was no school.”

After the 2006 peace agreement between the LRA and the Ugandan government, Betty and Joel and their neighbours began the cautious return to Barlonyo.

When we come back, we find the home is just bush. There was no seed, no hoes, no food, nothing at all. We had nothing to send our children to school.

Trócaire helped many returning families to get their farms and small enterprises functioning again and to re-establish the community structures that gave them a sense of mutual support and security.

“When Trócaire came here, we were very, very hopeless,” says Betty, explaining how the charity helped her and Joel to reclaim their farm and introduced new techniques to ensure better harvests.

Best of all for Betty and Joel was that Trócaire sent their children to school. Betty and Joel would have taken any hardship themselves, but they could not bear the idea of their children facing into a future without an education when all that awaited them was poverty and struggle.

Daniel Okweng was on the Trócaire box when he was 9.

Daniel Okweng was on the Trócaire box when he was 9.

Daniel completed his primary schooling, with Trócaire paying his fees and he has now begun his second month in a state secondary school as a boarder in Lira 30km away.

Emmanuel is also being supported to go to nursing school, while the boys’ young cousins, 11-year-old Vicky and nine-year-old Cockson are attending primary school.

In 2012, at the age of nine, Daniel featured on the Trócaire Box as part of that year’s Lenten appeal and he is still bemused by the idea that a million households saw his smiling face every day for over a month.

He says he’d like to come to Ireland some day and see a few of the faces who know his, but in the meantime, he’s a young man determined to make the most of his latest adventure.

“Before, my English was not well, but now it is better,” he says of the common language Ugandans strive to learn to get around the myriad of tribal tongues that complicate communications across the country.

English and maths are his favourite subjects in a long academic day that begins at 7am, but he also likes practical subjects, such as horticulture, hygiene and sanitation.

“I want to be a doctor,” he says.

The reason why is to support my family and my community, because sometimes people in the villages, they don’t know about their health, and it will be possible when I am a doctor to instruct them about their health and how they can prevent diseases and how they are supposed to treat them.

Emmanuel teases him that he will be playing catch-up with his big brother, who hopes to convert his nursing diploma to a medical degree. “When I am established, I will employ him,” he says.

Daniel doesn’t rise to the provocation but simply grins as if to say, that’s what you think. Then he’s off running to play football, inspired by his Premier League heroes, as many are in a country that follows British football fanatically.

Daniel’s team is Arsenal, ironically for a country that for so long was torn apart by guns, but that was in the past. Daniel is now part of a generation who run for fun, not for their lives.

Lilly’s struggle

Lilly Amony’s father was a progressive thinker but the ghosts of Ugandan tradition followed him to the grave.

An astute and hardworking farmer, he had amassed an impressive 50 acres of land over his lifetime and was keen to share the fruits of his labour with the seven children he and his wife raised in Aremo village in the north of the country.

His five boys and two girls were each allocated an equal share of the land, regardless of the fact that Lilly had married and moved away to another village which, in many Uganda families, would mean she was now someone else’s responsibility.

However, the war left Lilly a widow in her 20s with four children to raise, and after being put off her husband’s farm according to traditional rules that allow a deceased husband’s family reclaim his land, she returned to Arema.

From there, the war forced the entire family into an IDP camp and they only returned when peace was restored in 2006. And then Lilly’s own personal war began.

Lilly Amony was left a widow in her 20s with four children to raise — see her story below left.

Lilly Amony was left a widow in her 20s with four children to raise — see her story below left.

Her siblings were content to let her use the land to support her children but when she used her income from a good harvest in 2009 to buy bricks to start to build what would be the village’s first brick-built, iron-roofed house, one of her brothers objected, arguing she had no right to a permanent presence there.

The house was to have just one room but having any structure of brick and metal is a significant achievement and a source of tremendous pride in this region where the people remember with grief how so many perished when their straw-roofed huts were set on fire by the marauding forces of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Lilly’s brother knocked down the partially built home and stole her bricks, physically attacking her and threatening her with worse when she confronted him. She built again but the pattern was repeated. She was also restricted to a tiny portion of land to farm.

Lilly appealed to the local clan leaders but her brother bribed them to ignore her plight. Her siblings were intimidated into turning a blind eye. Her father, terminally ill with cancer, tried to intervene but the family took no heed of him and he died in 2012, his wishes dishonoured.

Eventually, with the help of ARLPI, a protracted series of meetings, negotiations and finally face to face mediation took place and, in July last year, Lilly finally got formal recognition of her ownership of two acres of land — far less than she was due but it has been clearly registered and demarcated and at 45 she finally feels secure for the first time in 25 years.

I used to tell people, here is where I am going to die. After all, I am born of this land and I am going to continue farming it.

However, Lilly has a lot of living to do first. Her father’s daughter to the core, she has already saved enough to acquire another acre of land, and she and her eldest son have gone to her late husband’s village and made a claim on his farm too.

She says tensions still remain between her and her brother but he accepted the mediation process so his discontent does not bother her anymore. She says she is determined that her own two sons and two daughters will be treated equally and respect each other’s legacy.

“I am going to write a will very clearly giving my daughters rights,” she says.

Forced off land

Neko Adong says she is treated like a squatter on her own land.

The 53-year-old grandmother was widowed at the age of 25 when her husband was murdered by the Lord’s Resistance Army in a vicious attack during which Neko was also caught, stabbed in the head with a bayonet, and left for dead.

She suffered serious injuries that left still visible scars and continue to cause her difficulties to this day, but somehow she survived and overcame her loss and trauma to remain farming on her husband’s four acres on the outskirts of Barkic village where she had moved as a young bride.

There has never been a fortune to be made from the land. It is fertile but the lack of irrigation or any water retention infrastructure means planting can only take place in short bursts before the twice-yearly rains and a successful harvest depends on those rains not falling short which they sometimes do.

Neko Adong says she is treated like a squatter on her own land after her husband was murdered by the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Neko Adong says she is treated like a squatter on her own land after her husband was murdered by the Lord’s Resistance Army.

However, Neko knew how to make the best of it and she did so with the blessing of her father-in-law who had no issue with her remaining a part of the family. However, when the old man died in 2012, other members of his family moved in on Neko, declaring her land part of their legacy, and they tried to force her off it.

Despite her marriage into the family, despite her terrible loss and her more than 20 years of dedicated labour on the land which she needed for her very survival, she was the one being classified as an outsider, landgrabber and squatter.

Like most women in her position, Neko could not afford to go to court to secure rights to the land, and the dispute was already deeply entrenched and her appeals to local clan leaders exhausted when the ARLPI finally became aware of her plight.

After lengthy and difficult mediation, agreement was reached last September that Neko would hold two acres of the land — half of what she was due but a result she welcomed nonetheless.

Unfortunately, that was not the end of the matter. In October, she received a letter purporting to be from a law firm acting on behalf of a local person, accusing her of trespassing and causing damage to the land by excavating it.

It orders her removal and the reinstatement of the land, making a demand for compensation of 3m Ugan-dan shillings or around €670 — roughly all she could hope to earn in a year, threatening a court injunction in default. She was given two weeks to fulfil all demands which, even if she had accepted, would have been impossible for her to deliver.

The content of the letter, which looks official, is bogus but its tone and the fact that it came after a signed mediation agreement, worries Neko.

“After mediation, things were okay, but since that letter I live under fear,” she says.

She is particularly concerned because there are only women and children in the household not sons or male members of the extended family who might serve as a deterrent to those who torment her.

“The only way I can defend myself now is to inform people”, she says of her now constant need to keep justifying her position by explaining what happened and why she is no squatter.

ARLPI is going to continue supporting her and monitoring her situation.

After years of exploitation, it’s one step at a time

Land is life in Uganda, where 80% of the population depends on agriculture. The fertile red soil provides food for the household and, if fortune and the rains favour, a surplus to sell for cash.

The importance of the land for survival means it is often the flashpoint for bitter local conflict and cruel discrimination.

That’s particularly true in northern Uganda where, until the LRA insurgency in 1986, a complex system of traditional customs and oral agreements guided land ownership and inheritance.

During the 20 years of fighting that followed, most of the population were forced into camps for internally displaced people. When they began to venture home again after 2006, following 10 or 20 years away, the landscape — and their place in it — had changed utterly.

The bush had reclaimed their farms, the trees or other natural landmarks that used to indicate boundaries were unrecognisable, and the elders who had overseen plot division and transfers and carried mental land registries in their memories were dead.

The chaos was ripe for exploitation by anyone who could muscle their way in on someone else’s land; too often this is what happened. Individuals, sometimes even entire communities, were left with nothing.

Sean Farrell, the director of Trócaire’s international division who worked in Uganda from 2007 to 2013, recalls the fresh trauma many people faced in that period immediately after the war.

“What was most tragic about it was that conditions in the IDP camps were awful and the poverty levels were shocking and at the moment when you felt people had hope and were moving home, that was also the moment when some people took the opportunity to deprive others of their land. It was particularly bad for women but also old people,” he says.

“It was relatively lawless at the time of moving back, so the power of the fist and the power of the panga [machete] was very much what ruled. It’s been hard work for a lot of organisations since then making sure that a lot of those wrongs were righted.”

Trócaire has been to the fore in supporting individuals and families to reclaim their land and establish recognised boundaries.

The charity works chiefly in the Acholi region through ARLPI, the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, a multi-faith coalition of church and lay people who initially came together to work for peace during the LRA terror and now focus on more local disputes.

Trócaire funds dispute resolution services, with experienced counsellors, mediators, and legal experts going out into the communities to assist people who can rarely afford the cost of going to court where cases are protracted, expensive, and often corrupted.

It also funds extensive research projects to try to piece together the complicated map of land holdings in the region — no mean feat in a region where land can be held by a family unit, an extended family unit, a sub-clan, or a clan with crossover between them all.

This “customary land” represents as much as 90% of the land in the region where freehold and leasehold titles are rare. At the heart of the system is the principle that the land can not be sold which sounds a noble idea but not everyone gets equal user rights.

The system has operated for centuries and is patriarchal so that the man is the head of the household and controls the land.

While a woman can inherit rights to family land and a share of her husband’s, in reality once she leaves home, her share often reverts to her usually male siblings, and if her husband dies or he leaves her, his family is likely to throw her off the land.

That’s despite the constitution of the country, the Land Act, and a new National Land Policy — of which large tracts were taken almost verbatim from Trócaire policy papers — all stating that women and other vulnerable groups, such as the unmarried, children, the elderly, and people with disabilities, all have equal rights to land.

Abdala Latif Nasur works in a Trócaire-funded project and says education around the law and rights is a big part of its work in communities. By engaging in this, it is hoped that disputes can be prevented, but at the moment his office is extremely busy.

“We deal with about 80 disputes a year,” he says. “It can take months to negotiate a settlement where all parties are willing — if not, it can take years.”

Dispute resolution is a painstaking process but with newspapers frequently reporting killings over land, it is essential to community life. It’s also preferable to the courts, he says, the adversarial nature of which can leave lingering bitterness.

Under the alternative dispute-resolution mechanism, each party is counselled separately

and if they agree to mediation, the process is set out with meticulous detail so that nobody feels disadvantaged. Even the date and venue for hearing must be agreed between the parties — there are no unilateral decisions taken.

On the day of the first hearing, as many as 100 people may be present and testimonies can take many hours.

They may reconvene on many separate occasions and when agreement is finally reached, a memorandum of understanding is signed. ARLPI monitors its implementation and after a year, will call the sides together again to let them raise any concerns.

“It needs patience,” says Abdala. “It’s one step at a time.”


Caroline O’Doherty travelled to Uganda last week with Irish charity Trocaire. Trocaire has supported humanitarian aid and development projects in Uganda since 1995 and has had a physical presence there since 2008.

It has been particularly active in the northern region, assisting communities to recover from decades of war, supporting agricultural projects, training for work, women’s rights, land rights, and access to water, healthcare and education.

It was one of the first organisations to respond to the needs of the South Sudanese refugees who began pouring into northern Uganda in late summer 2016.

By the end of this year, it will have spent €365,000 on projects in the Bidi Bidi camp through local nongovernmental and local church organisations run by Ugandan personnel and encompassing all faiths.

Trocaire’s annual Lenten campaign is currently underway.

Donations can be made online or over the phone by calling 1850 408 408.

More in this section

News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up