Resilience is an important word to Opwonya Innocent. To him, it captures how he has risen above the extreme challenges he’s encountered in life. In his words, it matters because

many people would not expect me to get up, after what I’ve been through.

What he has been through is being a child soldier in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Night commuting

Born in 1989, in the middle of war in Gulu, Uganda, it was normal for Innocent to hear gunshots every day. He explains that being surrounded by conflict was all he knew.

For years, Innocent and his family ‘night commuted’. Since it wasn’t safe to sleep at home, they would walk five kilometres to town and sleep in more secure areas where government soldiers provided protection – sometimes under vehicles or verandas. At times, it was just Innocent and his sister, whilst his parents would sleep in the bush near their home. Innocent remembers how hard it was to walk this distance twice a day.

Taken from home

One evening, as it poured with rain, Innocent’s parents made the decision to sleep at home. That night LRA soldiers came to his home. Innocent remembers the door being kicked in and a flashlight on his face. He remembers seeing the barrel of a gun and being scared. He was only ten years-old.

That night, he was abducted with his father. He was tied to a line with other abducted children – arms behind his back, rope on his waist tied to the person in front of and behind him.

The group walked for three days, but only at night, as the LRA feared being caught by government soldiers during the day. The destination was the region which is now South Sudan.

The walking was hard and Innocent’s feet became painfully swollen. He started to cry and beg for his father to carry him. This infuriated his abductors, who feared his cries would alert government soldiers. His father tried to break loose to comfort him. That is when his abductors untied his father and took him away from the group. He never returned.

Innocent describes this as the moment when everything changed for him. If they could do this to his father, they could to it to anyone.

A new world

Once they got to South Sudan, Innocent met other children. He thought he’d be the youngest, but there were others there that were born into the group. Children as young as five carrying guns. He said it was “like a new world”. Each man for himself. He couldn’t trust anyone.

After two days of rest, the training began. He’d wake at 6am and sing songs praising LRA leader Joseph Kony. He was told the group was his family now; that he must take care of his brothers and treat his commanders like fathers.

There were training trenches where older children ordered the younger ones to move from one end to the next, without having any part of their body go above the trench – otherwise they’d get shot. After two weeks of training, Innocent made it through. But some children did not.

Kony came one day to address the group. He told them that this was the Lord’s Resistance Army, and they were the fighters that would overthrow the government of Uganda. Kony told them he would make them rich. It was also the day Innocent was given a gun.

Life with the LRA

Life with the LRA had begun. Often on the move, often fighting and often looting food from South Sudanese residents, Innocent and others were not allowed to listen to the radio in case they heard the government broadcasts offering amnesty to LRA deserters.

One month after his abduction, Innocent was on shift as a night guard. He thought the cover of darkness could provide the perfect opportunity to escape. He tried, but his ‘Gum-boots’ made too much noise and he was found by another LRA member.

As a result of his attempted escape, Innocent was locked up for the night and brought in front of a disciplinary assembly the next morning. His commander ordered the group to decide his fate: death by firing squad or a beating.

He had some friends in the group who said since this was his first offence, he should be spared from death. Instead, Innocent was tied to a tree and his elbows and knees were beaten so badly, he thought they were broken.

Another boy helped him get medicine. This boy, who had already lost his whole family, made Innocent promise to forget his mother and sister and just cooperate. From that day, Innocent worked to become closer to his commander - cleaning his house to show he was a good soldier. For this, his commander, aged 14, trusted him with his unit and Innocent became second-in-command.

Making a break

Innocent doesn’t go into the details of his fighting. But he recalls that his lucky day arrived when his commander asked a volunteer unit to go back to Northern Uganda to abduct girls to choose as wives. Innocent decided to make his break when he and several boys were waiting outside a home, while others were looting it. This time, Innocent took off his Gum-boots and ran.

He heard other boys run after him, but he hid in the bush until the morning when a local woman stumbled upon him. He told her he needed her help and gave the name of his mother. The woman told him she didn’t believe him and that she hated him and the LRA. He presented her his gun and told her she could kill him. It was only then that she was persuaded to believe him and offer help.

When the government soldiers came to collect Innocent, they asked whether he wanted to continue fighting, but on their side. But he just kept asking for his sister and mother.

Going home

Innocent’s name was announced on the radio so that his mother could learn he had escaped. He recalls seeing his mother again for the first time since his abduction. Blaming himself for his father’s death, he struggled to look her in the eye.

He remembers going to a centre that helped former child soldiers reintegrate into their communities. Eventually, his community accepted him back and “never made me feel like I was different”. But he said, in the back of his mind he felt he was a different child.

He became motivated to speak out on behalf of the children caught up with the LRA. With the help of an NGO, Innocent went back to school and eventually went on to enrol at the University of Kampala. He began to dream of getting into politics and becoming President of Uganda. In 2011, Innocent represented his country at One Young World, a prominent global forum for promising young leaders. This was a stepping stone for him and showed him how much he wanted to “speak and speak and speak”.

A spirit of resilience

Innocent has now written a book sharing his experience as a child soldier. In the book, he focuses on the resilient spirit of a child who has lived through such traumatic experiences. The journey towards healing has been a difficult one; Innocent speaks of the different recovery processes he needed to go through. He said he often had bad thoughts, suicidal thoughts, but made a promise to himself and to his mother that he would stay true to himself.

He would practice smiling because it would make him feel better for a second. In his words:

I fought the battle of my life to be me right now.

Now living in Germany, Innocent is studying for a Master’s Degree and using time to speak in schools raising awareness about the effects of war on children. He wants to tell people that a child should always be a child – and never a soldier.

His mission is to return to Uganda and help more children receive an education.

Despite traumatic experiences, children who have been with armed groups and lived through severe hardship also show remarkable resilience.

Innocent was lucky in that he was welcomed home by his family and community. Being able to go to school also supported his recovery. Not all former child soldiers are so fortunate with such recovery and reintegration support. Much of a child’s resilience comes from, and is strengthened by, the people around them. Learning new things and starting to imagine a future helps children who have lived through war build their resilience and move forward.

Innocent’s story and his courage to continue speaking out for conflict-affected children is a testament to how support from family and friends and education can help children recover and stand up for themselves and others.

Innocent: A Spirit of Resilience by Kevin McLaughlin and Opwonya Innocent is available for purchase on Archway Publishing and Amazon.