Kitgum: God must of been asleep (Jeffery's Story)
11th November 2006
As Margaret's story unfolded, it turned out that this young man was Jeffery Akeha (17) and he had just escaped from the LRA after spending seven long years with them. The handshake that he gave me was one of the most touching moments of my time in Kitgum.
I didn't have the courage to go up to and talk to Jeffery. It is one of my regrets about my time in Kitgum.
Spike is writing an article about her time in Kitgum and became very interested in Jeffery's story. When we returned to Mukuno, Spike conducted a telephone interview with Jeffery.
This is Jeffery's story.
God must of been asleep
The LRA rebels descended on their position and they were discovered. Jeffery's family and everybody else that was captured was rounded up in the village. Jeffery and his seven year old brother, Sunday Nakony (Nakony meaning "helper"), were tied together with forty five other village children and marched to the Sudanese border with LRA. They were forced to carry plundered food with them.
On the way, Sunday got very tired and his legs began to swell. One LRA soldier asked if was tired and would like to rest. Sunday said yes. The soldier beheaded Sunday with a machete and his body was left at the side of the road.
This is a common tactic used by the LRA to desensitize the children to violence. A newly kidnapped child is made an example of. It keeps the other children in line. Other children are often forced to do the killing.
The group that Jeffery met up with other kidnapped children - 500 in all - and they crossed into the Sudan.
Jeffery was given basic training, a gun and ended up fighting for the LRA for seven years.
During that time, Jeffery says he killed fifteen people and was involved in many of the horrible things that LRA are noted for. Mutilations, rape, kidnapping, village and IDP Camp raids and so on.
When Spike asked Jeffery what the hardest thing was, she says his voice becomes quiet and he tells the story of his time with Lieutenant Atto. Lieutenant Atto (Atto means "Dead Body") was a 38 year old female in the LRA army. She wanted Jeffery to be her lover as the "younger boys have more energy". She was his lover - or more accurately victim of rape - for three months before she tired of him and got another young lover. She was later killed in an ambush.
During an IDP camp (Internally Displaced People camp) raid, Jeffery managed to make his escape. Coincidentally, this was the IDP camp that I visited. Jeffery said that Lieutenant Atto and others had warned of even thinking about escape because Joseph Kony - the head of the LRA - would find out via the spirit of Lakwena that was inhabiting him. Jeffery put all thought of escape out his mind until he had his opportunity.
Jeffery had not eaten for three days and was very hungry. During the IDP camp raid, Jeffery found himself alone inside a hut and gorged himself on the food within. A heavily armed Ugandan Army vehicle pulled up right outside the hut Jeffery was in. He hid and kept quiet.
Eventually the vehicle moved away and so did the other rebels. Jeffery had got his chance to escape. He eventually made his way to a shelter where escaped child soldiers go.
Being in the LRA for such a long time, the Ugandan Army wanted him to join them and show them their hideouts and so on. But Jeffery had had enough and refused.
Jeffery spent one month at the shelter receiving consoling before being released. He was met outside by his family - including his mother Margaret - and was welcomed back into the family. He had thought they were all dead. His family had also thought Jeffery was dead via a false report and had gone so far as to organize a funeral service so that his spirit may be at peace.
Many child soldiers are not so lucky. Some of them had been forced to kill their family members as an act of loyalty. Their family members are often not as forgiving as Jeffery's and they are refused entry back into the family. You killed our mother! How dare you return!
Jeffery underwent a ritual when he returned to Kitgum. This involved drinking a very bitter wine and breaking an egg under his foot to break ties with his previous life.
Jeffery harbors no ill feelings towards other LRA soldiers. Like him, he knows that they are victims and are being forced to do what they do. Failure to do so will cost them their lives. He sees the man who beheaded his brother Sunday around town. He - in an act of amazing forgiveness and understanding - harbors no ill feelings to him either.
This is common among the people of Kitgum. The know that most of the LRA are people like Jeffery. The just want them to come home. They only want peace now. They are not interested in justice.
Jeffery is back at school studying in P7, the last year of primary. Many of his friends are three years ahead of him in S3 and he says school gets a bit lonely sometimes - he is the eldest in the class by far. He hopes to become a doctor one day. At the moment, he cannot afford his school fees and is hoping to find a sponsor.
He still has trouble sleeping and only gets snatches of sleep during the day and night. Every time he closes his eyes he sees images of his life with the LRA.
Jeffery still has a strong faith and prays everyday. He says God must of been sleeping when he was kidnapped.
If you want to help the people of Kitgum, one way you could do it is to purchase some necklaces that the ladies have made, sell them and send all the profits back to the ladies. This will help them feed and educate their children. I am setting up a website, www.GrassrootsUganda.com that will coordinate this process. The site is not quite up and going yet, so if you do want to help these ladies, just contact me and I'm sure we can sort something out in the meantime.
This is a part of a series of pieces on Kitgum. To see a list of other entries, click here.
2005 and 2006 Malcolm Trevena.