My life as a child soldier
IMAGES OF children brandishing assault rifles in far-off war zones have become familiar. From time to time they flicker on to our television screens for an instant before disappearing to be replaced by other news. Stripped of innocence, their angry faces are frightening in their coldness, ruthlessness and readiness to kill, maim, torture, to do whatever is asked of them.
It is difficult, almost impossible, to reconcile those images with the self-assured young woman having her picture taken on the 15th floor of the St George’s Hotel, the London skyline stretching out through the huge windows behind her.
Dressed in a corduroy cap, brightly patterned shirt and jeans, a chunky silver necklace at her throat, China Keitetsi is thousands of miles and many years away from her life as the guerrilla fighter she was forced to become at the age of nine in Yoweri Musevani’s National Resistance Army in Uganda. Now 27, with a new life in Denmark, she has written a book about her experiences. The healing has begun, she says. But it is not over.
Keitetsi greets me with a warm smile, tells me she likes Scottish accents and begins to tell her story. It is a story of what happened before the children’s faces grew cold and the story of what happens afterwards. Few live to tell the tale - Musevani’s road to power in Kampala is littered with the small bodies of Keitetsi’s dead comrades.
"It never goes away," she says. "Not the gun, not the rank, not the uniform. No matter where you are. Your gun was a part of you, your military uniform was a part of you. It is always with you," she says. As a child soldier, she slept with her gun, the belt slung around her neck. She was taught to revere her weapon, to see it as "your mother, your father, your husband, your friend" - and losing it was punishable by death.
Her life changed on the day she sought the love that had been missing from her young life growing up on a farm. Rejected by her abusive father, she was mistreated by her grandmother and stepmother and had run away to search for her absent mother when she ran into a group of soldiers in the bush. They questioned her and told her to stay the night. "I woke up to the voice of a man commanding, ‘Left right, left right’ and when I looked around I saw children of different ages marching beside a man in a military uniform," she writes in her book Child Soldiers. "I could feel excitement growing in my stomach. It was like this brand new game and I wished I was there marching along with them."
It wasn’t long before the excitement faded and terror took its place. Her first job was to play in the sand with other children to act as a decoy for the NRA to ambush government troops. She was too small to carry a gun so would carry ammunition, pots and pans, anything the commanders needed. But she grew and soon had a gun of her own.
OTHER FEELINGS changed too, as she adapted to her new life. She talks of "the tears dropping in my heart" as she watched "the enemy" being told how they would be killed, or watching her young comrades dropping to the ground, left behind as the army moved on. There was no time for tears, no time for feelings, no time to help those who had fallen.
"It was so hard to know you were a child. The only time you knew was when they said, ‘Cadogo Kujahapa’ - ‘Child, come here.’ Then you would think, ‘Oh, I am a child.’ Each commander loved to have children behind him with a gun. If he stands up, you stand up. If he walks, you walk. It was crazy. Us kids, we wanted to be cool. There was a desperation in us, a desperation of love. When they touched your shoulder or smiled at you, you felt it. You wanted to please your boss."
In her book, written to "empty myself of the stones that I could feel breaking my shoulders", Keitetsi describes in harrowing detail the many battles she has fought and the feelings she has kept inside until she escaped and found her voice.
The orders given to the children were simple and easy to understand: "The first rapid fire of AK-47s was heard which meant we should kill each and every living thing in the camp. Men and women began running and dropping down in one big mess, still naked and I could see their clothes swinging in their hands. The massive fire of guns turned the wild screaming of goats, hens and people into a faint disturbance in our ears."
She describes her despair and bewilderment at the discovery that torture of prisoners was routine and apparently relished by those all around her. But in another passage she links herself with such brutality. "We were active in each and every thing, killing and torture became the most exciting job for many of the children because they believed that was the way to please their bosses. We would increase our brutality towards prisoners just to gain more ranks which meant more authority...but we were too young to realise that our actions against any captured enemy would haunt our dreams and thoughts forever, no matter where we would be."
When I ask her what she really felt when torturing prisoners, she shakes her head. "You couldn’t tell who was in fear or who enjoyed it - tying people up, torturing people. I had no reason to hate but many of those kids had been told the enemy had killed their parents. I was desperate to become like them. I had to force my heart to change. It was like you had to pretend in your face you were enjoying what you were doing."
There were other horrors, in the form of the nightly sexual abuse she received at the hands of her commanders. She could never understand why they hurt her and the shame of being called "panuwa muga" - wife - to the soldiers by her comrades, is still with her today. It "robbed me of the dignity of being a woman", she says.
The true horror of the carnage she was forced to participate in came much later, after her escape to South Africa and her relocation to Denmark in 1999 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Sent to a trauma clinic, she found she could not describe what had happened to her. "I was choking." She grips her throat and makes a rasping sound. "It was so hard to talk.
"What made me sad coming to Europe was my own responsibility in it all," she adds. "After being abused you have a lot of rage. As a sergeant you raged against those under you. As a soldier you were above civilians. You were a freedom fighter. You have killed people. As a sergeant at 15 years old, you respected only those people higher than your rank."
It was also hard to come to terms with her freedom. "When you are in the army, your boss tells you what to do, how to work, not to cry. I thought it was normal. But when you come to Europe, every moment reminds you that it was wrong, that everything was wrong. You learn to give yourself orders. For me, all my life has been Yes sir, Yes sir."
CHINA SPENT nine years in the army and another four after her escape to South Africa before she found any help. Her family are dead, some of them from AIDS. One sister died in the genocide in Rwanda. Many of her friends died in battle or were shot for desertion.
She has left two children behind. Her son, aged 13, who is living with the girlfriend of his father, and a daughter, aged nine, who lives in South Africa. It is her intention to look after them - she is going to visit them this summer. "When I think of going to see my kids I think of the other kids who have been left behind, who are still killing, still hating. I think they should be happy. I think they should be allowed to cry. It makes me so sad to think of them being killed without ever crying, without ever feeling."
Her own childhood is long gone. It helped, she says, when she found work in a kindergarten in Denmark. Smiling broadly, she describes painting and drawing with the children. She has spoken for Amnesty and UNICEF and is now looking for a role helping the world’s 300,000 child soldiers.
She speaks with sadness but not anger - though as she talks of the children who remain in Africa, her mood changes. She is angry at the young lives still being lost. She speaks of their betrayal, of a government that refuses to acknowledge it or prevent it going on. "The Ugandan government has sent battalions and brigades into the Congo and they fight with Rwandan soldiers. But in the north of Uganda, children are still being kidnapped, still being recruited, still dying."
Around China’s neck is a necklace given to her by a friend. The inscription reads: "Laugh when you can." She turns it over to show the other side, which reads: "Cry when you must." She smiles and says: "It has become like a friend".
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