A True Story about Francis, an abducted child soldier in the Lord’s Resistance Army
as told by Father Okun-Lagoro Matthew
FRANCIS WAT was born in 1980. He is customarily (traditional Ugandan marriage ceremony) married to his wife, Lagum. Their names and photographs are fictitious for the purpose of their protection. They have three children, nicely spaced, with the eldest boy being 12 years old, the second child is a 5 year-old girl, and an eight month-old baby girl.
Francis Wat, a man of average height and build, is a great “joke-cracker”, a very humorous man. In the first minutes of this interview, he had already tickled me with a riddle when he said, “Fr., look at me, AN AMUNU KIKOME (I am a pure white man) what do you think?” I could not comprehend his euphemism. He went on, “see Father it is not usual that rural farmers are interviewed on video camera?” Then I caught the joke because, when he first returned from the bush, where he was a rebel child-soldier, this was the nickname that he and his catechist friend used to call themselves as they were living with us, in our house, for six months before they reunited with their families.
FW, as I will now call him, was actually saying that when we gave them hospitality in our house they became MUNUI (white men). Their status rose from “grass to grace”, from rebels to respectable citizens. The six months in our house was for them, the hand of God shaping their destiny from that of terrified ex-rebels to the psychological path of the free men that they are today, as genuine citizens.
From the experience of cold and rainy nights, hot and sweaty long walks to the comfort of breakfast mornings, lunch afternoons and supper evenings; from the smell of the gunpowder-filled environment to the sweet smell of roses adorned with the altar of the Eucharist that the priests celebrated every morning; from looting food from terrified villagers of northern Uganda and south Sudan to having a balanced diet served to them at the table of the priests. “We were MUNUI indeed,” said FW.
FW was abducted from Painyang village in Acholibur sub-county in August 1995, together with two kid brothers and a kid uncle. Those three did not make it back as they were all killed in South Sudan. One was clubbed to death because of exhaustion and swollen feet. One died in combat against the UPDF during Operation Iron Fist in the year 2002. His kid uncle has never returned and was never heard of again.
FW is a believer in God. He professes the Catholic religion. He is convinced that he is alive, back home and healthy because “God is merciful and saved him from the rebels, SPLA, UPDF and from HIMSELF”.
He narrates that from his captivity to his eventual escape and return home he saw the hand of God working, guiding, and protecting him.
FW is reluctant to talk about the details of his suffering, hardship and the atrocious things that happened in South Sudan. He was also critically injured in both buttocks when a UPDF bullet ripped through them and he spent six months in the city of Juba South Sudan until he recovered and was returned to combat activities.
When in South Sudan he did not even think of escaping as he did not know the terrain and bearings of that country. He was merely a teen ager and did not speak any of the Sudanese languages but his God lifted him up one day and brought him back to Uganda, in September of 1996, for military operations. They were given orders to come to Uganda and abduct other children to boost their ranks. They were also instructed to loot food and medicine from civilians and from medical units.
One morning in the area of Palabek in Northern Uganda, he was selected, along with a young boy from the Gulu area, to go and set land mines on the road and ambush vehicles since many vehicles would be traveling that road as it was a grand market day in the area. He said that beside the order of his combat commander, he also heard an inner voice saying to him, “FW, this is your day to escape, run for dear life and return to your loved ones”. Indeed he and his younger colleague ran away from the rebel ranks and escaped that day and they are both alive and well to this day.
FW recounts that when they returned to his village, along with his kid friend, his biological family members, upon seeing them, were so frightened that they scattered, running from the village in all directions fearing that they could have returned to carry out more abductions and kill people. However, after pleading incessantly with his grandfather, shouting after them, he took courage and returned to receive him and his colleague. The other villagers also regrouped and returned to receive them. The grandfather then carried out some tradition rituals to cleanse and receive them back home after the couple of years that they were “dead and now risen again”.
Their return from captivity to the village that day triggered a massive exodus of the people to Acholibur IDP camp, 10km on the Kitgum to Lira highway, fearing reprisal from the Lord’s Resistance Army. They remained in the camp until the year 2008.
He and his kid colleague, on the other hand, were brought to the LC chairman of the village by his parents who subsequently handed them, and their firearms, land mines and uniforms, over to the military unit in Acholibur sub county headquarters. When I asked him whether he was given the Amnesty Certificate and resettlement package that the Amnesty Commission was offering to ex-combatants, he said that, at that time, these provisions for the ex-rebels were not yet in place, so they were not blessed to receive them.
He went on to say that after they were delivered to the army in Acholibur, they were transferred to Pajimo barracks, and then, after one week, they were transferred to Gulu 4th Division Headquarters, and finally, to the army. Once the credibility of their intent was established they were sent to Gulu Save the Children Organization (GUSCO) for counseling and reintegration with their families.
“The first person who came to receive me from GUSCO was Rev. Fr. Matthew Okun-Lagoro, whose name I recalled from the day of his ordination, which I attended as a kid, and had asked the GUSCO administrators to make contact with. When he came he welcomed me and a Catechist who had also escaped and was in GUSCO with me and others, and he gave us hospitality in their house for six months.”
In the beginning of our stay with the priests, my new friend, the Catechist, and I were quite shy about sitting and eating at the same table with the five priests who hosted us, but that was the privilege we got while enjoying the hospitality of the clergy. The priests encouraged us to eat and sleep a lot and this was one of the best things that happened to us in a very long time. In captivity eating and sleeping were luxuries but in the priests’ house it was a therapy.
Fr. Matthew Okun-Lagoro, who was the Social Services and Economic Development Officer of Gulu diocese, after one month of our stay with them, introduced the two of us to an agriculture project of the Diocese.
This project was for training farmers in modern methods of agriculture which was being conducted in the Diocesan Farm and supported by the Catholic Relief Services, an American Catholic Church International Organization.
“Before my abduction by the rebel, I had never seen tractors plowing fields; I had never seen sunflower seeds being processed into oil; I had only seen an acre or two of cassava of my family and other families; in the Diocesan Farm however, my young mind was priviledged to see eleven acres of cassava in one single span of land, neatly managed by hundreds of farmers, as a food-for-work arrangement. The diocesan farm had enormous machinery for processing sunflower into oil and animal feeds, hurling rice and processing maize into flour and maize brand. Fr. Lagoro told me that farming must become a business in order to make a farmer sensible and economically connected. I kept these wise sayings to date,” said FW.
Upon completing six months in the priests’ house FW requested to return to school in order to give himself the opportunity for formal education, which was interrupted in primary four for two years during his captivity by the rebels in South Sudan.
He first joined St. Joseph’s primary school in primary five and after primary seven he joined St. Joseph’s Junior Technical School in Gulu to train in Carpentry and Joinery. After three years he qualified as a carpenter. For another three years FW engaged himself in a building company but eventually abandoned it in order to venture in to subsistence farming, which he claims has redirected his mind and life into becoming a formidable farmer in his own right.
He recounts that when he returned home his father had already been dead for five years. However, he had bequeathed to him one hundred acres of land as an inheritance. His mother had also died a few months earlier leaving him with two kid sisters who were already married to their husbands in Gulu areas.
He said, of the option put before him, that he decided to borrow thirty thousand Uganda Shillings from his grandfather to buy a she-goat. This goat gave birth to a male kid that grew and was sold to pay back the loan to his grandfather. The second time his goat delivered, they were twin females.
To make a long story short, FW muses that his blessings began to grow before his eyes and those of his community. Within 2 years he was able to buy a heifer, and now he has 7 cattle, 12 goats, 4 female pigs and one male pig. He also raised 45 chickens.
From the sales of his male goats and other crops he was able to buy two bulls and a plough, which have increased his farming capacity and yields.
He also thanks God for blessing him with a soul mate for a wife who also withdrew from performing her profession as a nurse to join him in pursuing the family agricultural enterprise. Together, with her, the family goal and targets are well laid out.
- Their primary activity is to bring up their three children to high academic heights.
- They also plan to build, for the family, a modern house in the next ten years.
- They also would like to expand their agriculture activities by investing 10 acres of their 100 acre land into growing fruit and wood trees.
- They have two bank accounts: one a Savings account and the other a Deposit account.
When I asked FW whether he has any message for his readers, these are three things he said:
- Believe and trust in God. One who believes and trusts in God also believes and trusts in self and in others.
- Open your hearts to the marginalized and the afflicted of society. Support and promote them because they have great potentials in them too.
- Transform the swords of your hearts and minds into plough shares. Isa. 2:3-4.
A note from the editor (Hope for Post-War Children in Northern Uganda):
Father Okun-Lagoro Matthew has had the opportunity to give many post-war children, both returnees and those that are born to returnees, a chance for a prosperous, self-sustaining future. At this time, though the war has been over for a while, poverty is the number one cause of illiteracy. These kids have had a very abnormal childhood, without education. They are now trying to raise families. They feel so blessed to find an opportunity to go to school or learn a trade. That is why we are here and actively soliciting funds from those of us who have been priviledged to not have had to go through the horrible things these people have lived through. The war has challenged their lives in every way for nearly three decades. The southern part of Uganda has not had an interference in their childhood and they are the competition for the kids of the north when it comes to employent. Uganda is a very poor country. People don’t normally eat every day. It is hard for us, in North America, to imagine not eating three square meals a day, but in Uganda that is only for the wealthy. Going to school is expensive. Those trying to rebuild their farms and homes in Northern Uganda are so poverty-stricken that they cannot find a way to afford school uniforms, fees, supplies, lunches, or transportation. Yet these kids and young adadultare eager and determined to learn and to give back to, and re-integrate into society.
It is with love for these kids that we at Hope for Post-War Children of Northern Uganda humbly plead for financial help to send these children to school. Many are waiting, with baited breath, to hear that someone has decided to sponsor them. Fr. Matthew has several students waiting for help (please see Meet the Children). We know things are hard financially,for most of us, in these times. We ask for any dollar amount of your choosing, that can easily fit into a monthly budget. A monthly donation helps us to plan accordingly. If you would like an opportunity to make a child very happy and very blessed, please visit our Go Fund Me website, where donations can be made, or we also accept donations through Pay Pal HERE. Pay Pal makes it easy to set up automatic monthly payments directly from your bank account. We assure you that 100% of your donation goes directly to the child’s education. The money goes to the school for their fees. To fully sponsor a child the cost is $ 65.00 per month. If you sponsor a child, updates will be provided on who that child is (or you may choose) and on his/her progress. We also can do co-sponsoring in order to make it more affordable. Any amount is helpful and appreciated by some very hopeful children. Your donations will be rewarded with much love and gratitude from these eager children. May God bless you abundantly!
“Whoever receives one such child in my Name, and whoever receives Me, receives not Me, byt Him who sent Me.” Mark 9:37
“Sell your possesions and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no theif approaches and no moth destroys.” Luke 12:33
“Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” Hebrews 13:16