She was abducted by the rebels in 2003 when she was only 11 years old. She was a brave and fearless soldier who killed many. After five years in captivity, she decided to escape. She told Gladys Kalibbala her life in the bush and how it has affected her.
I hid behind the door to find means of killing Sarah as I was feeling very angry,” recalls Emma Atine (not real name). Ruefully she admits possessing the urge to kill, which torments her.
Initiated into killing people while a rebel captive, the 16-year-old girl narrates how she recently attempted to kill her 14-year-old sister. Her expression is tense and her eyes brim with unshed tears.
She had no weapon but planned to use her bare hands to commit murder.
Squeezing life out of human beings is nothing new. She has done it many times. Atine and her fellow abductees were trained to kill people without using guns or any other weapons.
The brutal skill ingrained in her sometimes prompts her to lurch out into action. That is how Sarah nearly became her victim. From behind the door Atine planned to leap on to her sister with speed and surprise killing her instantly. But her rational being prevailed. The plot was aborted.
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Taking a break?
Atine looks like an ordinary teenager, not a killer. She is pretty, confident and has dreams just like any other girl her age. However, the beautiful smile belies a traumatic past.
Killing had never crossed Atine’s mind until 2003 when she was abducted by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels.
She does not remember the month and date, but the time is deeply ingrained in her mind.
It was 10:00am.
LRA rebels invaded Atuweso Primary School in Teso. Atine, her mother and sisters were part of the large group of people that took refuge in a nearby bush. The rebels did find them, but only abducted Atine.
At the time of her abduction, Atine was a P5 pupil at Alito Primary School. She tells of the untold sufferings their group had to go through before reaching Juba. Many young children died while crossing rivers.
She was given slippers to wear for only three days before gum boots were provided for all of them. “As a young girl then the gum boots gave me a difficult time as they burnt my feet terribly,” she recoils at the memory.
The former abductee cannot estimate how long it took them to reach Juba. There was no vehicle. They walked on foot from the day they were captured until they reached Joseph Kony’s camp in Juba. Kony is the leader of the LRA rebels.
She talks of the many attempts to escape before they reached Juba. “I always felt home sick and wanted to run back to my mother and sisters until the day the rebels slaughtered four of our friends in our presence,” she says with a distant look as though reliving the trauma.
The abductees were strongly warned by the commanders against trying to escape. To drive the point home, four boys and girls who tried to escape were beheaded.
“The commanders gathered all of us in the camp to witness the slaughter. They tied the victims’ hands behind them and soldiers cut off their heads. It was horrible and I cried until I slept because one of the girls was my best friend,” she recalls.
“I could not understand why I was picked from the group until I met Kony and got to know that he possesses powers which can make him look into someone’s future,” Atine says. She describes Kony as a friendly man who loves children.
“He is also a very smart man who likes wearing business suits and jokes a lot with people,” she adds.
She recalls a day when Kony went shopping in Teso and found people talking about a terrible man called Kony.
Not knowing who the stranger in their midst was, the people suggested all possible punishments to give to Kony when they caught up with him as he packed the gum boots and other essential commodities in the pickup.
“When he came back to the camp, he laughingly told us how he joked with them and also contributed to a list of punishments to give to this terrible man Kony,” she says in amazement.
Atine escaped death many times while in the bush. There was the bomb by UPDF soldiers, which killed many of her friends and left her with a deep wound in her back. It healed, but has left a scar as though to emphasise the scars in her heart for she never forgot her mother and sisters. “I always wondered what had become of them and this is one of the reasons I wanted to escape,” she recalls.
Another time, it was a bullet in her thigh. However, what sticks most in her mind is the day her head was almost blown off by a UPDF soldier. She got away with a minor scratch on the forehead and ended up pumping a whole magazine of bullets into her would-be assailant.
“I was forced to kill this soldier because he almost finished me off!” she says while opening her eyes wide. There is no remorse as she narrates how the wounded soldier begged for mercy.
“Bits of his flesh were flying around the place, some of them sticking on me,” she adds triumphantly.
By this time Atine held the rank of corporal and was given two escorts. One carried her clothes and the other her bullets and landmines. She says she used to move with about 10 landmines as they were taught how to plant them for their own safety.
“The landmines would help us blast the Mamba whenever UPDF was hitting at us. By planting many of them we would have room for escape when things became tough and leave the UPDF to suffer with casualties,” she narrates.
When asked whether their army never used to suffer casualties from the same landmines, she explained that every one of them would know the range where they planted them so they would not turn in that direction.
Atine is remorseful about the crimes she committed while in the bush and is hoping that God will forgive her.
“I had to do what the commander wanted or else I would be eliminated,” the preoccupied girl narrates. She stares into space as if hoping to see forgiveness there.
Although Atine now lives with her father, a pastor, sister and stepmother in Mukono District, the trauma of her past still haunts her.
She talks of the black powder that Kony would rub into the back of her neck to make her tough and brave. The ingredients of the powder remain a mystery, but whenever it was applied on her neck, she would be able to do anything.
Although she was not one of Kony’s wives, he attended to her personally as he applied this medicine. Kony would first cut her skin using a razor blade then rub in the powder.
She has appealed to President Yoweri Museveni to help her with the education she has missed for the five years she spent in the bush. Atine laments that Kony never kept his promise to take the abductees back to school.
“The first time I met him at Juba I cried so much that he asked what the matter was. When I told him that I wanted to go back to school, he promised to enroll me in a school but he never did.
“I want to become a doctor and be able to treat children who have suffered terribly like me,” she vows. She wants to go to the US for her studies.
“After staying at the camp for only one day, Kony himself took 10 of us out for a shoot out. I was the only one who managed to kill a member of the group,” Atine says sadly.
However, she says, this act seemed to have excited Kony who declared her a soldier from that day. Atine narrates that she became one of Kony’s favourites because of her bravery as she managed to kill many enemies.
“If I had not killed them, they would have killed me. In war it is tactics which can make you live longer,” she says matter-of-factly.
She, however, adds that prayers have helped her a lot ever since she joined her parents Richard Yoshua and Dove Shaloah. Shaloah found Atine hiding behind the door the day she wanted to kill her sister but did not know what she was doing there.
Atine also complains of frequent headaches and abdominal pains as she stopped having her menstrual periods long ago.
“When we arrived at the Juba camp, all the girls who had started menstruating were given a red liquid to drink. We never had our periods again,” says Atine who attributes this to her constant abdominal pains.
She further explains that the spot where the black powder used to be applied (behind the neck) is always itching causing her a lot of discomfort. Atine says that whenever it itches she gets the urge to kill.
“One day while at the camp in Juba, one of my escorts came to me and told me that the commander wanted to see me. I was later shocked when I reached his office and he held my arm and applied some liquid (red) medicine around it,” she says.
She explains that this was done as Kony cautioned her about her plans of escape, which he said will not yield good results. He prophesied that she would turn out to be a big problem to her people.
Atine, however, reveals that this was all news to her as she had no intention at all of escaping but Kony insisted that he had already seen it coming. And escape she did.
The idea of escape came when the UPDF attacked the rebels hideout in Southern Sudan.
“It was very early in the morning and all of a sudden UPDF helicopters were all over the camp and throwing bombs. We scattered in different directions,” she recalls.
For three days she and a friend hid in the bush while the battle went on. The UPDF won the battle. Hungry and wet, she and her friend were finally free of Kony.
“When we came out of the bush and realised we were alone, with no rebels to get hold of us, we decided to run to the UPDF detach which was nearer to us than the camp in Juba,” she says and smiles.
Together with a friend, they braved the flying bullets and run towards the UPDF soldiers.
Today, Atine has the dreams like any girl her age. But her biggest dream is to go back to school and make up for lost time.
She says the five years she spent in the bush robbed her of childhood and innocence leaving her traumatised and scarred.