Interview with Jimmy Otim

(2006)

School has a lot of good memories for me. . . .This school gave me a lot of resilience—that, however difficult life is, you have to strive; you have to try; you have to find alternatives. You have to find your purpose in life. And, also, this school also taught me that the world is not always easy . . . . It was extremely difficult, in that my parents, at first, could not afford to bring me in this school. But, also, they had no choice; they had to sacrifice. Sometimes, people at home would even sleep hungry. Because I had to study, at all costs, you know?

I was abducted by the rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army in 1996 . . . . I was 17 years old. When they abducted us, they actually tied us in a row. They used a rope . . . just to make sure that you don’t run. And we were taken to the bush, and we went. I was very afraid . . . . I was about to sit for my national exam that would take me to a higher school. . . . So it was very devastating for me. I didn’t see anything, hope, in my future, and . . . I thought they were going to kill me.

I was in captivity with the Lord’s Resistance Army for nine months. And in those nine months it was like I had spent 10 years—or even 20 years . . . . They would force you to kill; they will force you to abduct; they will force you to commit atrocities against your own people. Say, if you abduct your relative, they’ll force you to kill your relative, so that you fear coming home . . . . And you, yourself, if you refuse, that’s the end of you so, basically, you have no choice.

The rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army abduct children, because children are very easy to manipulate; children are very easy to brainwash; and children can be used to do anything . . . . And they used to tell us funny things: Oh, when we take over government, you will be driving these buses. When we take over government, we will give you big houses. So, for a child, a house is something very big. A vehicle is actually something that nobody has ever dreamed of. So it is, it was really kind of a psychological kind of recruitment. For me, because of my level of education, it was extremely difficult for me to believe in them . . . . But for a child who was abducted from the village . . . .

I escaped in a cross fire between the [LRA] rebels and the government troops of the Uganda People Defense Force . . . . I was lucky. I found some old man digging in the garden . . . . That person was afraid, because he knew I was a rebel . . . . But I shouted to him: Please, help me! . . . . Then I said: I was a student, I was abducted, but now I have escaped. Then that man was kind enough. He had to carry me, ‘cause my leg was actually swollen. Of the 24 students that I was abducted with in this school, all I know, of those who have returned are only five. The rest, I don’t know what happened to them . . .

The war has taken 20 years, and people have been in camp for 20 years . . . . They want to find a way out of their suffering . . . . And they want the conflict to be resolved peacefully, so they would have their children back . . . . But that should not be mistaken that they want only that . . . . When you went to a person who has suffered terribly, for instance, a mother whose kids were killed by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army and the husband was also killed, for them, they want justice . . . . Mato oput is basically a traditional justice mechanism that is used to resolve conflict . . . . But in mato oput, there is no death penalty. And, yet, you will have taken life. For me, all I know is that mato  oput cannot be used in this scale.

I believe that peace can only come when justice is done. I’ve been with the rebels. I know them. These people have committed a lot of atrocities—and, still, they continue to commit a lot of atrocities. So, for me, ideally, the international community must enforce the [ICC] arrest warrant, so [that] these top commanders are arrested. If these people are arrested, and they stand accountable for whatever they have done in Northern Uganda, I think peace will return . . . . The arrest warrant of the International Criminal Court has forced these people [leaders of the LRA] to the table . . . . It has forced them to go into hiding . . . . People are peaceful here because of that. The International Criminal Court arrest warrant has contributed to the peace process positively.

When I came back from the captivity all I kept thinking was, “What can I do, as a person, to make a contribution, to change this?” So, I devoted my life to human rights issues.


 

Connections

  1. What role did education play in Jimmy’s life before, during, and after his abduction? What does his story reveal about the value of education?
  2. Even though they may have committed atrocities as child soldiers, the ICC considers young people (defined as those under 15 years old) as victims of war and does not prosecute them for crimes committed under duress and manipulation. At what point, though, is someone old enough to be accountable for their actions? What about individuals who were abducted as children but go on to commit crimes as adults? How do you balance justice for the victims with compassion for people who have been raised in a culture that demands violence?
  3. Barney Afaso, an Ugandan human rights lawyer, explains some reasons why many residents of northern Uganda are interested in traditional approaches to justice that focus more on reconciliation (restoring relationships) than retribution (punishment):

    Many conflicts yield meaningful distinctions between victims and perpetrators. Yet the majority of Acholi recognize that most combatants in the LRA were forcibly abducted and have themselves been victims. This generates the realization that anyone could be subjected to the conditions that produced the perpetrators of the crimes experienced in the conflict. Combined with a profound weariness with the war and the suffering it has caused, this creates a moral empathy with the perpetrators and an acknowledgement that the formal justice system is not sufficiently nuanced to make the necessary distinctions between legal and moral guilt. As a result, most Acholi have decided to promote reconciliation through traditional mechanisms, rather than a retributive understanding of justice.1

    What do you think Afako means when he writes about “the realization that anyone could be subjected to the conditions that produced the perpetrators?” What kinds of conditions make it possible for people, especially children, to commit horrible crimes? What is the difference between “legal and moral guilt”? How could Afako’s words help us when thinking about judging child soldiers for the crimes they have committed?
  4. While some Ugandans want the ICC to lift the indictments against LRA leaders, Thadaus Mabasi, a lawyer in Uganda, defends the ICC’s involvement in Uganda, writing:

    The criticism that the ICC obstructs peace is untenable on two grounds. First, international criminal justice deters the commission of future crimes. Global justice has a preventative effect. The deterrence effect is at work in Uganda because as the LRA case gained momentum in 2004, the humanitarian situation dramatically improved. Secondly, it is evident that the ICC indictments have generated such pressure that the LRA was left with no other option but to negotiate. This is because the ICC focused the international community’s attention on the conflict in Northern Uganda and the horrific crimes committed by the LRA . . . . If in some cases it makes peace negotiations difficult, that may be the price that has to be paid.

    How should the value of the ICC be measured? By the number of perpetrators brought to trial? By the number of perpetrators convicted of crimes? What other factors might be used to assess the value of the ICC?
  5. Jimmy Otim shares, “Normally, when children are abducted by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, when they come back to the community, they find a lot of problems, especially in terms of reception and reintegration.” What might be the effects of being a child soldier on young people? How might communities be impacted when hundreds or thousands of their children have been abducted? After someone has been through a trauma, what can help them reintegrate into their communities and rebuild their lives?
Continue to "The Paradox of Peace and Justice," the next section of this module.

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