19 June 2017

Uganda: Children of Kony and Their Search for Identity

Photo: Esther Oluika/Daily Monitor
Olum (Right, not real name), one of Kony’s children after harvesting mangoes for breakfast.
analysis

Joseph Kony, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) leader is a father of many children. Despite some records claiming that Kony has more than 50 children, their exact number is unknown. While Salim Saleh and Ali Kony , some of Kony's well-known children, are in hiding with their father, others are now living in different communities. Some with their mothers after being rescued by the Uganda People's Defence Forces (UPDF) in the past years.

Today, some of the children stay in Gulu District whose town was engulfed by the LRA insurgency for nearly two decades.

I set out to Gulu District to find some of these children a month ago. I arrived at the tarmacked trading centre whose residents were lively. Later in the day, I met Evelyn Amony, an LRA former abductee and former wife of Kony. Amony authored I am Evelyn Amony: Reclaiming My Life from the Lord's Resistance Army which gives an account of her life in captivity and has three children with Kony. One, however, disappeared during a crossfire between LRA and UPDF in 2004. She prefers to shield the remaining from the media saying they deserve privacy.

Going to meet the children

However, Amony leads me to two of Kony's daughters mothered by two different women. "I was in the wilderness with their mothers and we all had Joseph's children," says the 20-year-old.

These girls were skeptical about being interviewed. It was only after I agreed not to use their real names and not to take their pictures that they obliged.

We will call them Josephine Akello and Jackie Watmon to protect their identity.

"It's not that we are ashamed of ourselves but people might shun us if they discovered that we are Kony's children," says Akello in fluent English.

Her last interaction with her father was when she was five years old. The duo shared a close bond.

Memories of her father

"He loved playing with me. One of the fun activities we did was running around the compound," she says.

Just like any other child, she was fond of interrogating her father.

"I would ask why the food I was eating was of a particular colour or why the medicine I was swallowing was bitter," she says laughing.

Akello describes her father as tall and little light-skinned. She was rescued from captivity by the army a few weeks before turning six-years and taken to Gulu Support the Children Organisation (GUSCO); a non-government organisation that rehabilitates formerly abducted children.

Later, after Akello lost her mother, she was adopted by another woman. She is a student in one of the prominent Kampala schools.

At school

Whenever class discussions on Kony are brought up, Akello plays it safe by not contributing to them.

"I usually reserve my comments out of fear that I might give away too much information, which makes other students suspicious," Akello says. "On other occasions, I fear that I may get too emotional in the process of presenting an argument."

But one time, Akello stood up for her father and defended him during a class lesson after a teacher mentioned that he had supposedly raped 1,000 women.

"I shouted that he was lying and reasoned that it was impossible for any man to rape such a number of women," she says confidently.

She adds, "He was surprised by my objection probably because of my emotion. He dropped the discussion and moved to another topic."

She has vowed never to reveal that Kony is her father.

Watmon too has vowed to conceal his identity. She was separated from him at six years after being rescued by the UPDF in an ambush in one of the locations Kony had pitched camp.

"The soldiers saved my mother and I. My father escaped to the nearby bushes," she recounts.

Watmon, 18, is also a student in Kampala.

"If anyone in this school ever found out that Kony is my father, I would move to another school," she says.

"Why would you move to another school?"I ask Watmon replies that it is because of a previous experience in her earlier primary school days.

At the time, some of her sponsors visited her school and requested to surprise Watmon in class. "They addressed the pupils and in the process mentioned that I was a child rescued from captivity. Before I knew it, some classmates connected the dots and figured out I was Kony's daughter," she says wiping tears.

Stigma

From that day onwards, pupils and teachers scorned Watmon.

"They laughed at me and uttered all sorts of crude jokes and statements. One of the teachers mentioned that I was as evil as my father and that sooner or later; he would get rid of me. Can you imagine?" she says.

Then, during play time, some pupils did not want to associate with her.

"They kept a distance. Whenever I would try to join them, they would chase me away," she says.

At some point, Watmon told her mother what was transpiring at school. The woman broke down upon hearing her daughter's school ordeal. She approached her daughter's sponsors and updated them of what had unfolded at the school.

They apologised and encouraged her to find another school for Watmon. Once she had enrolled in a new school, her sponsors ensured that no one ever discovered, "the highly guarded secret". Watmon managed to concentrate and excel in her studies.

Absentee father

Getrude Atai (not real name) is another of Kony's daughters I spoke to at their family home. We met in a one-roomed grass-thatched hut at Kirombe Parish in Layibi subcounty, on a Tuesday morning.

Her younger brother, 8, is also a son of Kony. Dressed in a black skirt, yellow blouse and a blue rosary dangling from her neck, Atai has braided hair. I could not help but notice the scars on her legs. I asked what happened to her.

"They were severely burnt by a wildfire when I was very young. At the time, I was with my mother and father (Kony) in the bush," Atai says through an interpreter.

Her sister died in the fire. Just like many other women and children, they were rescued by the military and rehabilated in one of the communities in Gulu town.

Atai,16, is zealous to talk about her father.

"I barely got to know him. I was very young when I was separated from him. Probably, if I had spent more time with him, we would have bonded," she says.

She adds, "I miss him. If he were here today, he would have taken me to school. I would not be suffering," she says.

Atai and her brother (whom we shall call Olum), have never gone to school. Their mother, a casual labourer struggles to make ends meet.

On occasions where there is no money in the house, Olum intervenes by harvesting mangoes from trees in the neighbourhood which they eat for lunch or supper. On this particular day, Olum had harvested some for breakfast.

Olum's mother who did not mind revealing her real name as Rose Aciro requested that Sunday Monitor does not interview her son.

"He is too young, reminding him about his father will make him cry," she says. "He hardly knows anything about his father."

Regarding the question of how the neighbours treat her and her children, Aciro gets emotional.

"Not everyone here likes us. Sometimes they warn their children not to play with mine. There are those who even call my children rebels," her eyes tear.

To date, Aciro wonders why her children are instead paying for their father's sins.

Later, I asked one of Aciro's female neighbours for a comment on these two children.

"They are playful like any other children. I do not mind them as long as they do not cross certain boundaries, like entering my hut. I fear them," she emphasises.

"Do not blame us for our father's mistakes"

An adage goes, "children are a reflection of their parents." They pick up their behaviour and habits, including the good and bad.

Watmon thinks otherwise. Not all children, according to her, grow up and turn out like their parents.

"People have failed to understand that human beings are different. They think that if your father did wicked things, you are the same. People should stop calling us bad just because we are his children," she emphasises. "I am totally different from him."

Akello nods in agreement.

"People should just let us be and not blame us for our father's mistakes," she says. "We do not want to live in his shadow. He is our father but we should not be judged for his past mistakes," she says.

Despite the many terrible things Kony is said to have done, during and after the war, their wish is that he remains in hiding.

"The fact remains he is our father and we love him so much," they say.

Tracing one more child

Before my return journey to Kampala, I engaged some of the bodaboda operators at one of the junctions in Gulu trading centre. I asked if they knew any of Kony's other children, preferably, a teenage boy.

Some suddenly became suspicious while others wondered why I wanted them (the children). I was frank with them.

"I need them for an interview. I'm working on an article about them," I responded.

One of the boda boda men who identified himself as Juma softened and asked for my identification card before responding, "Oh... Okay. So, you are a journalist? No problem. Let me take you to one of his sons. He doesn't talk much though but let us try."

I got on his motorcycle en route to Aywee Village in Tegwana Parish, Gulu District.

Upon reaching there, we found a dark-skinned, tall youthful looking boy who became suspicious as we walked towards him.

He did not want to hear anything about Kony.

"Why are you asking me about him? Go ask his other children about their lives and leave me alone," he charged.

When I persisted, he became irritated and asked us to leave the compound immediately. We sped off.

Kony should send us money- Aciro, ex wife

"I have single handedly taken care of my two children. It is tough! Although I do not communicate with their father, sometimes I wish he could find a way of sending money to his former wives so that we can buy the basics for his respective children. "

What you do not know about Kony's children?

- Their exact number is not known. However, Kony's two prominent sons are Salim Saleh and Ali Kony still in hiding with their father.

- Not all these children know their siblings.

- Evelyn Amony, one of Kony's ex wives usually holds get together functions at her home and invites the LRA former wives and children.

- Most of those studying do not use their father's name for fear of being discriminated or shunned.

Who is Joseph Kony?

He's the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) leader, a rebel group started in the late 1980s and terrorised northern Uganda for nearly two decades. Believed to be about 56 years old, Kony was issued an arrest warrant in 2005 by the International Criminal Court and charged for crimes against humanity including abduction, murder and rape. According to a new report published earlier this year by Resolve LRA Crisis Initiative and the Children Crisis Tracker, Kony is losing control over the LRA. There have been also recent reports that he is battling deadly stomach ulcers.

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