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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 May, 2004, 08:27 GMT 09:27 UK
Ex-child soldier's path to hope
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News Online

China Keitetsi
China dreams of setting up homes for former child soldiers
The only way to survive as a child soldier is to be tougher, to be cooler, than the others - and to obey without question the senior officers who abuse you.

A decade after her escape from the military, China Keitetsi says she cannot forget the systematic rapes she suffered and the violence she was forced to commit.

She tells her story in the book Child Soldier, being published in the UK this week.

Now 27, Ms Keitetsi is an international campaigner on the plight of child soldiers and has set up a project to give those who escape from conflict a home.

When I was a kid with a gun I felt big, I felt powerful
China Keitetsi, ex-child soldier

She is also desperate to find the son and daughter she had to leave behind in Uganda and South Africa.

But, she told BBC News Online, she fears the damage done in her own brutalised childhood can never heal.

Ms Keitetsi says she was enlisted into Yoweri Museveni's National Resistance Army in Uganda at the age of eight in the1980s.

She was given her first Uzi aged nine - and became a killer.

Gesturing with what was her trigger finger, she says: "When I was a kid with a gun I felt big, I felt powerful.

"With a gun you just needed to open the safety, cock the gun, use this finger and they are dead.

Used for sex

"You don't need a big body, you don't need power, just the gun. This finger puts blood on your hand."

The government of Mr Museveni, who became president in 1986 and has remained in power since, denies Keitetsi's claims that children so young were enlisted and abused.

A committee set up by the Ugandan government to investigate Ms Keitetsi's case dismisses her as a hoaxer who joined the army aged 17, then deserted after involvement in a theft.

The committee says "there was never a policy of recruiting child soldiers" and claims the NRA simply cared for children left orphaned by combat.

But Ms Keitetsi sticks by her story, showing a tatty photograph of herself in uniform when she says she was 13.

An unwanted and beaten child, she says she was drawn into the NRA after watching a military parade and admiring children with apparent power.

China Keitetsi as a child soldier, aged 13
China Keitetsi in uniform aged 13, a year before she gave birth

"It was a competition among the kids. You want to be cool because if you are cool you are respected, you are promoted, you are almost like a king," she says.

"You needed love, you needed attention from your boss and if he patted you on the shoulder and said 'good job' it was good - so you ended up doing bad things to please your boss."

But the security of belonging was poisoned by shame as she, like other girl soldiers, was used for sex by officers in their barracks.

"Nearly every evening an officer would come and order you to report to his place, typically at 9pm," she says.

"I would spend the whole day thinking about 9pm and wishing time would stand still."

Saying 'no sir' was not an option, she says, so the girls turned their pain and rage on the army's enemies.

When I was 15 years old, I couldn't count how many commanders had already used my body
China Keitetsi

"The NRA gave us weapons, made us fight their war, made us hate, kill, torture, and made us their girlfriends: we had no choice."

When she was 14 she became bodyguard to Lt Col Moses Drago, a sympathetic man who fathered her son Moses but died in 1996.

"When I was 14 years old, I gave birth to my son, and when I was 15 years old, I couldn't count how many commanders had already used my body," she says.

Keitetsi does not know the paternity of her daughter, Ashley, and worries about what she will tell her.

She fled Uganda aged 18, while pregnant, after rejecting the sexual advances of an officer. This placed her in danger of death by firing squad when he then accused her of selling weapons to the enemy.

Trauma clinic

After a three-week bus journey from Kenya through Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, she reached safety in South Africa but her son remained with family in Uganda.

She spent four years in South Africa, attending a trauma clinic but giving up her daughter to be cared for.

In 1999, she found her way to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and was relocated to Denmark.

She says she remains overwhelmed by the support given by psychologists, social workers and two Danish families over the past five years.

But bad news was also in store. When Keitetsi traced a cousin in Uganda, she was told her father, mother and closest sister Margie had all died. Two other sisters were already dead.

I wouldn't have a reason to live without my two kids and I couldn't live without these dreams
China Keitetsi

Her book began as therapy recommended by doctors to help her cope with her grief.

"I was writing and tears were running and I couldn't stop them running," she says. "I was feeling like this every time I wrote."

Now working in a Copenhagen kindergarten, she is slowly learning to live in freedom - a hard lesson after a decade following orders to survive.

But Ms Keitetsi believes her quest to reunite her own children by December will help heal the scars of her lost childhood.

In the same month, the home she is building in Rwanda for ex-child soldiers is due to open.

"I wouldn't have a reason to live without my two kids and I couldn't live without these dreams," she says.

"If I can give help to 10 girls, or five girls and five boys, I'm sure they will also give a little bit and it will spread.

"That will be the best Christmas I've ever had - the greatest Christmas of my whole life - because I will have a home and they will also have a home."

Child Soldier, published by Souvenir Press, is available in the UK from 26 May.

Uganda's fallen child rebels
08 Apr 04  |  Africa
Country profile: Uganda
14 Feb 04  |  Country profiles

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