by Andrew Donaldson – Sunday Times (UK)
December 15, 2002
When she was eight years, China Keitetsi was taken into Uganda’s ‘National Resistance Army.’ Before she turned nine, she had been told to kill innocent men and women. This is her story:
On her first morning in Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army, China Keitetsi awoke and looked out from beneath her filthy blankets and saw children of different ages marching next to a man in military uniform. “I could feel an excitement growing in my stomach,” she would later write. “It was like a brand new game and I wished that I was there marching along with them.”
On her third morning with the resistance army, she was allowed to join the drilling exercises. The next day she was practicing bayonet charges. She was too small to handle an AK-47 so she was given a stick.
Then came her first battle, an ambush of a Ugandan government convoy. It was a simple plan. Keitetsi and her friends were told to play in the sandy road. The convoy stopped. Government troops climbed off the cargo trucks to get the kids to move. The NRA opened fire with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns from where they lay hidden.
“Our side won,” was how Keitetsi later described that terrifying morning, “and after the battle everybody ran to the road and began undressing the dead soldiers.” Those who surrendered were escorted back to the NRA camp where they were tortured. Their officers were executed.
This was in late 1984, and Keitetsi was just eight years old.
Museveni was there to welcome the children. The co-founder of the Tanzania-backed Front for National Salvation that ousted Idi Amin from power, Museveni had served as a minister in President Milton Obote’s Cabinet before returning to the swamps of central Uganda to wage a guerrilla campaign against Obote’s corrupt regime in February 1981.
It was a bloody time. Obote’s tyranny was boundless. Uganda was awash with homeless children whose parents had been massacred by government troops or who were languishing in prison. As the resistance army inched closer to Kampala, they simply swept these children into their ranks. They became soldiers ? and Museveni oversaw their training.
That night, Keitetsi and her friends ate supper with Museveni in his hut. They were given uniforms and the boots that belonged to the dead officers. “For playing in the sand,” Keitetsi wrote, “we became the heroes of the day.”
Soon afterwards, Keitetsi, now armed, was lost in the frenzy of killing. She lost count of the men, women and children she shot.
From the book she wrote to come to terms with her past, here is an account of one incident, chosen at random. The language is hers ? naive, unskilled, a curious mixture of innocence, incomprehension and utter debasement:
Then we heard the first rapid fire of AK-47s, which meant that now we had to kill every living thing in the camp.
Men and women began running out of the camp, some of them dropping down in one big mess, still naked. I saw them with their clothes still in their hands.
The massive fire of our guns made the wild screaming of goats, hens and people get fainter and fainter over the next three or four hours. When we entered the camp, goats and hens were lying in a heap with soldiers and their women who had been visiting. They were all dead, baking there in the hot morning sun.
We collected all the weapons and food we could carry and tied the arms of our captured enemy at the elbows. When we got back to our camp, the prisoners were ordered to dig their own graves and some of our officers told us to spit in their eyes. The enemy was told that no bullets would be wasted on them…
They were hit on their foreheads and on the back of their heads [with hoes] until they dropped into the graves and died. When it was over we had to move on because the enemy, who were better equipped than we were, didn’t leave us alone for long…
China Keitetsi was not yet nine years old.
“Yes,” she says, on the phone from Denmark, “it was like that. I remember it like yesterday.”
Her voice is soft, warm. She has just returned from the US, where she has been promoting her book, Child Soldier: Fighting for My Life, and where she was reunited with a former comrade, Kassim. He was seven when he met Keitetsi. She was nine.
“We loved each other as if we were from the same mother,” she says, “and I thought he was dead. We couldn’t speak when we saw each other. We were so happy. I gave him my book. He read the first page, and he cried. He said: ‘Soldiers don’t cry. That’s what they told us in the NRA.’ It was like meeting all my friends who’d died. There was no one left.”
Even before the NRA, Keitetsi’s childhood was grim. She lived with her father and stepmother. Her grandmother was a harridan who hated them all. Once during a school holiday, she and her older sister, Margie, had been out playing and when they returned home, her grandmother shrieked: “Where have you been the whole day?”
Then she grabbed her breasts and shouted at Margie: “These are the breasts I fed your father with, and I condemn you with them,” cursing her sister to die wandering Uganda’s dusty roads before being eaten by vultures.
Keitetsi’s father beat her and humiliated her in front of her school friends. She ran away from home ? into the arms of the NRA. She lied and told them her father was dead. When the killings started, he was the only person she wanted to kill. The others, well, they died because they were there, the enemy, and she fought against them feeling sorry for them. But her father… she fantasized about killing him.
* * *
In 1985, Obote was ousted in a military coup led by Tito Okello Ludwa. Six months later, in January 1986, the NRA took power, and Ludwa fled with his troops to the Sudanese border. That fight continues today.
As Keitetsi grew the abuse she suffered at the hands of her male comrades became too much to bear. The first man she slept with was 37. She was 12.
“It was not once,” she says. “It was every night. It was an order. It was a duty you had to fulfill. I couldn’t say no. It was every time. The girls had to sleep with the men. It wasn’t rape. It was not by force. There was no fighting. No struggling. You just had to do it.”
In 1991, aged 14, she gave birth to a son. But immediately afterwards she was sent back to the fighting in northern Uganda.
In 1995, she rejected the sexual advances of an officer for the first time. He, in turn, accused her of selling guns to the enemy.
“We were taught discipline in the NRA,” Keitetsi says. “As child soldiers we had no pay. We were paid in cigarettes. I was a chain-smoker when I was nine. I still smoke. Even when we were hungry, we couldn’t take food or money from civilians.
“Museveni wanted us to be different from the government soldiers. If we were caught taking money, we were shot. If we stole food, we were shot.
“It was very quick. You were put up against a tree and six soldiers shot you. I had to shoot my own friends, for stealing a sweet potato or cassava. That would be the last you saw of your friend, six bullets going into their bodies.”
The charge of selling guns to the enemy, therefore, amounted to a death sentence. She would be tortured and then executed. So she fled the country.
She made it to Kenya, and then, drifting southwards, found herself working as a barmaid in Hillbrow’s notoriously seedy Chelsea Hotel. She was 18.
“I was not safe there,” she says. “The abuse continued. I had no money. I was at the mercy of these men. They could throw me on the street if I didn’t do what they wanted me to do.”
She fell pregnant again, giving birth to a daughter. The violence of the previous 10 years began to take its toll. As a result of the post-traumatic stress she suffered, she lost her job at the hotel and began drifting from job to job. After four years, she sought contact with fellow Ugandans.
It was a mistake. At a cocktail party at the Ugandan embassy she was abducted by three men, thought to be Ugandan secret police, who held her captive for six months. She was raped and tortured.
She managed to escape and sought help from the one South African who had helped her the most while she was in Johannesburg, Thinus van Jaarsveld, a Home Affairs immigration official who had initially granted her a permit to stay in the country.
Van Jaarsveld later told a television program: “The day that she arrived here I saw these marks on her… on her body and her face when she jumped out of the vehicle to get away from the people from her country who took part in the alleged kidnapping attempt.”
Six months of rape had left her pregnant once again. This time she had an abortion.
Shortly afterwards, Keitetsi was relocated to Denmark by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. And there, in 1999, she began to write down her pain.
We talk of her children. She has no idea where her daughter is. Or her son. But she hopes to be reunited with them.
“My psychologist says I might go mad if I try for them both at the same time. My son in Uganda I haven’t seen in eight years. So we are trying for him first.”
The conversation turns to Museveni and we discuss his efforts to bring peace to neighboring Burundi. “I wish I had known,” she wrote to him, “that putting my life in your hands was like falling in love with a hungry lion.”
Now there is no trace of scorn or animosity in her voice. “How can he go there for peace?” she asks. “Look what he did in the Congo. [Uganda and Rwanda's involvement in that country's civil war eventually dragged in six foreign states.] That was not about peace. It was about diamonds and gold.
“And what about northern Uganda? There are thousands of child soldiers there. I think of them and other children, with their arms cut off, their lips cut off. Why can’t he give peace to those children? Those children who are still there, who are taught to kill and hate? It’s not only me they have robbed of a childhood.”
Shortly after the Mombasa terror attacks, Museveni and Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi urged East Africans to ignore calls for population control and produce more children. “Let Africans explode at last,” Museveni said. “I call this population recovery, not explosion.”
I mention this to Keitetsi, who says: “He taught us songs to take away our fear. As child soldiers, we’d sing, ‘We’ll kill this one, we’ll kill that one’…”