Eri bulimulamu waliyo esu esuubi.
which in English means -
To all the living there is hope. Eccl. 9:4
Suubi is how you say "hope" in Luganda. so, in essence, i live at Hope Village. this verse caught my attention when we first moved here, and it has since settled deeper and deeper into my heart. here, i am surrounded by countless testimonies of redemption and restoration, so that i can never doubt the miracle of hope. in the community around me, however, hope can seem hard to find. one day this week, i came home from an episode involving a witch doctor, a missing baby, and a shattered mother. (i know that sentence begs for an explanation, but you will have to forgive me. i'm afraid anything i write about it now would sound sensational.) i have struggled this week with feeling like "how can there be hope when there is no justice?" so, this morning, during Sunday worship, i studied the verse some more and let it burrow deeper still. i am reminding myself today that justice is coming, but hope is here now. in every situation there is hope, my friend. if you are breathing, there is hope. if your story is still being written, there is hope. it is for all the living.
if you don't feel very convinced of that, then please let me introduce you to Isaac. Isaac is a former child soldier for the LRA, and he is one of the boys Thomas wrote about in an earlier blog here. awhile back, he asked T to help him write his life story. so, for many afternoons, he would come sit in our living room and dictate while T typed. this is his story. it is long, but it is worth every minute you take to read it. please read it, and let God remind you of how unrelenting His hope is!
Odong Isaac Testimony
As a child, my world was only as big as my compound. I knew of my father, my uncle, and a few other friends and relatives in my village. I was born in the village of Kalongo in northeast Uganda. My life is full of close calls. I almost died of scurvies around age 3 but a kind soldier shared some medicine with my mom and it saved my life. In those days, our land was being terrorized by armed bands of men called the Karamoja. By the time I was 5 my family was using me as a look-out by the road. It was my job to warn everyone in the compound if I saw Karamoja coming. Once I saw them coming while my family was cooking a meal. My parents grabbed the pot of food and we all fled to the bush for five days. Later, the Karamoja even beat my father and stole 100 cows from our family.
One distinct memory I have from childhood is a very sad one. When I was about age 7, the Karamoja came through our village and neighboring communities. They corralled all the people into one place. Children were separated from parents. The Karamoja then began to interrogate and terrorize adults and children in our community to learn where they kept cattle and livestock. I even watched them beat some people to death. No one could stop them because they had guns and we did not. It was a terrible week for our community. People were beaten, stripped naked, and tortured for several days. Finally the Karamoja left us to bury our dead and count our losses. These years were desperate times for many people in north-eastern Uganda. Government soldiers were not available to protect us. They were only used to protect cities and trading centers. Many people tried to look for a way to leave and start their lives over. Some traveled to Kampala, some to Gulu. But many ended up staying or returning to their family’s land because it was too hard to make a living if they left the village. My family often depended on the generosity of others just to eat a meal.
I started school at age 6 and I discovered that the world was in fact a very big place with many different kinds of people. Uganda was a very unstable place during my school years. Soldiers could not be trusted. Sometimes we would skip school for a week because we feared to travel. Sometimes we would arrive at the school building and find it empty because others were too afraid to come. I grew up in a culture where alcohol and drunkenness were common. I learned to avoid my father when he was drunk. I feared his anger. I even remember one night when my father threatened to burn my mother to death in a moment of anger. From that time on my father was in and out of my life. He was not faithful to my mother. He often worked and stayed in other villages. I went months without seeing him. My mother took me to Catholic church with her as a young boy. I enjoyed going to church and behaved very well when I was there. I did not attend church enough to know the ways of God but I knew that God was good and that I could pray to him.
The LRA abducted me when I was 10 years old. The year was 1997 and it was during 2nd term of my Primary 3 school year (around July). My mom had sent me and my sister to live with our uncle in a nearby village of Pagoo. Pagoo was about 15 kilometers from Kalongo. The children in our area had been sleeping in the bush at night for fear of the LRA rebels. But this particular July night we had decided to stay in our uncle’s home with his wife and a few other children. Our uncle was gone to another village to make a purchase. I awoke about midnight to the sight of fire all around. The LRA had come to Pagoo and they were burning every home. They demanded the children to gather outside. They forced my uncle’s wife back inside and burned her with the home. Many people suffered the same fate that night. Outside I found many (hundreds) of other prisoners- mostly boys, bound to a rope in a single line. Younger boys and girls were simply told to walk alongside the older captives because the LRA knew they would fear to run away. Men were either severely beaten or killed. That night I carried a sack of maize flour for one particular soldier. He wanted me to personally serve him by carrying his things so he tried to hide me from the rest of the group. He hid me long enough to spare me at least one beating that the other children received but soon I was discovered by the commanding officer and forced to join the other children in their labors. We walked many kilometers with no shoes and no shirt. They took us to Sudan to a mountain called Himotong. I often prayed during those days that I would make it back home alive. People died of exposure, wounds, sickness, and beatings. We mostly ate cassava. It would be five years before I returned to Katongo. They gave me the name Samuel. After two years I finally received a gun.
I did not see my sister much, maybe once a year. She survived the ordeal but came home with a baby girl. Children who tried to escape were brought back to camp and murdered at the hands of other child soldiers. Some were trampled to death. I spent much time fighting during my final two years. The LRA taught us to always run towards the enemy. I know it is the hand of God that spared my life during these times. We traveled as far as Gulu and Lira fighting government forces. Most of my five years with the LRA was spent in Sudan. I only spent about one year in Uganda. During our time in Sudan we captured a group of about 80 people from a certain village. The LRA quickly realized that these people practiced a form of occultic witchcraft. This was offensive to the LRA soldiers so we marched them to a certain field some distance from our camp. They were all blind-folded and told to get on their knees. Then they were systematically executed by gunshot. This included men, women, and children.
Feb 2003 was the turning point for me. I had been left in our camp to guard new children who had been abducted as well as supplies. The government forces raided our camp and everyone ran for their lives. When we regrouped, our commanders demanded to know where our supplies and prisoners were. We had little to show them. We had left everything behind. They beat us severely – twice. Then they informed us that we would have to go into battle without a gun until we could find one from a dead soldier. At that point I determined that I was ready to go home. Another thing that influenced my decision was some disturbing news I received from a new prisoner. One particular boy whom the LRA had just recently abducted was from my home area. I began to ask him about people and we in fact shared many acquaintances. I asked him about my mom and he informed me she was dead. This made me want to go home. I decided that even I should die at home like my mother- rather than die out here in the bush. So I began considering how I might leave. I spoke with a couple other young men about leaving but they were hesitant. So I determined to keep the matter to myself.
My opportunity came when they sent a group of us to Kitgum to steal some food for our camp. Fighting had been fierce. We had been moving a lot. The LRA soldiers were tired and decided to send some of us younger ones out without them. We left in the evening to walk towards town and I knew that I would not return. Once we reached the edge of town I told the others that I would check a certain house. That was my moment. I never looked back. I knew that they could not look for me long because we were on the edge of town. I traveled a little distance and slept in the bush. I was excited but still very fearful. If I met government soldiers or LRA as I traveled alone I could be killed quickly. For one week I traveled without eating. I was nervous, relieved, and very anxious. Many people ran from me as they saw me coming. I eventually hid my gun to draw less attention to myself. The fact remained that anyone who saw me could immediately tell that I was a soldier from the bush. I learned to counter my own fear by instilling fear in others. If I approached a group of people I would simply tell them that the LRA was coming behind me and that they had better run. At that point they would be too busy running to give me any trouble. Once, two men followed me and I had to pull my gun on them. They ran when I brandished my weapon and I continued my journey. I finally reached my uncle’s home in Kalongo. I found a young boy there that I knew and asked him of my uncle’s whereabouts. He brought my uncle to me and my uncle immediately began to ask about my condition and health. I learned that my mother was indeed dead. She had suffered from heart problems after we were taken. I cried for my mother many nights.
Life after the bush-
My uncle was content to leave me be but his brother reported my presence to the local police station. The next day a plain-clothes officer came and spoke with me. He asked me about my experience in the bush. Then he took me to the police station for interrogation. I was terrified. They asked me many questions about my movements with the LRA and where their camps and supplies were. All I could do was cry. I did not want to be part of the war anymore. I simply did not want to talk about those things. I couldn’t handle it emotionally. They took me to a large army barracks some kilometers away where they had received other boys from the bush like myself. I was denied food, interrogated, invited to join the army, and they even threatened my life if I did not give them information about the LRA. Once again, all I could do was cry. I told them to kill me if they wanted. I had been living on the edge of death for so long that I was tired of running from it. Finally someone came and instructed them to send me to a World Vision project in Lira for boys like me. I stayed there for some months and was treated much better. There I received some counseling.
I returned home to my uncle. It was one year after my return that we learned my sister was alive. She came home from Gulu with a baby girl (fathered by an LRA soldier). The next two years proved extremely challenging. I wanted to go to school but now I was 5 years behind. I completed Primary 6 and 7 during the next two years but it was a difficult time. My uncle’s new wife did not like me. She reminded me often that I had been a ruthless killer in the bush. I learned to just be silent around her and many others who despised my past. Then I learned of a school near Gulu especially for boys like myself who had returned from the bush. It was called the School for War Affected Children. I was glad to leave my uncle’s home and try a new environment. At this school I was given the chance to learn construction. I was also exposed to some church choirs. I loved listening to and singing with choirs so much. It was also at this school that I heard a true gospel presentation from a guest speaker. My first genuine faith in Christ happened during this season. In 2008 some people from Watoto began visiting our school and talking to us about Christ and Watoto Child Care Ministries. We were invited to join a Watoto village outside Kampala called Suubi. The conditions in our school had degenerated and Watoto sounded like a good opportunity to me.
I spent the next three years of my life living at Suubi village near Kampala. Suubi is home to 1000 students plus house-moms, teachers, ministers, and staff. In Watoto we lived in homes of one mum assigned to eight students. I enrolled in Hope Vocational School and continued to learn construction. In Watoto I learned many things about serving God and living a life that pleases God. We had church services, cell groups, school chapels, and life-skills lessons to help disciple us as believers. Suubi is a beautiful and peaceful place. I am grateful for my time there.
Some people are curious about the changes that Christ has made in my life. Most men my age in my village drink much alcohol and remain angry at people who have hurt them. But being a Christian has taught me to let go of the pain in my past. I choose not to focus on the bad things that happened to me and my family. I choose to focus on my future. I want to have a strong family. I want to bring healing and hope to other people. I know that I am forgiven and Christ has told us to forgive those who sin against us. Therefore, I am going to pursue what is good with the rest of my life. I know the pain in my past is a testimony that I can use for God’s glory.