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From Child Soldier to Bricklayer - Thanks to British Aid

Posted: 20/02/2012 23:00

David Ojok was walking home from school when the gunmen came for him.

He was just 13 and was taken prisoner before being inducted into Ugandan rebel group the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

Led by self-proclaimed messiah Joseph Kony, the rebel group inflicted unimaginable suffering during two decades of violence in Africa's longest running civil conflict.

David, now 18, was one of 60,000 children abducted by the LRA - trapped in a terrifying limbo - in fear for his life with little hope of a future free from violence.

Summoning incredible bravery, the teenager escaped his captors and is now looking ahead to a brighter future as a brick layer with training supported by British aid.

While the LRA has been driven out of Uganda, the scars of their brutality run deep through communities with their economies in tatters and a lost generation of un-schooled children.

That is why Britain is committed to helping the world's poorest people get back onto their feet.

In Uganda, we have helped 10,000 vulnerable people to return home, are providing vocational training for tens of thousands of young people over a five-year period and are providing match-funding for the private sector to help kick-start the local economy.

But Uganda is not alone as conflict blights nearly a quarter of the world's poorest people and has a devastating impact on progress.

Parents cannot risk their lives to work, children miss school for fear of attacks and mothers will not go to local clinics when it is unsafe to travel.

Britain is doing more than helping to end violence - we are dealing with the aftermath of conflicts and helping to prevent them starting in the first place.

To achieve this, we are focusing 30% of British aid on war torn and unstable countries by 2014.

David's experience is not only a harrowing reminder of how violence can destroy lives but also an inspiring example of the transformative impact of aid.

Here, speaking through a translator, he tells his remarkable story:

From child soldier to bricklayer: UK aid at work in northern UgandaThe day I was abducted, I was walking home from school with my friends when suddenly one of them shouted "run, run!" They had seen the rebels, but I was too little - I couldn't run fast enough to get away and they caught me.

Because I was small, I was first kept as a prisoner. We moved every day. The commander who was looking after me would say: "Are you tired? Do you want to rest?" But I saw what happened when others said yes - they were killed. So even though I was tired and sore from walking all the time, I had to say I was ok.

After nine months, eight of us younger kids were made soldiers. When they recruited us, they hit us with the flat blade of a panga (machete) seven times, then hit us with a cane 12 times. I pretended to pass out after eight canes, so they would stop hitting me. Then they gave us the guns.

That was when I gave up hope of ever seeing my family again and I resigned myself to my fate. With the guns, they gave us instructions. "If you try to escape you will be shot; and if you hear gunshots, walk towards them - don't take cover".

Soon after that I was sent to loot maize and powdered milk from a camp (for displaced people).
We stole what we went for, but on the way back we ran into an ambush of government troops. It was the first time I had been in a fight, and I was shot in the shoulder. We ran and I was given first aid by one of the other soldiers and managed to get away.

A year and a half after I had been abducted, I was near a government camp with another child soldier, when he said "let's try to escape". He gave me his gun and said he was going to turn himself in. I was afraid to go, but I was also scared to return to the rebels on my own - I thought, "Will they think I let him get away?" So I went with him.

After three hours of walking, we came to the camp for displaced people. The first person we saw was an old lady harvesting groundnuts in her garden. I took off my army boots and shirt, and approached her. She started to run, but my friend shouted "please don't run, we need help".

The lady took us to her house, gave us her husband's clothes and told us she would come with us to the army barracks and do all of the talking when we turned ourselves in.

As we reached the soldier at the gate of the barracks, she explained that we had escaped from captivity. We were taken to a rehabilitation centre. It helped me to get back in touch with my culture and traditions - all the things I had lost in the bush.

But I had still not seen my family. After six months, the people at the rehabilitation centre took me back to my village. The first person I saw was my best friend, Geoffrey, who had been with me the day I was abducted. I told him: "I want to get my life back."

On the way to my home, I had some kind of panic attack. My heart was pumping, my emotions ran amok. I was shaking. When I reached my house, I saw my mother outside, shelling groundnuts, and I just started to cry.

She ran to me, started hugging me and crying. Before I went inside the house, we had a ritual cleansing. I stepped on an egg, to make a new beginning. My family splashed water on me and then I could enter my home again.

That first night at home I was haunted, remembering everything from the bush. I couldn't sleep for a week. I couldn't go back to school - we were too poor to pay the fees. Then one day I heard an announcement on the radio about a new centre that was offering training to young people for free.

I got on my bike to ride 32 kilometres to the centre to register. The training (in bricklaying) was hard at first, but now I have a job and I love construction. It brings in money, keeps you busy and you see something growing. I earn 60,000 shillings (£20) a week, have a savings account and send money home to my parents.

The work takes skill to do. I couldn't have done this job without training. Without this training, I possibly would be dead. I would have been pushed into stealing for food. The centre changed my life.

Find out more about how UK aid is changing lives of the world's poorest people at www.dfid.gov.uk/changinglives

 
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