New Internationalist

I was a child soldier for Uganda’s President

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For many years, the focus on rights violation in Uganda has been on the Lord’s Resistance Army as a terroriser of children to fight as child soldiers. But the practice of kidnapping children to fight for rebel armies began in Uganda with the current President, Yoweri Museveni, and was a tactic that helped him come to power in 1986.

For many years after that he pretended to be a great reformer, a democratic leader whom all the donors loved – never mind what he continued to do to stamp out any dissent in places where no-one looked.

Now, after 25 years in office, Museveni is becoming more and more abusive of power. He is currently obsessed by the idea that he will become victim of an ‘African Spring’, mimicking the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. In this atmosphere of paranoia, he has targeted with extreme violence people he distrusts in an attempt to terrify the legitimate opposition led by Dr Kizza Besigye into passivity.

Kassim Kiggundu and his family have suffered repeatedly as a result of his own kidnapping as a 11-year-old in 1981. Recently, his brother has been killed.

YoTuT under a CC licence.
Uganda. YoTuT under a CC licence.

That terrible day

On a Thursday morning in May 1981, there came to my boarding school unknown, scary armed men dressed in dirty clothes. They surrounded us and told us not to move. We had to tie ourselves to one another with a rope. Then we were driven away on a lorry, 45 of us. We reached somewhere where the lorry could no longer continue and from there we started marching. We walked and walked and kept on walking until it was dusk.

We kept asking our teachers, ‘Why has this happened?’ Nobody had an answer. That terrible day was the beginning of the journey to where I am now. A Ugandan exile here in the UK. My mother dead, because of that day. My father, ruined, died of a heart attack in prison, because of that day. My wife is a refugee with our children in Kenya. And now in April 2011, 30 years later, my brother Rajab has been shot in the back, killed, a perfectly innocent person.

I try to tell myself I am not to blame. The one truly responsible is him, Museveni, President of Uganda, leader of those rebels that abducted me. The man who used us, children, to fight his bush war, stripped us of our humanity to do it, and then wanted to get rid of us, those few who survived.

On that terrible day, we kept losing one pupil after the other. Whoever couldn’t walk any more would be killed. A female teacher kept pushing us, trying to help us. She lifted a girl and carried her on her back, trying to save her life. But she herself became exhausted. They were both killed, bloodlessly, with a blow at the back of the head. Then they were buried in a shallow ditch, their bodies barely covered.

At that moment I became a man. After witnessing that horrible, inhuman act my heart turned. In that split second, I decided that if this was my life now, I would be one of them, whole-heartedly. There was no other way to survive. The next day Museveni came. His first words were: ‘Whoever tries to escape must die.’

We were taught how to use a gun. We were told not to harm any wild animal because they are one of us. We were told our smell, or scent, of a human being needed to change to be like that of the forest and the animals. It was true, they were part of our family. We used to pass by lions. To our surprise, they ran away from us. You would wake up terrified to find you had slept next to a big snake.

We were made to swear that if they brought our mothers and fathers here and told us to kill them, we would do it. You had to become like the people who had been horrible to you.

Did you have a choice?

No.

And where were you going to escape to?

Nowhere.

I spent my best teenage years in a jungle, fighting for him, Museveni. I trusted him completely, and he could see it. I was a spy, I did a critical job perfectly, and Museveni knew this and treated me as a pet. I was lucky because most of my fellow pupils did not survive. When Museveni took over the country in 1986, it was thanks to us, his fighters. But what was our reward? We were kept on the frontline in the north, in the 27th battalion, always fighting.

Finally in 1987 we, child soldiers who were still alive, were promised that our parents would be brought to see us. We were so excited. I couldn’t wait to see my mother. Sadly, it didn’t happen. The lorry with our parents was ambushed. My mother died trying to come to the danger zone to see her son. She was just a few miles away from where I was.

Some 18 months later, we defeated and scattered the enemy and hoped to be relieved. Instead, I was taken to prison. My senior officers were opposing Museveni. But I was 16. What did I know? I was given a five-year sentence. For what? For giving him my total commitment, for doing my very best. I was a young prisoner, and I was released in 1991 after international complaints.

Photo by Yohann Legrand under a CC Licence
Photo by Yohann Legrand under a CC Licence

I was accepted into the army, and I did well. I married and became a family man, putting away the past. One day in August 2002, Museveni called me directly, by my password, to go to State House. He said: ‘How old are you now?’ So I told him. He said: ‘Then you are old enough to fight me.’ He said: ‘When a person points to the leopard’s cubs, his finger will be bitten off.’

He was threatening me. Then he threw a glass of orange juice into my face and dismissed me. Three weeks later I was arrested. He never gave me one chance to defend myself. I was tortured to reveal things I could not reveal because I knew nothing about them. I only just escaped being killed. Secret helpers helped me to escape to the UK. I had no idea where I was going.

I often ask myself, why have I survived when my school-mates, and many members of my family, have perished at the hands of this man. I did my job for him. I betrayed many people for him. I did terrible things for him. But instead of thanking me, he betrayed me and wished me dead. And now my only brother has been killed by Museveni’s henchmen for innocently protesting for the rights of the Ugandan people. When I call my sister-in-law, all I hear is crying.

Kassim Kiggundu, 9 May 2011. As told to Maggie Black.

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