Ugandan woman who spent six years as a child soldier helps escapees rebuild their lives. Abi Newman reports
Lydia Ogwok scuttles along the grassy athletics track with a glass bottle on her head. It's sports-day practice at her secondary school in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, and she is determined to succeed. She reaches the finishing line, the bottle still perfectly balanced.
Ogwok is exceptionally skilled at this "event" because she spent six years working as a porter and soldier for the Lord Resistance's Army, a group of rebels which has abducted more than 100,000 children from their villages in northern Uganda and forced them to fight, during its 19-year war against the government.
"If you couldn't walk you were shot," she says. "And if we left anything behind when fighting started, the commanders would cane or even kill you.
Our lives weren't worth more than a saucepan."
Ogwok spent six years in captivity before she managed to escape from the rebels' camp in Sudan in 2001. She crept past a young guard who was too weak to stop her.
She kept running until she found a Sudanese Army camp where she rested for three days. The soldiers took her to a Unicef centre from where she was transported to Khartoum, and on to her home in war-torn Gulu. There she spent two months at a rehabilitation centre for child soldiers. She was absolved of war crimes under the Amnesty Act 2000 (which grants forgiveness to encourage the rebels to end the hostilities), and reconciled with her community by being covered in goats' entrails by a village elder.
She returned to primary school, at the age of 16, to study for the primary leaving examination and completed the first two years of her secondary education at a local school.
Thanks to sponsorship from a Belgian charity and an American government official, Ogwok has since found a safe haven at a private boarding school in Kampala, four hours from her mother's refugee camp, which is still vulnerable to attack and supported by the United Nations' World Food Programme.
She joined the school in Senior 3 (equivalent to Year 9) at the age of 18.
She settled in with the help of the school's matron, who has become her confidante. She also received counselling against vices, such as violence and theft, as part of the school's week-long induction programme.
Last year her peers, many of whom are ignorant of the war, elected her to the post of assistant headgirl, which has helped her to make friends.
"Before I became a student leader I was quiet, but now everyone knows me and tells me their problems. I like helping them and caring for pupils who are sick." The school's headteacher, Rose Kigumba, is thrilled with Ogwok's progress. "Lydia's conflict resolution skills are excellent," she says.
Ogwok is now studying O-levels in Senior 4 (Year 11). She is self-composed and commanding, and bears the hallmarks of a natural leader. Unbeknown to her friends, she developed these attributes while coping with terrifying responsibility as a commander, a wife, and a personal bodyguard to Joseph Kony, the cult leader of the LRA, who aspires to rule Uganda according to the Ten Commandments.
When she was in the bush she cared for the wounded so she was nicknamed "mama". Sitting beneath a statue of the Virgin Mary, Ogwok remembers the moment she was ambushed on her way home from town, and how at the age of 11 she was caned 65 times and forced to smear herself with blood from a girl who had been killed for trying to escape. "Afterwards, the commanders told us they had written soldier on us, and forbade us from washing off the blood. I was so upset but I had to follow orders."
Memories of life in the bush continue to haunt Ogwok. She readily recalls walking for days at a time with no shoes and swollen feet; drinking her fellow soldiers' urine to survive; being raped by a commander at 15; being left to die alone when she had cholera; and beating people to death with a sharp bayonet.
"After the first time, you got used to it (the violence) and stopped feeling anything," she says. "I would beat the male civilians because I was angry. I thought they should have been fighting instead of me."
Ogwok takes medication to help her sleep, but still has occasional nightmares. "If I get annoyed and dream the rebels are chasing me, I get up and pray," she says.
During her third battle against government soldiers, she was shot in her left breast, a wound which still gives her trouble. "My clothes stuck to the wound and tore the flesh away, yet I still had to carry all my food and equipment."
After three months in sickbay, she marched to the rebels' nerve centre in Sudan, where her cooking skills endeared her to the rebel leader, Joseph Kony. "He liked me because I cooked quickly," she says. "It was very hard work because we had to grind the maize with small stones."
The camp was like a homestead, with a garden, a granary and thousands of huts. (Ogwok believes at least 17,000 people lived there). She regularly had to forgo sleep to guard Kony's house, where he bedded down with different wives each night. She describes him as a mystical man. "The bullets never touch him because he has faith. He performed miracles. I saw him turn a stone into a bomb, but he never held a gun."
Ogwok cannot forgive Kony because he killed her father, a government soldier, and allowed her mother to think she was dead. But she is willing to absolve the commanders who abducted her as they used to be young soldiers too.
Ogwok's leadership responsibilities extend way beyond the school. Every holiday she returns to the rehabilitation centre in Gulu to care for child soldiers who have recently escaped the rebels. And as general secretary of Children in Crossfire (a charity she helped to found after attending a conference for child combatants in the United States), she is trying to raise money for activities that will help child soldiers to mix with normal children.
"When I escaped from the LRA I resolved to succeed in life," she says. "I have to for my mother's sake."
Lydia Ogwok is not her real name. The name has been changed to protect her from revenge attacks