By Innocent Opwonya, World Vision Germany
My name is Innocent Opwonya. I was born and raised in the middle of war, in the beautiful city of Gulu – Uganda. The trigger of this war, which had been raging since 1986, was the coup and overthrow of the government of Uganda by the current president. According to narratives, this war began as a peaceful demonstration led by a man named Joseph Kony. This demonstration against the mass killing of innocent Acholi people during the coup later got more violent and expanded into the today´s armed struggle of the Lord Resistance Army (LRA). Gunfire was part of my childhood and it was unusual to go a full day without hearing a shot fired. It was a normal, if not a perfect life for a child who knew nothing but war.
In 2000, I was confronted with the harsh reality. I had no alternative, but to pick up a gun and fight for my survival. I was kidnapped at night by the LRA and taken to one of their hideouts in the Darfur region of what is now South Sudan. I was only ten years old at the time and that same night I had to watch my father get killed for trying to help me. My first attempt to escape from the horrors I experienced there failed, but on my second escape attempt, I managed to escape from the rebel group, and the feeling of safety afterwards was the best I can remember so far.
Jesus’ love and forgiveness have the power to transform your self-image and your image of others
Upon my return from the LRA, I was lucky enough to have gone through the re-integration process from World Vision rehabilitation center. I knew about Jesus, coming from a Christian family, but I had never actually taken self interest in further understanding the true meaning of forgiveness. I was full of emotion, hate and needs for revenge. I played rough with fellow kids and was always the first to pick emotion over petty jokes. Through the rehabilitation center, I had daily worshiping and fellowship. We were taught to belief, dream and love just as Jesus once loved and forgave those who despised him. We were given a second chance and constantly reminded that we still were worthy and could be part of the energy in rebuilding our already broken communities. I just couldn´t understand why most of the people were so nice to us even after all I had done with my life with the rebels. Understanding the lord Jesus´s unconditional love helped me to belief in myself and become a voice for the voiceless.
Telling your story can greatly contribute to healing
Since my father was the sole breadwinner in the family, everything seemed lost after his death. Alone, my mother could not manage, so my sister and I could no longer go to school and instead started working with her in fields and farms to earn our daily bread. I was very lucky to get a scholarship for secondary school and university. I felt the need to give back to the organization that had given me the scholarship. So I traveled around my town (Gulu) and later to different parts of Uganda and the US eventually, telling my story with the hope of raising awareness about the fate of child soldiers but as well as a way to come to terms with my past. I found a lot of healing in sharing my story. Because of the great positive response, I contacted a very good friend, a writer. That’s how my biography book “Innocent: A Spirit of Resilience” came to be. It is a book about my life and my efforts to use my experiences to make positive changes. Through the book and the account of my experiences, I can be a voice for the countless others who don’t have that opportunity.
The experiences of your past are part of a bigger story
It feels like yesterday, yet many years have passed. It is terrible to know that for the rest of my life I will retain the two long scars on my legs that remain from the abuse after my failed first attempt to escape from the LRA. But they are a precious reminder of who I once was and that this is a part of me. Today, I stand here as a university graduate with a bachelor’s degree in economics and Applied statistics as well as a master’s degree in Economic Policy. By sharing my story repeatedly, I made peace with my past and learnt to accept that there are just things I can change. I as well saw the inspiration on young people´s faces whenever I share with them who I really am, it made me realize what a beautiful world this is – a vital mark-stone in my fight against the suicidal thoughts that haunted me for years. Did I ever wish at one point for all the bad memories to go away? YES, but also, I learnt the hard way that these memories are what motivates me every day to keep fighting for a peaceful world for every child to live in.
Call on your governments to stop arms exports
What is saddening is that many of the weapons used in armed conflicts around the world come from Europe and the USA – democratic countries with good human rights records. Without all these weapons, many conflicts wouldn’t have been fought or continued. I appeal to all responsible governments to stop these arms exports to war regions. As a citizen, you too should call on your government to do so.