When I meet him in the village in which he grew up, Norman Okello leads me to a quiet space beneath two mango trees, far enough away that his mother and father and children won’t hear the stories he’ll tell. We’re in the north of Uganda and the scene around us is of a kind of pastoral paradise: huts of earth and thatch; the green shoots of sweet potatoes in the dark earth; hills in the distance. It’s hard to imagine this place as it was on January 1 1994, with a Ugandan army helicopter flying low, AK47s firing, and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), somewhere out there, whispering among the tall grasses.
On that day, Norman was 12, which was around the age at which the LRA liked to recruit its fighters. Led by the warlord Joseph Kony, the LRA’s child soldiers were notorious for their acts of creative evil. Local leaders would be warned off reporting their location to the Ugandan army by having their lips speared and padlocked; individuals caught riding bicycles – an act forbidden by Kony – would have their legs and buttocks cut off; people would be forced to torture one another. Norman spent two years fighting with the LRA. He saw these things.
A Ugandan child soldier in Kampala in 1985 (Photo: Dominique Aubert)
His abduction took place as he was sneaking back from the family rice field with his father. Five soldiers surrounded them, wearing stolen Ugandan army uniforms, their telltale dreadlocks betraying their true identity.
“Is this man your father?” one of them asked.
“No, sir,” said Norman.
The soldier raised a large stick.
“Is it your father? Tell me.”
“It is not my father.”
I ask Norman why he denied this.
“Because if I accept, they would make me kill him.”
The LRA often forced recruits to murder their parents so that they’d have no family to escape to. Somehow, though, Norman convinced them of his lie. His father was led away. They took Norman to a commander named Ojara.
“We’re going to write your name,” he said.
Norman expected Ojara to produce a pen. Instead, four teenagers beat him with large sticks. He was told, “If you scream, we will kill you.” Recalling the pain, Norman shakes his head. “It was beyond…” he says. “My face swelled up, my eyes bled. By the end, you could not recognise me.”
From a distance, Norman’s father watched in tears as his boy passed out.
Bloody, deformed and still in his school shorts, Norman was led away. “I totally lost any hope in anything,” he says.
The LRA’s grim genius was its ability to magic nice young boys into killers. The abandonment of hope Norman describes is the first stage of its psychological spell. Three days later, it took its next descending step.
They’d spent the intervening time marching. “They’d say, ‘Do you want a rest?’ ” Norman says. “If you say ‘yes’, they take you under a tree and kill you.’ ” The abductees were told they were unclean and were forced to eat away from the soldiers. Then, Norman was allowed in. They mixed shea oil and water and put the sign of the cross on his head, lips, hand and heart. “I was not unclean anymore,” he says. “I could even eat with them.” Was it a good feeling? “Yes.”
Video: Joseph Kony’s LRA
Around two months into his abduction, Norman was forced to kill. The victim looked 18 and was an LRA veteran of about four years who’d attempted escape. More than 300 new recruits were being marched – starving, dry-mouthed and exhausted – to the LRA base over Uganda’s northern border. As they gathered around, a commander instructed the newcomers to step forward and select a weapon. “Some picked clubs, some picked machetes, some picked an axe,” says Norman. “Me, I picked a bayonet.” They queued up, each boy beating and cutting the soldier. When Norman reached him, he was only half alive. He lifted his bayonet and pushed it into his chest.
With a gurgle, the boy died. “When you kill for the first time, automatically, you change,” says Norman. “Out of being innocent, you’ve now become guilty. You feel like you’re becoming part of them, part of the rebels.”
The psychological damage was severe. The first person to hear Norman’s story was Theo Hollander, a researcher at the National Memory and Peace Documentation Centre, a Christian Aid partner organisation that records the experiences of people in the 19-year conflict. As many as 38,000 young “soldiers” are estimated to have been abducted and forced to fight for the LRA. Many – like Norman – took years to recover sufficiently well that they could lead a normal life. His experience, although appalling, is relatively ordinary.
Hollander met Norman a decade after his escape and says that, even then, he was too afraid to sleep, so frequent were the nightmares from which he’d wake screaming. “During our interviews, he’d stand up and run away right in the middle of a sentence,” says Theo. “He’d have these severe anger attacks where he’d want to destroy anything in sight and he’d channel his anger through running.”
In the early days, Norman says, he’d fantasise about escape. “Then you feel the opportunity is not coming for you. You’re annoyed for your life. You say, I will die like this. You give up.” Depthless despair becomes atrocity’s fuel. “What you do, you do out of annoyance and frustration.”
Norman eventually told his story to Theo Hollander, a researcher at the National Memory and Peace Documentation Centre (Photo: Will Storr)
Daily life in the LRA was a roundelay of hunger, marching, bullying and beatings, interrupted by violent raids. During one early incursion, Norman watched a local leader die by being cut into pieces. Sickness was a constant worry, and Norman developed a belief that linked hope to the dereliction of physical health; if he thought about his family, he felt ill. “The moment you think about home, you start getting really thin. You’ll get diarrhoea and grow so tiny, you look like a skeleton. If you have it, you will die.”
Beatings were frequent, ostensibly to toughen recruits up. But they were also a component of the LRA’s spell. “It’s provoking your anger to cane others.” Indeed, Norman was soon assaulting newer recruits, and abducting them too.
Crucial to the LRA’s success in brainwashing its abductees was that it was as much a cult as an army. Kony and his followers believed he was possessed by powerful ghosts, with names such as Lakwena, Ching Po and Piece of Evil. Norman saw Kony many times, speaking beneath a fig tree on holy days to his gathered hundreds.
“Kony’s not scary,” he says. “He will talk with you in a friendly manner. He doesn’t want you to be afraid of him. He wants you to be a very strong man and look him in the eyes. And he can talk! From morning to sunset about very many things, mostly political. By the way a person behaves, you will recognise they’re possessed. When he’s talking, he’s shouting, his face looks changed. We see that. A common man could not speak from morning until sunset while standing.”
As Norman’s own violence grew, and he passed his munitions training, he received a full blessing ceremony. Successful children were lined up as their brigade clapped and sang, and handed new weapons sprinkled with holy water. “They do that to bring you and the gun together.” They were anointed, once more, with shea oil mixed with egg and a milk-like substance. After the ritual, the boys had to spend three days bare-chested, showing their markings. “You feel very proud,” he recalls. “You feel you’re now one of the family of the LRA. You are one of them, you are part of them, all you have is them. You forget about home.”
LRA leader Jospeh Kony (Photo: Reuters/STR)
The LRA’s recipe for making killers of children had three ingredients. First, they must abandon all hope of returning home. Next, they must be blooded by the act of a murder. Finally, through superstition and ritual, their new persona is inflated with its own sense of esteem. Underpinning all this, though, there’s a final constant: rage. Rage at their own taking; at their beatings and starvation; at the atrocities they’re witnessing; at the crimes they’re now committing. More than anything else when recounting, Norman talks of his own possession, not by the spirits but by the furies. “Whenever I saw anything, it was not with a good heart. All my mind was full of destruction.”
Norman admits to having killed many people. He was clearly an exceptional soldier, as he was selected for special artillery training in Sudan. “You really feel very brutal,” he says. “When I came back, I was very aggressive.” His group was asked to raid a Sudanese army camp. “They said, ‘Now we’re going to test the skills you were trained with. Each of you should come back with the testicle of an enemy.’” Norman felt excited. “I liked fighting at that time. You feel very proud to prove that you have skill. A big person.”
“You want to clear as many enemies as possible. What I always said was, you should enjoy killing your enemies, because if you don’t enjoy killing them, then your enemies will enjoy killing you.”
When I ask him how he got his grotesque trophy, he says, “You shoot and cut,” and mimes lifting a scrotum and penis. “You lift the whole system like this and cut upwards from below. The man I took from, he was dead, but even when he’s alive, you can cut, so long as his strength’s not there.” His brigade filled four plastic washing basins with testicles. “Our commander was very happy.”
The worst atrocities during Norman’s time with the LRA took place during what’s now known as the Kitgum massacres. “They told us that the elders of Kitgum were picking weapons and informing the government and they had to be taught an unforgettable lesson.” They moved through the villages of the region, slaughtering all those who hadn’t fled. “The human beings who are around you, they have to be killed. People were lined up and stabbed with bayonets, using stones on the heads of the weak ones.”
A mother was instructed to eat her son and was beaten to death with a padlock when she refused; toddlers were tossed into burning buildings; the heads of the disabled were staved in with the butts of rifles; two young boys were told to beat each other to death with sticks while soldiers cheered them on.
Norman Okello is now a happily married father of two (Photo: Will Storr)
The Kitgum massacres took Norman back to Uganda, which reignited his longing for home. He took his chance to escape soon afterwards, eventually turning himself in to Ugandan soldiers, who transferred him to a treatment centre in Gulu. Word reached his mother that Norman was back.
His head was swollen and bald from the heavy loads he’d had to carry on it. He had severe conjunctivitis. His stomach was bloated with hunger. She didn’t recognise him. He had to beg, “It’s me! Your son!” Before he was taken, Norman’s father remembers him as a respectful child who worked hard at school and “prayed a lot”. When he returned, he’d become someone else. He’d beat other children, at one point “kicking his sister almost to the fire”, at another sending a cousin to hospital. “The way I behave, it was very rough, even to my parents,” says Norman. “Sometimes even my plan was about killing them.”
Years of therapy involved the rebuilding of his personality by the repetition of one simple message: it wasn’t your fault. “The counsellors always said, you leave what you’ve done in the bush,” he says. A form of group therapy involving play with other young survivors of abduction was also helpful. “When you play football with your friends, the former child soldiers, you say, ‘I think destructive things. What about you? How do you feel?’ They say, ‘Even me, I feel the same.’ And, for sure, you feel very good.”
Today, Norman is a happily married father of two. “I’m normal now. I’m just another member of the community. But the nightmare is there. I dream about someone coming to abduct me.”
Before we leave the quiet of the mango trees, Norman tells me he fears Kony’s return. Along with his diminished but still active LRA, the warlord is believed to be in the Central African Republic. Does Norman believe the evil presences are still with him?
He nods. “The spirit is still there.”
Film by Christian Aid/Tom Pietrasik. Will Storr travelled with the assistance of Christian Aid. For more details and videos, see christianaid.org.uk/in-konys-shadow
A few of our school candidates are pictured below. See their stories in Meet the Children.