Victor Ochen, 28
Director, African Youth Initiative Network - Uganda
A Painful Childhood
I was born and raised in northern Uganda, in the village of Abia in Lira district. Abia is the location of one of northern Uganda’s camps for displaced people. It is also near a former command post of the Lord Resistance Army, or LRA, at Gul-goi on the Moroto River bank. On February 4, 2004, the LRA attacked Abia. Under the command of Vincent Otti and Okot Odhiambo, the LRA massacred hundreds of people. Just a few weeks later, the LRA massacred hundreds more displaced people at Borlonyo camp.
My childhood was very painful. I spent 20 of my 28 years amid war and witnessed all sorts of human rights abuses. Together with my family, I often survived on just one meal a day and sometimes had to go without food. Education in Abia camp, Tecwao and Starch factory camps which I lived was a nightmare. My brother and I burnt charcoal and sold it in order to pay for our school fees. Because we chose not to pick up guns or join the army, we became targets for abduction by the LRA. Some of my classmates felt such desperation and helplessness that they deliberately allowed themselves to be abducted by the LRA.
We suffered immeasurable burdens, miseries, and inequalities. Sometimes I have trouble believing that I made it through all these challenges. But we remained with our loving parents and hoped that one day, the war would end and we would all be fine.
In 2003, the LRA abducted my elder brother and my cousin, just half an hour after I had been with them. I blamed myself for not learning how to shoot gun, and contemplated picking up a gun to try to get them back. To this day, no one knows what happened to them. I have a feeling that if my brother was alive, he would have escaped and come back by now, but I still hope to see him some day.
Working with the Victims
What has happened in northern Uganda over the last 20 years is shocking and unbelievable, but it has happened. Nothing can cool down the burning feelings of the people pained and hurt by this war. One young girl described her parents and others being killed, cooked and other abductees were forced to eat their bodies. She told me: “Every time I try cooking using the pot, I see my parents inside the pot.” She has wept too bitterly and suffered too much, and it’s sad to witness many people like her whose situation only worsens without assistance. It haunts me that I have been unable to help people like this young girl escape circumstances that leave them vulnerable.
Today I work with the communities affected by the war. I meet and hold in-depth discussions with victims and these help me to help them help themselves. I am the director of an organization called the African Youth Initiative Network, or AYINET. We work with the victims of the war; we deliver lifesaving health assistances and help to promote tolerance, reconciliation, forgiveness, and development. AYINET strongly believes that justice for the victims is necessary to prevent new atrocities in the future.
A year ago, I had a trying moment during an interview with a formerly abducted child. I discovered that this person was one of the ex-combatants commanded by General Otti Vincent to tie up my brother during his abduction. To date, he doesn’t know that it was my brother who he was talking about to me. I felt tortured, but I never told him and never well, and not even any one from my family will get to know him. It was very hard for me to concede this, but I feel that this ex-combatant is innocent since he was forced to do that.
On Rehabilitation and Justice
Given my experience working with victims from northern Uganda and at a time of crisis, I am confident that rehabilitating northern Uganda is not possible without rendering justice for those who have suffered the grave crimes committed by the LRA.
To learn more about Victor and the work of his organization, the African Youth Initiative Network, or AYINET, please visit AYINET’s website at www.ayinet.or.ug