The war in Ronald Okello's homeland of northern Uganda is older than Ronald. It went on for 21 years; Okello just turned 18.
The two foes in the civil conflict – the government army of Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni and a rebel force called the Lord's Resistance Army led by the reclusive and brutal Joseph Kony – have been negotiating a peace since 2006. Those talks seem to have crumbled, though, with Kony fearing to come out of the bush and face prosecution by the International Criminal Court, which has charged him with war crimes.
Still, the atrocities committed by both sides and the child abductions that have marked the war have largely ended. Life in northern Uganda is inching toward normal.
The story of Ronald Okello, who is set to return to Uganda today after about three weeks in the United States getting a prosthetic right arm, may sound unbelievable. But it is typical of what has happened to children caught in this conflict.
It was the year 2000. Ronald Okello was nine years old.
"My mother sent me to buy soap in the Acholibur market. At first I heard some noise," Okello said. It was a group of rebels talking, using profanity. "When I tried to run, one of them came with his gun pointing."
"I never reached the market."
The rebels tied Okello up over his shoulders so his should blades were forced backward, and then with his hands behind his back. It was very painful, as was what they did next.
"I was crying. When they first tied me, they caned, caned, caned me." After two days they finally took off the ropes.
"I thought about going home but there was no way," he said. "In your heart, you say 'I'll never escape.' In your heart, not louder."
Because of his age, his first duties as a rebel were to fetch water, collect firewood, make fires and cook. Rebels cut him on his left arm and put oil and water on the cut, explaining the cut, oil and water were magic that would prevent him from being able to run away. Okello to this day believes the cut carries magic.
When he was 10 years old, rebels gave him an AK-47 and landmines, and trained him to use both. First, though, he went through the Lord's Resistance Army's registration process.
"They told me to bend down like this," he said, folding at his waist until he could touch his toes. Then, he was caned 80 more times. He knows the number because rebels wrote it in a book. Crying or movements can cause more trouble.
"You have to handle it," he said. "If at 79 you touch your back, they'll start all over again."
"The next day they gave me a gun – it was not me alone – with four bullets," he said. His trainers put an object far away and told him to shoot it. A miss brought 20 strokes per bullet. He missed at least twice, he recalled.
Okello played the role of being a rebel, mainly because he had to, but also because doing certain things felt good or brought him respect.
He and other boys went into displacement camps and took beans and other supplies. People feared them, which made the boys feel like big men.
He smoked cigarettes because he learned that was one way to stay warm on cold nights. Fearing death if he did not follow orders, he fought when commanders told him to fight and killed when told to kill. He does not like to talk about what he did: "Once I talk like this, I dream," he said.
But he did speak about how young rebels were terrorized into being loyal to the rebel army and the acts they committed to stay alive. One evening, he recalled, a couple of rebels tried to escape. Lookouts found them and brought them back.
The next morning, all the rebels were called together and commanders gave one boy a machete. They laid one of the rebels who had tried to escape down on the ground and ordered the rebel with the machete to kill the escapee. The boy then was told to cook the head and the other man who had tried to escape was forced to eat it, said Okello, who claimed to have seen the entire episode. Many accounts of such atrocities have been told to international groups and corroborated.
The first time Okello killed someone was in the bush. The rebels had found an old woman in a garden and wanted him to kill her.
"I looked at this woman and I thought, 'What if this is my mom?'"
It was Okello's test. If he had refused the opportunity, he could have been killed. If he passed, he would be treated better and gain respect. And so he killed her.
"All of that day, I was dreaming of that lady. I saw her face and she said, 'my son, why did you kill me?'"
But the commanders were pleased, Okello said. "They said things like, 'the big man, our man, Okello.'"
One day, they said, maybe he too would be a commander.
"There's something about being a boss," Okello said. You can send people to get things. People respect you. You can pay back what they did to you." Some bosses told rebels to cane people.
Harsh family reunions
One year after he was abducted, Okello's unit met up with another group of rebels and he saw his brother Ochen, four years his elder, among them. Ochen had been kidnapped after Okello.
"We met," Okello said, but he didn't show anyone that Ochen was his brother. He walked over to him, dark sunglasses covering his eyes. Okello looked at his brother, kicked him and growled the normal message, that if he tried to escape, he would be killed. Carefully, he lifted his sunglasses and made sure his brother knew it was him. "I said, 'don't make any sign that will show we are from the same village, the same family.'"
Ochen did not smile, Okello remembered. "There is no time" for such things, he said.
Okello pretended to beat his brother, but really was passing him a bag of beans to eat.
(Field recipe for cooking beans: Boil water and put it in large plastic water container. Pour in the beans, put the cap on, and beans will be soft by the following day.)
Somehow, Okello got Ochen in his unit. They stayed together one year, with Okello quietly taking care of him because Ochen had been in the rebel army longer and had wounds to show for it. One day, Okello returned from the field and his brother wasn't there. Ochen remains missing.
To Okello's great sadness, he could not help his father at all when rebels came upon him.
Two years after he was kidnapped, a year after he found and lost his brother, Okello's unit attacked his home village. The rebels didn't realize it was his village. They didn't realize that the person they pointed him to and said, "Kill this man," was his father.
His father, Okello said, recognized him. Okello's account of what happened next is confusing.
He initially told a reporter he had killed his father – if he didn't, the rebels would kill Okello and then have someone else kill his father. Later, he said he had not understood the reporter's question and he had not killed his father. Another rebel had, whom Okello said he subsequently shot to death in a firefight with government soldiers. Photojournalist Stephen Shames, whose foundation has helped Okello for years, said the second account is the one Okello has consistently given the few times he has spoken about the death of his father.
Losing an arm
Early one morning in 2004, the Ugandan army ambushed his unit.
"They surrounded us," Okello said.
In the fighting, the army threw bombs, one of which exploded near Okello and burned skin off his feet. He took off his New Balance sneakers, recently bought for his trip to the United States, and blue socks to reveal discolored skin on the sides of his feet.
Bullets were flying everywhere during that skirmish.
"I did not even know they shot me." He felt no pain immediately, he said, though it didn't take long before he did and saw he was bleeding heavily.
"After 10 minutes, I looked at my arm and saw it was different. I rolled under a tree." As the rebels fled, the army found Okello and took him to a nearby hospital in the town of Kitgum.
He was still bleeding heavily and didn't realize he had been rescued from the rebels. He was free.
Doctors tried for two months to treat his wound, but eventually, one physician told him his arm had to be amputated. "I said OK."
As happens with many children who return from captivity, they are taken to the big radio station in Gulu, northern Uganda, MEGA FM, which is a joint project of the Ugandan government and Britain. It is an experiment in radio being used as a peacemaking tool.
Okello announced his name and the hospital where he was a patient. His mother heard him and went to him from the displaced person's camp the remaining family had moved to while Okello was a rebel.
Stephen Shames met Okello when the foundation bearing his name held an art workshop at the camp. Shames said he knew right away that Okello was smart and helped enroll him in a Ugandan nonprofit group that helps children go to school. Shames also helped Okello get his new, right arm in Philadelphia.
In northern Uganda, abducted children such as Okello are generally given amnesty. The government, which has done its share of mistreating northern Ugandans, understands that these children were terrorized into becoming victimizers even as they were victims themselves.
Amazingly, many of the young people who have survived captivity have figured out ways to cope with their past. More than psycho-social care, many need schooling and jobs to successfully leave their captivity behind, according to a recent, comprehensive study by U.S. researchers called the Survey of War Affected Youth. It found that "significant numbers of abductees perform quite well relative to their peers."
Okello seems to be doing well. In Uganda, he's a leader at his school. He is gentle-natured and charmingly shy.
He is a young man who dreams of becoming a lawyer. Considering his motto, "no excuses," and everything he has overcome, it's easy to believe his dream may just come true.