story of a reluctant soldier:
Ugandan woman was forced to serve in army at
8 years old
November 14, 2002
autobiography is currently number two on Germany's best-seller
list. Its title is "They Took Away My Mother and Gave Me
a Gun," and that is literally what happened to her.
At the age of 8,
Keitetsi wandered away from her village in rural Uganda and became
lost in the bush. She was found by two men who were soldiers in
the rebel army of General Yoweri Museveni, then fighting against
the government forces of President Milton Obote. The men recruited
her as one of Museveni's child soldiers.
Since that time,
Keitetsi's life has been a harrowing odyssey, which, miraculously,
she has managed to survive. Now 26, she lives in Denmark and has
devoted her life to ending the use of children as soldiers, a
practice that is alarmingly common worldwide. According to U.N.
estimates, there are at least 300,000 combatants younger than
18 fighting in conflicts around the world. Keitetsi spoke last
Thursday evening (Nov. 7) at Emerson Hall in an event co-sponsored
by the Harvard African Students Association, the Center for International
Development, and the Committee on African Studies.
Keitetsi was given
the name China by a superior officer who thought her eyes looked
Asian. Small, dressed in jeans and a sweater, she does not seem
like a hardened soldier, but by the age of 17 she was already
a veteran of many deadly battles. Today, when she remembers the
people she has shot, she tells herself it was the gun that killed
them, not her.
"You will never
know how I feel inside," she told her mostly undergraduate
audience. "It's like I have lived 100 years, because I have
seen so much. It's hard to talk about this, and if I cry, don't
feel sorry for me, because I am free. I am no longer told who
to hate and who to kill."
Conditions were even
harder for girl soldiers than for their male counterparts, Keitetsi
said. In addition to the general brutality of army life, girls
were subject to systematic sexual abuse. She described the shame
of being told by an officer to report to his barracks - knowing
what was in store for her and knowing there was no one to whom
she could turn for help.
When she did reject
the sexual advances of an officer, he accused her of selling guns
to the enemy, and she knew that she would have to leave the country
or be killed. She and a friend managed to escape and ended up
in South Africa.
She survived for
four years on the streets, then was recaptured by representatives
of the Museveni government. They were about to bring her back
to Uganda when she escaped and went to an Afrikaner immigration
officer for help. He put her in touch with U.N. authorities, who
found a home for her in Denmark.
While living in Copenhagen,
Keitetsi began seeing a therapist who tried to get her to tell
her story as a way of dealing with the crippling residue of trauma
that she still carried with her. Unable to describe what she had
gone through to another human being, she found that she could
describe her experiences into a tape recorder. It was these narratives
that became the basis of her book.
Keitetsi has spoken
to groups throughout Europe about the plight of her fellow child
soldiers. Protected by the Danish police, she feels safe, but,
for her, going back to Uganda would be out of the question.
"If I go back,
it's like, OK, the lion is hungry - 'Can I hide in your mouth?'
Museveni and his generals are very angry with me. It shows our
president doesn't care about freedom. He still uses children.
In northern Uganda, kids are being taken every day to fight in
the Congo war."
Keitetsi was scheduled
to tell her story at the United Nations in New York the following
morning. From there, she will go on to other speaking engagements
in the Northeast. While she believes that UNICEF and other organizations
are working to end the use of children as soldiers, she feels
that more is needed.
just trust to organizations. If everyone would look in their hearts,
they would find an answer. The world is so big - we can do it!"
The solution to the
problem, she said, lies in holding leaders like Museveni responsible
for their actions. If that were done, it would discourage others
from recruiting children.
"They have committed
a crime against us, but we have not committed any crime. When
all of the kids are safe, that's when I will smile."
But Keitetsi did
have another reason to smile, and she shared the news of that
good fortune with her audience. Two months ago, she reconnected
with an old friend, a fellow child soldier from Uganda whom she
had assumed was dead. Now in his 20s, he lives in Miami, where
he is pursuing a boxing career. After her talk, Keitetsi planned
to drive to New York, where the two would meet.
if this wasn't Harvard, I would have canceled. We are going to
talk all night, probably not get any sleep, even though I have
to be at the U.N. at 9. I don't know how I can explain this to
you. We were best friends. I am so happy."