Alex keeps secrets. Secrets from when he was a boy in northern Uganda. For twelve years his mother has been too scared to ask him about them.
Alex Olango was ten when he was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the armed group that has fought against the Ugandan government since the 1980s. He was alone by a river near his home when a strange man wearing ragged army fatigues grabbed him. A gun was put to his head. His hands were bound together and he was beaten. He disappeared for two years.
Conflict between the Ugandan Government and the LRA first began in the 1980s ©YoTuT
Scars of a boy soldier
10 years after escaping from the LRA, Alex decided to share his secrets of living in the bush and being a child soldier with the notorious armed group. The title of his book published this month,Scars of a Boy Soldier, is a reference to the hundreds of lashes he received at the whim of his commanders.
Alex is one of tens of thousands of children who were abducted. ‘This is a story for Uganda,’ he says. ‘They need to know what happened. There are children out there still suffering.’
‘My mother is struggling with reading the book,’ he says. ‘Ever since I came back from the bush she has never asked me anything. I know she has questions. But she thinks it’s not right to ask.’
It is a book of tragic and horrific secrets – his abduction, terrifying initiation, and eventual escape. It’s a journey that took him from being a playful boy to a war crime victim, forced into fighting.
Now 25, Alex is studying to be a doctor at Kampala International University, Uganda. He and his girlfriend have an eight-month-old baby girl. ‘Many years have now passed,’ he says. ‘With time, it heals.’
Whilst Alex studies, an alleged former LRA commander, Dominic Ongwen, is awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague (Netherlands).
Escape and returning home
Many children like Alex never returned. Yet, even after he escaped, coming home was difficult. ‘When I first came back I went straight back to the same primary school I had been in before. I came back there after being away for two years. The other pupils knew. Friends are scared of you. You’re a child growing up with stigma. You’re walking home and you see a group…’ He doesn’t finish his sentence.
‘The war was still going on. I was back in my home town and I thought I might be captured again. I lived in fear.’
Escape from the LRA marked the beginning of Alex’s journey back into his home community © Jake Stimpson
When he passed his primary school exams he received a scholarship for a boarding school on the other side of the country. ‘I wanted to run away from this life. I just landed there. There, no one knew what I went through.’
But he struggled with his secrets. ‘I had quite a temper at high school. I got into a lot of trouble. I even got suspended. It was the impact of what I went through.’
‘Many people don’t know what happened. What I needed was someone to listen to me. And when they did, I opened up. The first time I spoke I was sweating. I wanted to run away. But it had a healing effect too. You could say it was a turning point. Without it I would have been thrown out of school.’
The opportunity to study marked a turning point for Alex © Matt Lucht
Uganda is relatively calm now. ‘The people here are trying to know what peace is,’ Alex says.
Since being pushed out of Uganda, the LRA have roamed in South Sudan, as well as Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo, where it continues to abduct children.
In The Hague, Dominic Ongwen is awaiting trial. The alleged LRA commander is charged with 70 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including murder, rape and enslavement. But his case has divided opinions – he was abducted as a child.
‘The government has not been fair to him,’ Alex says. ‘He is a victim, even though he has done so many things. That’s what you go through. To kill somebody every day. You have been forced to do it. He was taken at 10 years of age. All of us have sons and brothers who are 10 years old. I wish that the government would grant him amnesty like they did for us.’
In Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, former girl soldiers – many abducted and abused by the LRA – are struggling to reintegrate back into their communities. Child Soldiers International and its partners are , including education.
Asked about his own future, Alex says he hopes to graduate and raise his family. ‘I want to give back to my community. I want to be a doctor. And a doctor can do that.’