Tales from the bush: Former LRA commander tells of life with Kony

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Ketty Adong is trying to piece back her life after escaping from LRA rebels. Photos by Rachel Mabala.

IN SUMMARY

Ketty Adong is a former rebel commander. She escaped from the bush in 2001 and has been trying to rebuild her life in the civilian world after spending one-and-a-half years with Joesph Kony’s men.

As 32-year-old Ketty Adong from Alito Village in Kitgum District will narrate, when she was abducted in 2001, she rose through the rebel ranks from heading the cooking for the bosses to becoming a rebel commander. However, she does not fancy the memories of the rebels’ lifestyle because it is only comparable to that of beasts since rebels do not have permanent residence.

Adong recalls that on the night of her abduction from her village, she was ordered to leave behind her one-month-old baby and join other captives. She never stopped regretting not heeding an earlier warning to leave the mission where they were taking refuge; she probably would have survived captivity because the rebels’ plan was to attack the mission to get drugs.

“They broke the door and flashed torches at us. I was dressed in a petty coat. I wished I had slept in the bush that night because I would have survived. I heard the rebels murmuring that if they found people in the house they would chop them into pieces but they instead captured us and tied us together with ropes and the journey to captivity started.

When we got to the shop owned by the friend who had warned us of the impending attack, the rebels asked him to surrender whatever he had for them to take to the bush. When he only gave them a carton of salt, they got angry and shot him dead. The first time they did a head count was at a place called Apala. We were 25.

The initiation 
We were initiated into the bush life by smearing oil on our foreheads, supposedly to make us strong. During the initiation, a woman among us was found pregnant.

One of the boys was ordered to cut her into pieces as other women watched as a reminder that they would in future be called upon to execute similar assignments. As we continued our journey deeper into the bush, we found a traditional wedding ceremony at Alito Trading Centre. All the people attending the party were killed.

I never killed anyone while in the bush or met Joseph Kony individually. On several occasions though, the commanders asked us to assemble somewhere in bush to meet Kony, but we were only met by strong winds which would disperse us. I think I survived being killed because the rebel commanders liked me since I used to cook good food and never showed intentions of escaping.

When you join the rebels, you must know you are no longer a person. If a rebel met a relative on the opposite side, they would have to kill the other because battle lines have been drawn.
Once, I had to watch a little boy kill my uncle as I looked on. It made me almost run berserk and that was when I decided I would have to leave the bush.

But I could not escape immediately because I had been ear-marked for promotion as rebel commander for my loyalty in executing my duties of collecting firewood, food and water as the head cook for the bosses. My first duties had involved carrying loot to our bases.

We had specific days for killing

Our source of supplies were Kitgum, Gulu, Minakulu and Karamoja areas. Sometimes, we had to cross rivers up to the border with South Sudan but we never entered Sudan. We used to get food from people’s homes and sometimes the rebels boarded vehicles to buy merchandise from Kampala or send money to relatives in Kampala. Some rebels owned vehicles plying the Kampala-Gulu highway. Another alternative was staging road blocks along the highway and abducting people to carry the collected food.

My assignment for being promoted to commander was to pierce a woman’s lips and lock them up with a padlock as testimony that I could handle daring operations. I was pregnant and sick though, but my complaints only earned me 100 strokes of the cane and I was still ordered to execute the assignment. But I secretly gave the woman one of the keys and lied that I had only been given two and not three keys.

Rebel operations are time-tabled. There are days to specifically carry out abductions, collect food and for killing. The day for killing is purely to carry out revenge on the people believed to have reported rebels’ hideouts to government forces, especially in situations when the military ask villagers for the hideouts.

The role of the abductees is to carry supplies. Rape is strictly forbidden among the rebels and attracts a penalty of immediate death because they believe it brings them bad luck. Even couples who intend to be married have to be paired up by the commander. Pregnant women in the bush are assisted to give birth by traditional birth attendants and the captured medical personnel.

Most times, the killings are carried out by young boys who have been trained to kill because they do not mind killing anyone since they were initiated into killing at a young and innocent age. It is mainly done with pangas and other sharp objects, since guns would attract attention to the rebel hideouts.

An opportunity to escape

My chance to escape came when the rebels went on an attack mission in Pajule without me because I was ill and weak. I was exempted from the mission because I was a commander. I was left in charge of the abductees and told to wait for the rebels to pick them up at a certain point. Because I was not well though, the abductees carried me to a nearby home which happened to be for my relatives’ who immediately drove me to my parents’ home at the border with Acholi, Lango, Karamoja and South Sudan.

I found our home deserted because everyone was hiding in the bush but my mother picked courage to go and see who the visitors were. When she saw it was me, her daughter, she broke down into tears of joy because she could not believe I was still alive.

A few days later, rebels attacked our home and it brought back all the memories of bush life. I decided to relocate to Kampala to get away from it all. When I got to my sister’s home in N aguru though, she could not recognise me. She thought I was a random mad woman until her husband pointed out to her that it was me.

Getting support for my health

After I moved in with my sister, I was sickly and she started to be concerned, suggesting I return to the village. On the advice of a neighbour, I decided to do a medical check first. The check revealed I had a damaged liver and I was HIV positive. I was introduced to Meeting Point International, an NGO working with HIV positive women and single mothers. There, I found other former abductees like myself, and needy women with whom we were taught to resist and fight stigma.

We were equipped with survival skills such as making paper beads and bark cloth bags. These women and the schedule of my life at the NGO has helped me settle into normal life away from the bush.

Adong’s Godsend

Ketty Adong was introduced to Meeting Point International, an NGO working with HIV positive women and single mothers. Most of these women are originally from Acholi quarters in Kireka where they used to crush and sell stones fro a living. Because of the self-sustenance approach the NGO has used to remove stigma from the widows, it is today the home of close to 2,000 widows from all over the country whose lives and HIV status has been transformed from a sense of despair to hope, with projects such as bead work.

Source: monitor.co.ug