SEATTLE — On March 5, 2012, Kony2012, a short documentary filmed and produced by Invisible Children, was released. Its purpose was to get Joseph Kony, Ugandan guerrilla leader and head of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), captured and arrested before the end of 2012. The release of this film and the support of many organizations have helped to aid and bring awareness to many of the examples of child soldiers escaping their captors.
For the past 27 years, Joseph Kony has been known as the self-appointed leader of the LRA. He has kidnapped over 30,000 children from their homes to strengthen his army, forcing the boys to become child soldiers and the girls to become sex slaves.
Invisible Children, among many other organizations, has worked to create and establish campaigns that motivate child soldiers to peacefully surrender. With every child they return home, Invisible Children has been able to slowly reduce violence, reunite families and bring communities closer to peace. The organization also highlights the many examples of child soldiers escaping their captors and shares the stories of these triumphs.
At the age of 13, Edward was abducted from his village in Uganda by rebels in the Lord’s Resistance Army. He recollected how those that were abducted that night were forced to kill the other children who tried to evade capture.
By the age of 16, Edward had earned the rank of sergeant. He learned quickly that the best way to stay alive was to keep his head down and do as he was told.
In 2006, Kony encouraged his top leaders to meet with their families during a round of peace talks. When Edward met with his mother and sister, they pleaded with him to return home, but he refused, saying that it would violate army codes. It was when he was leaving that he was able to whisper to his sister that he would return home one day.
The final straw came for Edward when Kony accused one of his closest advisors of sleeping with one of his reserved women. He ordered Edward and others to kill their own commander and display the body as a warning sign. That was the night Edward escaped.
Fourteen years had passed since Edward had last been to his village. With the help of World Vision, Edward became one of the many examples of child soldiers escaping their captors.
After prayers and songs underneath the shade of a neem tree, each villager lined up before Edward and sprinkled him with water from the branch of a calabash tree – signifying the community washing away his past and welcoming him home.
On June 21, 1998, 10-year-old Opondo was kidnapped from Lamwolode, Uganda by the LRA rebels. Like every other captive, he was forced to kill innocent people and was brainwashed into believing that escape was inevitable.
After 15 years of continuous killing had passed, Opondo overheard a former LRA member call out to him by name on a UBC shortwave radio, urging Opondo to safely surrender and reassured him that no harm would be done to him if he did.
A few months later, a group of hunters ran into Opondo and the rest of the LRA members. They fled before any violence erupted. Later that day, a note was found from the LRA group indicating that they wanted to escape. Invisible Children heard about the letter and took action, attempting to rescue Opondo and the group by dropping over 20,000 “come home” fliers over Garamba National Park, where the group was suspected to be hiding.
On July 31, 2013, Major Odano, the leader of LRA groups in Garamba National Park, fought with a group of local hunters and was killed as a result. Upon hearing the news of his commander’s death, Opondo realized that he could finally use this opportunity to escape.
On August 21, 2013, Opondo surrendered to U.N. peacekeepers, holding both the flier that was released by Invisible Children and his shortwave radio in his hands. For the first time in 15 years, Opondo became free from the LRA.
Norman was 12 when he was forcefully recruited by Joseph Kony and his army. He was brutally beaten in front of his family and whisked away in the middle of the night, but later became one of the examples of child soldiers escaping their captors.
Two months into his abduction, Norman was forced to kill an LRA veteran who had attempted to escape. That was his first of many kills.
The more he killed, the more violent Norman grew and each kill was celebrated. He received full blessing ceremonies and was promoted in ranks from munitions training to special artillery training. Every time he killed, Norman noticed that he was slowly losing himself and becoming more immersed in the life of an LRA rebel.
During Norman’s time with the LRA, the worst violence he experienced occurred during the Kitgum massacres in Uganda. The rebels moved through the villages of the region, slaughtering all the villagers.
This was the opportunity to escape that Norman had been waiting for. He took his chance and surrendered himself to the Ugandan soldiers, who then transported him to a treatment center in Gulu, Uganda. It took Norman years of therapy in order for him to rebuild his life. Today, Norman is a happily married father of two.
The most effective solutions to violence and exploitation experienced by these examples of child soldiers escaping their captors must be crafted by a collaborative society, with those most vulnerable to the injustices at the center.
– Zainab Adebayo