Bernard Okello was 14 years old when the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army abducted him. For eight years he fought side-by-side with fellow child soldiers, who like him were taken from their families to fight a war, which eventually became one of Africa’s longest running conflicts. As a result, Bernard, or Benny as his closest friends in the LRA called him, was left with an emotional scar. Still, he forgives those who took him by force and forged him into a killer. His fellow Ugandans too forgive him for his crimes.
Bernard had been running from the LRA since he was seven. That was when he unwittingly became prey for the rebel group. They usually abducted boys starting from the age of 9, but Bernard looked like he was 10. “My aunt told me that I looked older than my age and that I had inherited that from my father”, says Bernard, who has no memories of his father who died when he was only six months old. “It was nice to know that I had this trait from my father, but it became some sort of a curse because we often had to hide in the bush outside of our village. Sometimes we didn’t know if it was the LRA or the army. When we were alerted, we needed to run.”
Surprisingly Bernard was not abducted during one of the times he was forced to run, but on a day when he was riding his bike from Gulu to his village in 2001. The then 14 year old was surrounded by men and boys, some not much older than him. In a blink of an eye, his life was turned upside down.
“I killed many times”
“We were taken to the bush where we were trained, first with sticks. Later we got real guns. I don’t remember the first time I killed, but I know I killed many times.” Bernard became a rebel, fighting the cause of LRA Leader Joseph Kony to overthrow the government in Kampala. But no matter how many times he killed for this cause, their goal never seem to come any closer. All that kept increasing was the havoc the LRA spread and the thousands of victims the war made. “If you hear everyday that we are going to win, you start believing in the message.”
There was also another message Bernard and his fellow fighters heard all the time: ‘come back from the bush!’. “We had a small radio, and sometimes we were listening to what they were saying about us. They called us to come out from the bush and leave the LRA behind. If we did, we would be forgiven and won’t be punished.” Radio stations in the north were trying to convince the rebels to defect. An amnesty act was in place, which would allow for a return without punishment.
“At the same time we also heard that Joseph Kony would be sent to the International Criminal Court”, Bernard says. He recalls that his leaders used this to tell them about the lies of the Ugandan government. They would be punished if they surrendered.
The killing and the pillaging never became easy for Benny or his friends. And the urge to go home never ceased. One day in 2009 during an attack, when the LRA was pushed out of Uganda into South Sudan, Bernard seized his chance and ran, hoping that the message of peace he’d heard on the radio was true. “I was out alone for three days. When I heard a dog barking, I knew I was close to other people. I followed the sound and arrived in a small settlement”. There Bernard told the people what had happened, and they helped him to get to Gulu. He received assistance to obtain an amnesty card and became a free man.
“I expected that Dominic Ongwen would also get an amnesty like me”, Bernard says. In January of this year, the former commander, also known as the ‘White Ant’, emerged from the bush in the Central African Republic. In 2005, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest. Together with four others, including leader Joseph Kony, Ongwen is wanted for crimes committed by the rebel group. Immediately after his arrest, the former commander was sent to The Hague in the Netherlands where he awaits trial.
“I received an amnesty for everything I did, and I was forgiven. I believe Dominic Ongwen should also be pardoned”, says Bernard. “It cannot be that me and many others who did so many bad things are free now and Ongwen is not.” Bernard believes that the former rebel leader’s place is in the community from where he was taken. “Here he can start his life again and be part of his family.”
Even though he was rehabilitated, Bernard says it hasn’t been easy. “Life, since leaving the LRA, has been hard. I discovered that some of my family members were killed during my time in the bush.” Still he says he prefers his life out of the bush over his time with the rebels. “I don’t have to think about running anymore. I’m a free man who has to live with my trauma for the rest of my life. That is my fate and it should be Ongwen’s too.”
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