Tales from a child soldier

Posted: July 08, 2007

Carolyn Davis

is a member of The Inquirer Editorial Board

KITGUM, Uganda - When the Lord's Resistance Army abducted Okeny Egidio, he became more than another kidnapped child in this region's war. He became a specialist at setting fires.

Fire is a cheap and effective weapon. It is also a simple tactic to teach child soldiers, who are terrified of being killed if they don't obey orders.

The LRA rebels have abducted an estimated 30,000 boys and girls during 21 years of war (which has momentarily halted during a cease-fire and peace talks), forcing most to serve as soldiers or sex slaves.

Jennifer Anyayo's disfigurement was a product of such arson: Rebels attacked her village and forced her to stay inside a hut they set on fire.

Although not involved in Jennifer's story, Okeny helped torch many a village as a practiced child arsonist. Here is what he said he learned in 1998 with the rebels, when he was about 15.

The method used to start a fire depended on whether the target was military or civilian. Military barracks were best set ablaze from afar, so he often used bows and arrows to give the rebels more time to escape once army soldiers realized they were under attack. He wrapped the arrow tips in the spongy part of a plant, dipped them in gasoline, set them on fire and shot them at the target.

But when attacking a village filled with civilians, he struck openly, without fear.

"For civilians," Okeny said, "we know they are nothing."

Rebels simply used matches to set the grass-thatched roofs of huts on fire. People inside were not a concern.

"You realize somebody is inside," Okeny said. "You can even hear a person cry."

The more destruction Okeny caused, the more praise he got from his commanders.

"A chief commander might say, 'Egidio today did a very good job and burned 50 huts and even might have killed one person,' " he explained.

In one particular raid, Okeny set more fires than anyone else in his unit. As a reward, he was given a stolen case of cookies.

"I felt big then," he said. "It was for me to decide as a big man who I wanted to give the biscuits to."

Ultimately, Okeny escaped and slowly, painfully turned his life around. In 2001, he attained his certificate of education. He went back to the Kitgum area and, with other returned abductees, started a brick-making business that has become the nonprofit group he now leads.

Eight years after he escaped the rebels, he no longer feels he was a big man for what he did.

"The atrocities we were doing were beyond humanity."

Contact Carolyn Davis at cdavis@ phillynews.com or 215-854-4214.

comments powered by Disqus