GULU, Uganda -- Patrick Komakech was a quick-witted 9-year-old living in northern Uganda when he became a soldier. His father was an army man, wealthy, well-known and well-respected, but Mr. Komakech didn't join his father's military. Instead, he went to the enemy's side, abducted from his primary school in Gulu by rebels of the terrifying Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).
In a 19-year civil war that has ripped northern Uganda, Mr. Komakech became a statistic-one of the 20,000 children abducted to be brainwashed and abused into becoming rebel fighters. But his story is different. He rose to become a trusted confidant of the enigmatic Joseph Kony, the LRA's despotic leader. More importantly, after 10 years he managed to escape and now counsels and mentors children like him.
The experience of Mr. Komakech -and thousands more-is why the International Criminal Court unsealed five arrest warrants last month against Mr. Kony and four LRA senior commanders. For the controversial court-created in 1998 by international treaty but not ratified by the United States-these were its first and, not surprisingly, long-debated indictments. The court cited Mr. Kony with 33 counts of crimes against humanity. In effect, its much-belabored action came after overwhelming testimony suggesting Mr. Kony may be the world's worst war criminal.
For Mr. Komakech, the court's chronicle of atrocities is also the story of his life. On the day of his abduction, LRA rebels killed two of his uncles and shortly after, his father. Out of 600 boys at his school, the LRA took eight.
During his first day in captivity, the LRA forced Mr. Komakech to visit his family homestead where he saw his dead uncles, other family members abducted and tortured, and his mother beaten unconscious. Later in the same day when the Ugandan army ambushed the rebels, he saw his first gunfight. That night rebels locked him with 500 other children inside a small mud hut typical of the Acholi people. He couldn't lie down. He couldn't sleep as he was jammed against legs and elbows, his ears overwhelmed by the sobs and whimpers of little girls and boys who should have been at home, dreaming instead of living a nightmare.
The first week of his captivity, Mr. Komakech saw 11 men murdered-a tactic meant to harden the children into brutal foot soldiers. The LRA trained 200 children, and by the end of one day, 40 had died. If the children dropped their guns, they were beaten. If they cried, they were brutalized. If a commander was in a bad mood, they were killed. Mr. Komakech said LRA leaders told the children lies, that their families were dead; that they would be killed by the Ugandan army if they went home. Mr. Komakech couldn't eat, he said, so fed he was on fear.
To look at Mr. Komakech now, a strong, determined man of 24, it is hard to imagine him following brutal, unthinkable orders. But he says he obeyed, he fought, and he killed because of fear.
Mr. Kony came to trust the young Mr. Komakech, who quickly rose in the ranks of the LRA to become Mr. Kony's personal bodyguard and a part of his inner circle. Mr. Kony told Mr. Komakech that one day he would make him the president of Uganda. According to Mr. Komakech, Mr. Kony was "unique, sometimes normal, possessed by evil spirits, sometimes crazy." He claims his army will overthrow the Ugandan government and replace it with rule by the Ten Commandments. "He would use the Bible but at the same time he was killing people," Mr. Komakech said.
At one point Mr. Kony sent his young bodyguard to train in the Sudan and Saudi Arabia, Mr. Komakech said. The Islamic government in Khartoum opened its borders to the LRA. It also gave the soldiers guns, trucks, and food, Mr. Komakech said. The Sudanese government has supported the Ugandan rebels who in turn plagued Sudanese rebels fighting Khartoum from the south, and because Khartoum surreptitiously supported LRA plans to overthrow Uganda's government.
After serving almost 10 years as Mr. Kony's confidant, Mr. Komakech sensed that God would lead him out of the bush and away from the war. As he crossed the Uganda/Sudan border with his men, he knew they had to go back. His heart was heavy as he wrestled with guilt over his part in LRA activities. He read Isaiah 1:15, "When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood" and he realized that he needed to come clean. Mr. Komakech disarmed his men, switched off his radio communication, and for three days led them across a river, through gunfire with Ugandan forces and into the unruly bush of Uganda. At one point Mr. Komakech radioed a false location, diverting LRA soldiers sent by Mr. Kony to capture and kill him.
In the bush, Mr. Komakech went to an Acholi chief, who put him in contact with religious leaders and Ugandan forces. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni had promised amnesty to LRA defectors, a promise kept in the case of Mr. Komakech.
Mr. Komakech has spent the last five years fighting for the freedom of the Acholi people, the abducted children, and for Uganda. He speaks to public gatherings, gives interviews, helps the Ugandan army, and works with aid group InvisibleChildren.com, running an educational support program for rescued children in northern Uganda.Yet he says every moment of the day he is accompanied by "great guilt and deep regret."
Mr. Komakech believes the only way to end the war is if Mr. Kony is captured or killed: "I will sacrifice my life to capture Kony. If they called me today to go and get him, I would. This war needs to end."
Mr. Komakech says he doesn't want more fighting because the ones killed are innocent children put at the frontlines like he was, 9-11-year-olds who think they are invincible when they are simply disposable, pawns of a deranged man and his bizarre rebellion. Mr. Komakech says he sympathizes with the rebel soldiers. Yes, they are killers, but they too have been killed. Their spirits are defeated and their childhoods are gone forever.
Gulu usually attracts only missionaries, aid workers, and journalists, so Melissa Adams fit right in when she landed there in April to work on AIDS awareness. But even impoverished countries such as Haiti did not prepare her for the "night commuters" she saw in the northern Ugandan town.
They are the 40,000 children who stream into Gulu and other close-by towns every night to escape rebel attacks in their camps and villages. The children walk up to seven miles without any adults, spend the night on streets and in shelters in the relative safety of the towns, then walk back home the next morning to attend school.
Ms. Adams had to see it to understand it. One night a journalist took her to a local hospital, which acts as a shelter for the children. Standing at the gate, she saw them file into the town, many barefoot, toting straw mats to sleep on and bags stuffed with their school uniforms for the next morning. Eight and 9-year-olds carried little brothers and sisters on their backs.
This was their nightly ritual for survival. A cultish rebel group called the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has terrorized northern Uganda for 19 years. Commanders have abducted 20,000 children as soldiers or sex slaves; initiation includes killing friends and family members. Rebels also major in mutilation, hacking off civilians' limbs and even silencing some by padlocking their lips together.
According to Gulu aid worker Courtney Lancaster, many of the nightly commuters "have a miserable existence." They are forced to survive with "small, dark mud huts, insufficient food, no jobs, little water, few opportunities and no hope for moving back to their homes," Ms. Lancaster said, "not to mention many have lost family members to the rebels, AIDS, malaria, starvation, typhoid, even diarrhea."
Ms. Adams, also an aid worker, learned all these horrific truths quickly in Gulu. She was startled by how happy-and normal-many children seemed. They grinned and waved at her as they passed, like they were "going to camp," she told WORLD. "That's what started me crying, because that could be my little cousin."
Months later, it was Ms. Adams who acted like one of the children she saw in Gulu. With a green yoga mat rolled under her right arm and a bubble jacket in a CVS Pharmacy bag, she took part in a night commute simulation in Washington Oct. 22. Dubbed "GuluWalk," about 200 participants copied the night commuters' daily trek, beginning at the Ugandan embassy on 16th Street and trudging four miles south to Lafayette Park, just north of the White House.
Around the world, 44 cities joined in, including 6,000 marchers in Gulu. The idea originated with two Canadians, who walked nightly in Toronto for 31 days in July to publicize the LRA conflict. Their display ballooned into a global movement that won support from World Vision, Oxfam International, and others.
Steady rain in Washington did not dampen determination among the marchers, who were mostly college students. They knew they could never copy a night commute exactly: They were doing it for one night only and had D.C. police as escorts.
At the vigil, marchers huddled under umbrellas before a small stage where organizers from the Catholic Africa Faith and Justice Network read abductees' testimonies. Ugandan ambassador to the United States Edith Ssempala also spoke, but marchers reserved their loudest cheers for Betty Bigombe, Uganda's main mediator with the LRA. Based in Gulu, she has tried for more than a decade to win peace.
A handful of activists came ready to spend the rain-soaked night at Lafayette Park and then walk back to the Ugandan Embassy at 5 a.m. Sunday. Their overnight stay may have drawn little attention, but participants and GuluWalk organizers hope that Uganda's real night commuters will soon get fair play.