As a young boy chasing chickens on his parents’ farm in northern Uganda, Louis Lakor dreamed of becoming a teacher. But when he finally set foot in a local primary school, aged seven, it was as an armed killer.
Abducted in a night raid, Lakor was forced to become a child soldier with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group, which terrorised northern Uganda for nearly two decades before being driven out of the country by a military offensive in 2005.
Clutching a gun handed to him by his kidnappers, Lakor was ordered to “shoot everything you see”. He did.
“Otherwise they would have killed me,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation some 20 years later, looking out on the lush countryside near his home village of Awach, about 60 km south of Uganda’s border with South Sudan.
The LRA, which has retreated to a jungle straddling the borders of South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, was notorious for kidnapping children for use as fighters and sex slaves.
It has massacred more than 100,000 people and displaced 2 million over the past three decades, according to the United Nations (UN), and its leader, Joseph Kony, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
Poverty and stigma
A year since a controversial decision by the United States and its African partners to suspend the hunt for Kony, his victims are battling poverty and stigma – while their tormentor remains at large.
Lakor pointed to the school he attacked with a tormented look, amid fields dotted with mud huts. One memory stands out from the four years he spent as a rebel: he was coerced into killing his best friend when he lagged behind on a long march.
But Lakor, now a smartly dressed 27-year-old, is putting the horrors of the bush behind him, and helping other ex-child soldiers learn skills, from vehicle repairs and carpentry to tailoring and hairdressing, to get back on their feet.
“When I train youths here, I tell them my story,” he said, pacing around his noisy workshop where lanky teenagers welded, sawed and hammered.
“I tell where I came from - that I’m like them, that I’m still an orphan looking for a way to survive.”
The UN estimates about 35,000 children were abducted by the LRA. Uganda offered amnesty to fighters who abandoned LRA ranks and renounced violence, paving the way for ex-child soldiers to start afresh - at least in theory.
But stigma persists, said Sasha Lezhnev, founding director of the Grassroots Reconciliation Group, which runs projects bringing together villagers and former child soldiers.
“One of the LRA’s strategies was to have their soldiers kill people in their own communities so that they wouldn’t be able to go back,” he said.
Lakor escaped from the LRA, aged 11, when his guards were distracted, and returned to his village, where he found his parents were dead, and his relatives and neighbours vengeful.
“I tried to stay in the village but life was so hard,” he said. “There was no money ... no food. I was living with my uncle but then he chased me away, saying he cannot keep a rebel with him.”
While the government gives aid to ex-rebels, the chairman of the Amnesty Commission, Justice Peter Onega, said those who were less than 14 years old when they escaped - the legal age of criminal responsibility - did not qualify.
“It’s the families who are supposed to look after them,” he said.
Lakor ended up on the streets of Gulu, the main town in the region, sleeping rough and begging for money.
He had not eaten for two weeks when he was introduced to Peter Owiny Mwa, owner of local business Baka General Motors, who decided to give him a chance, at first employing him as a cleaner, and later training him as a mechanic.
Even then, Lakor could not find work, with prospective employers dismissing him as a “rebel”.
His experience of hunger, hatred and destitution nearly drove him back into the hands of the LRA – this time willingly.
“You just ... get your gun, shoot people, rob people – that’s how we used to get money,” he said.
Lakor was stopped by Ugandan soldiers while trying to find the rebels’ base and sent back.
In 2013, he returned to the workshop and proposed a different strategy to Mwa: to let him train and employ ex-LRA youths, selling what they made to keep the enterprise running.
Today, the workshop - a cluttered open-air courtyard surrounded by dilapidated wooden buildings - assists about 60 boys and girls each year, with little external funding.
Lakor drives a motorcycle-taxi to keep up with the rent.
Ex-LRA youths, some with limbs scarred by machete and gun wounds, sleep two to a single, stained mattress on the floor of a filthy room with peeling paint and no mosquito nets or glass in the windows.
Former child soldier Denis Ochen, 21, said he witnessed LRA prisoners being cooked alive and served up as food.
Another student Godfrey Oloya, 18, was born in LRA captivity and still has a bullet lodged in his arm, a “souvenir” of his escape under gunfire when he was seven.
Back home, his mother could not afford to keep him in class, so he worked in the market with her, selling pancakes and shoes.
“When I finish here, I want to drive a taxi or a lorry,” he said, as budding mechanics trained on the rusting remains of a pea-green Volkswagen Beetle from the 1970s.
While life remains hard, Lakor’s work is producing results. Trainees have gone on to set up workshops in their villages, enabling them to start new lives, despite years of missed schooling.
For Lakor, his work is also a path to reconciliation - meaning he is once again welcomed in his home village.
One of his former students is Nelson Luwum, the cousin of his murdered best friend. Today, the 19-year-old works in a village car repair shop.
“Now I call him my teacher,” Luwum said of Lakor, “but also a friend.” Funding for this story was provided by the International Women’s Media Foundation.
— Reported by Thomson Reuters Foundation.