I survived the LRA twice – Akello’s story
The year was 2003. Judith Akello, now the Woman Member of Parliament for Pader, was a third year student at Makerere University. A few weeks to her final exams, she hadn’t raised enough money to complete her tuition payments. She had to get all the money before the exams started, or she would not see the inside of an examination room.
Her mother, who lives in Pader, sent her a message to travel home and collect the required money. Overwhelmed with joy, Akello boarded a bus home the next morning. She prayed for a safe journey as the bus set off for, as a girl born and raised in northern Uganda, Akello was aware of the dangers of travelling along this route. The threat comes from the attacks by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Kony’s men do not always attack, but when they do, the result is always nasty. They loot, they kidnap, they kill.
Akello prayed against all these as the bus left Kampala. The journey was uneventful until they approached Kitgum town. Akello was dozing off when she was awakened by gunfire. Her worst fears had come to pass. “We were seven kilometres away from the town when the LRA rebels attacked. It was clear that we caught them in the midst of planning for an ambush because they seemed surprised when they saw our bus. They started shooting at the windows, sending many of us ducking for dear life. They also tried to shoot the tyres, but were unable to since we were driving at a very high speed. It was a miracle that we got away unharmed,” Akello narrates.
She spent three days at home before she set off for Kampala with her tuition fees. She chose a seat between two men and prayed for a safer return journey. The devil seemed to have travelled ahead of them again for they fell into another ambush just as they reached Gulu-Kitgum road. For the second time in one week, Akello was caught in an ambush by LRA rebels.
She thought she wouldn’t survive this time. “One of the men jumped into the road and started shooting at us. The logical thing was to drive on, so we encouraged the driver to speed up despite the shooting. One of the rebels, seeing that the driver had insisted on driving ahead shot the tyres to stop him. Other rebels soon joined in the shooting. Within seconds, bullets were flying all over the place. They finally shot the tyres, so we were moving on rims.
Angry with our persistence, one of the rebels jumped into the middle of the road with a grenade to throw at the bus.
“We would all have burnt to death there and then. What saved us is that one of the passengers was a soldier. He pulled out his gun and shot the man before he threw the grenade. The shooting went on for about 15 minutes, but those 15 minutes were the longest in my life. By the time we drove away from the rebels, two women, one child and five men had died.
“The men next to me were among the dead. By God’s miracle, I survived without any injuries, save for a few marks from the broken window glass that spilled onto the seat. I think what saved me is that I had ducked under the seat at some point during the shooting.
Fortunately, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) were in the next trading centre. When the bus finally stopped, the UPDF soldiers ran towards us. They surrounded us as we waited for another vehicle from Gulu to ferry the injured to Lacor Hospital. The driver insisted that we continue with our journey despite the broken windows and completely smashed windscreen. We travelled with the dead up to Kampala. When it all ended, I asked myself: how long shall we be going through this? What is lacking? ” Akello says.
The ambush took place at 11:00am, but due to the damaged condition of the vehicle, the survivors arrived at 8:00pm.
Back at university, as Akello prepared to write her final exams, she made the decision that got her where she is today.
“I decided to become a Member of Parliament to put the case forward on behalf of my people. I decided that if being part of the leadership of Acholi sub-region could help me contribute to peace, then let it be. Above all, I realised that, as a product of war and insecurity, I needed to do something to change the situation,” Akello says.
As she sits in her chair at Parliament, Akello cannot stem the emotions that flow from her childhood. “I saw it all,” she says bitterly. “I saw people dying when I was just a child. I jumped over dead bodies as a child trying to escape for my life. As a child, I would always wake up to the sound of gunshots. I lost my father in this war so my poor mother had to pay my school fees single handedly.
“While I was a pupil at Kitgum Girls, we were either be awakened by gunshots or by the marching LRA rebels as they passed behind our dormitory. This was our experience every morning, yet we had to go to class. The earliest we got there was 10:00am. Sometimes classes would begin at midday.
That is why I decided to become an MP. I said I must put my case forward to make sure that the children born today and tomorrow do not see what I saw or experience what I went through,” Akello says, as the bell calling her to the next session in Parliament rings in the background.