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Child soldiers

Africa | An ex-confidant of Uganda's deranged rebel leader Joseph Kony traces his macabre tactics in a hidden war using invisible children

Issue: "Samuel Alito," Nov. 12, 2005

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.

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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.

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