GULU, Uganda — Kidnapped when he was just 16 to fight for the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army, Stephen Okot found his way to freedom and back to his family years later through a rare friendship made in the bush.
Trained to kill and always fearing informers and punishment by his own comrades, Okot had long kept to himself, until by chance he started talking with Oryem Bosco, a short, shy man a few years younger, about their childhoods in northern Uganda. “I told him my ancestral place only to realize we came from the same district,” Okot said.
From that day, Okot and Bosco began sharing food. As they ate, they huddled together, contemplating the decade they had been away from their families, whispering about what they saw around them — the killing without mercy, the lack of education among the fighters, the bleakness of their future.
The LRA, a cultlike rebel group led by Joseph Kony, terrorized northern Uganda for almost two decades, killing 100,000 and displacing 1.7 million with the stated intention of imposing a rule based on the Ten Commandments.
Its fighters kidnapped tens of thousands of children, turning them into killers who carried out rapes, torture and massacres, before the group was driven out of the country in 2006.
Last year, the United States ended its seven-year support for the hunt to find Kony, pulling funding that encouraged LRA defections through leaflets, loudspeakers and local radio broadcasts.
Paul Ronan, from the nonprofit Invisible Children, warns that the group remains a threat.
With several hundred scattered throughout Congo and the Central African Republic, LRA fighters have kidnapped more than 160 civilians this year, according to Invisible Children’s LRA Crisis Tracker.
Kony, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, is now believed to have settled in Sudan.
The LRA appears to be holding together. With the U.S. and Ugandan militaries pulling out of the fight, encouraging defections is seen as the best way to whittle down its remaining forces. There have been 343 defections in the past four years.
Isolated from the rest of the world, the remaining fighters worry that if they were to leave, they will be punished for crimes they have committed. They are also trapped in an environment where captives inform on each other for promotion and commanders are punished for being kind.
You would be killed by firing squad for even thinking of escaping, Okot said, which is what made his bonding with Bosco so important. As they grew closer, they found a third confidant in Owong Sam, a charismatic man with a hearty laugh who was abducted at the age of 9.
“I began loving Sam. I began loving Bosco. They were people I could trust,” said Okot, sitting in a guarded reception center in Gulu, in northern Uganda, several months after the three finally escaped.
It was Sam, now 26, who first suggested leaving. Because of his favored status, he had been allocated a wife — another captive — and now had a daughter. “I thought [about how] I was abducted when I was a child,” Sam said. “My daughter isn’t studying. I wanted to bring her back home to get an education.”
So, Sam approached his friends. “Our future is going nowhere, but still we can manage our way out,” he remembered saying. “If you want a better life, you should pack, but don’t tell anyone or I will be killed.”
Their chance came when they were ordered to escort their commander to a meeting Kony called in Darfur, in western Sudan. During the journey back, they stole away at night while others slept: The three men helped Sam’s family, which had now grown to two children.
Together they made the long journey from Sudan, through the Central African Republic to the border with Congo on foot. Until last year, there would have been U.S. Special Forces helping them return to Uganda, but now it’s down to the work of local Ugandans, particularly David Ocitti, who runs an organization called Pathways to Peace.
In June, Ocitti traveled to Banda, in northeastern Congo, to greet the escapees and begin the slow process of finding their families and flying them back home.
Four weeks later, 16 years of separation ended when the three were finally reunited with their families in Gulu. Women ululated. Fathers and uncles rushed to lift the returnees into the air amid shouts of joy. “My dad’s gotten fatter,” Sam quipped, grinning from ear to ear.
A sister, who Sam believed had been killed in a shootout with government forces, delightedly introduced him to her children. Sam’s mother then pulled him onto her lap and held him there, with her eyes closed, for more than five minutes.
Okot and Bosco, meanwhile, discovered that their families were related and they were actually distant cousins.
All three escapees have been granted amnesty by the Ugandan government and will not face prosecution for anything they did in the bush.
Defections and reunions are generally celebrated by northern Ugandans, who see them as a necessary step toward peace-building. Many more families are waiting for news of their missing loved ones, though defectors say fewer than 60 Ugandans are left in the LRA.
Still, rejoining civilian life will not be easy. “I call this the honeymoon period,” Ocitti said. “Usually the post-traumatic stress disorder kicks in six months to a year later. Now, so many people are coming with gifts, sweet words, but after a year they have to face their real life.”
Local counselors say at least two LRA escapees have killed themselves over the past few years. Children born in the bush can be rejected by their parents’ families, and other escapees have developed addiction problems or experienced hostility from neighbors.
Without an education and experience, many also struggle to find work. “They want you to be a total fool,” Okot said of the LRA, explaining their lack of literacy. He’s lucky: His father runs a business repairing bicycles and said he would love to have his eldest son join him.
When they return to their communities, after several weeks of counseling, there will be a welcoming ceremony. This sometimes involves prayers and defectors stepping on an egg as a cleansing ritual to signify a new beginning.
Bosco said he never thought their escape would work, and now that he is finally home, he is convinced that the scourge that robbed him of his childhood may one day truly end.
“Everything has a beginning and an end,” he said. “Nothing is impossible before God.”