In 1996, Charles Okello, then aged 18, was abducted by Lord’s Resistance Army rebels from his parents’ home in Amuru district.
They rebels tied him with ropes and marched him off, along with about 30 other people. For three months, they trekked countless kilometres, often crossing into southern Sudan and back into Uganda. In 2008, after 12 years in South Sudan, Uganda and DR Congo, Okello was appointed an escort of Kony. He would later become a lieutenant, leading a small fighting unit as the LRA retreated to the Central African Republic (CAR).
In April this year, Okello and his unit were ambushed by a UPDF contingent in the CAR jungle. Okello was shot in the leg.
“I had no option but crawl and [surrender] since most of the LRA soldiers had run back to the camp,” he says, in the presence of UPDF soldiers who insisted on attending our interview.
He may be free, but Okello has nowhere to go, with his parents dead, and contact with either his siblings or his ‘wife’ (an abductee given to him by the LRA).
“I am now used to fighting and I want to stay with the UPDF and fight Kony because I have nowhere to stay,” Okello says, his face tense.
Okello was among LRA returnees who attended thanksgiving prayers in Gulu on September 20, to celebrate their rescue from LRA captivity. Dubbed the Mass defection reception prayer, the function was organised by the Gulu district peace and reconciliation team, Invisible Children, and World Vision Uganda.
According to the non-governmental organisation Invisible Children, the recent mass release and defection of LRA captives suggests that the rebels have lost ground.
“We have so far received 85 people, including women, children, and fighters from LRA captivity between August and early September this year,” says Invisible Children’s regional spokesman, Michael Mubangizi.
Of these, 75 – mostly Ugandans – had spent one to fifteen years in LRA enslavement, some of the others barely a month. The returnees carried a message from their LRA captors: “If the released women and children are taken care of, then we still in the bush will also surrender.”
At World Vision’s Gulu rehabilitation centre, the captives get psycho-social support, including counselling and tracing for their families.
During the Gulu prayers, retired Kitgum Bishop Mcleod Baker Ochola II, called for more comprehensive government support. If men such as Okello found long-term activities to engage in, Ochola said, they would easily fit into their communities.
“The problem is that all these people come back with wounds in their hearts and government should be able to heal and support them in all possible ways,” he said, adding that it was the government’s constitutional obligation to initiate rehabilitation programmes for victims and survivors of the LRA war.
Patrick Munduga, the regional head of office at Invisible Children, says they continue to encourage victims to return home but long-term reintegration remains a challenge.
“If someone was abducted at nine years, how can they play catch-up with the community without education, good health and other basic needs, yet they have the amnesty certificate?” Munduga asks.
He says the amnesty law provides for a more comprehensive structure for returnees but there are gaping holes in the implementation, which still needs a lot of facilitation. Damian Kato, the secretary to the Amnesty Commission, says their mandate is reviewed periodically, hence making it difficult to make long-term plans.
“Our mandate was six months (renewable) but the latest renewal started in 2013, and [is] likely to end in May next year,” Kato says, adding that persistent efforts to seek more funding from the government have not borne fruit.
Annually, the commission is allocated Shs 2bn, although Parliament wants this doubled. The commission also needs Shs 16bn to reintegrate a backlog of 23,000 returnees, according to Kato. In the meantime, Okello and other returnees wait to see where fate takes them.