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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: -2°C
Andrew Roberts/ Denis Ojara was abducted in 1996 to serve in the LRA

'I would do what it takes to survive': former child soldier tells of his time in Kony's army

Denis Ojara was abducted at 14 years of age to serve in the LRA in Northern Uganda.

IT’S BEEN YEARS since Joseph Kony has been in the headlines for his campaigns of terror in Northern Uganda – but the legacy of his brutality lives on in his former child soldiers. visited Uganda recently and spoke to Denis Ojara, a former child soldier in Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who was abducted in 1996 at just 14 years-of-age.

After seeing the violence that was taking place in the region, his mother took him to the larger town of Gulu for safety. But they were stopped by rebel soldiers looking for recruits.

Ojura’s mother began to cry and plead with the soldiers not to take her child – and seeing this, the boy began to cry too. The soldiers told him: “Whether you cry or not it will not change. You will go along.”

Since 1987 the LRA has waged a war in the Northern regions of Uganda that still continues today, with the majority of the fighting now taking place in the neighbouring countries of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudan.

Joseph Kony – who is still believed to be active in the Central African Republic – had the LRA abduct young children and forced them to become soldiers.

While their influence and military power in the region has dimmed in recent years, the impact of what they did to tens of thousands of children who were forced to commit unimaginable atrocities continues.

The leader of the Lord's Resistance Army AFP / Getty Images Joseph Kony proclaimed himself a 'spokesperson' of God. AFP / Getty Images / Getty Images

One of the things about that time that sticks out in Ojara’s mind is the hunger.

Hiding out in the Northern Ugandan bush left many of the abducted children hungry. Days would go by before food or water would come, forcing them to eat leaves.

The only definite way to obtain food and supplies was to raid, and the LRA made sure it was your own village that was in the targeting line.

Ojara remembers attacking his own community. Speaking through a translator, he told that they waited until people went to do their farming.

They hid in wait and then ambushed them, using logs to hit villagers over the head until they died. The LRA commanders were so impressed by Ojara’s ‘courage and strong heart’ in this attack that Joseph Kony had Ojara travel with him.

The better you killed and obeyed, the higher your chances of survival.

“I would do what it takes to survive,” he says through the translator, though he didn’t agree with what was being done.

If you objected or tried to escape you would be shot and killed. Sometimes they would haul back young escapees and put them on a fire, burning them alive while forcing the others to watch.

A clear warning to the rest of them: the only escape is death.

When asked if he ever experienced any good times in the bush, Ojara recalls stealing radios from villages and listening to music so they could dance.

He recalls times when they could celebrate Christmas and Ugandan Independence Day. He said they were good times.

But he also remembers capturing a local village leader who was always giving the Ugandan army their positions.

He remembers them cutting the village leader up and putting him into a pot to cook. If the Ugandan army forces hadn’t intervened at that moment, forcing them to flee, their plan was to eat him.

He says he regrets these things and is remorseful, but again – when given an order, you obeyed. If you obeyed, you survived.

Rebel fighters of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army gather to Bloomberg via Getty Images Soldiers of the LRA Bloomberg via Getty Images

By 2004 Ojara found his opportunity to escape.

On the radio they would hear reports that appealed for children who had been abducted to come back.

Testimonies of former child soldiers integrated back into society filtered in throughout their camps in the bush. They said life was now good and comfortable.

Being a LRA veteran now, nobody questioned Ojara as he left the camp. They were all too tired from a previous raid and if you had been there a long time you had a certain amount of freedom.

He told, who travelled to Uganda with Trocaire to see the development of the organisation’s work on the ground in the Northern regions, that you told no one your plans in case they reported you.

Taking a radio and his gun he walked away from the only life he had known for the majority of his adolescence. No school, no education – just violence and killing.

He made it out of the bush and surrendered himself to the Uganda authorities. For 2 years he stayed with World Vision as the stigma around child soldiers was great in the region.

When he finally made it back to his village, he found his mother had passed away. This devastated him and after another stint with World Vision he managed to reconnect with family.

Things are still tough though – one of his nephews who was also abducted by the LRA hasn’t been seen since.

Now 36 years of age, Ojara is a father. He has a little boy (aged 10) who he says is his hope and his future though he doesn’t get to see him often.

The mother of his children left him and he now lives a distance apart from his son (he was one of twins, but the other boy passed away).

“She was not happy with what I was offering. So she got someone else, who was maybe better than me,” Ojara says through his translator.

He works in farming now, but it is not consistent work and he is supported by his brother and family.

Ojara says he sometimes dreams about the the things he has done. Prayer helps (he is a Catholic) but he is deeply remorseful about the things he has done.

The conflict in South Sudan, which sees similar tactics used to what the LRA did, rages near the border of Northern Uganda. Ojara says he is not happy about what is happening there.

Like the many conflicts in the region, does he see an end to the violence?

“Everything has an end,” he says. “One day it will end.”

Read: ’If men are caught, they are killed. If women are caught, they are raped’

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