Former girl soldier: we were slaves to our officers, raped by them

The fate of a child soldier is always a tragic one: war, terrible by itself, is even more horrible for children; and some of these kids are issued a gun and sent into battle. Earlier, we spoke to a man who was a child soldier. But what about little girls? Many of them are child soldiers – what does it means for them to go into the army at the age of eight, 10 or 12? China Keitetsi, a woman who became a child soldier when she was just eight years old, appears on Sophie&Co to answer these questions.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: China Keitetsi, former child soldier from Uganda, thank you for coming on this show, we’re really happy that you’re with us today. I want to go back, talk about your childhood. Now, you became a child soldier at the age of 8. You were handed a gun strait away, and I wonder what did it feel like – to be kid with a gun?

China Keitetsi: Yes. Looking back in my childhood, and living here in Denmark, it’s totally different world. The first moment it was fun, because suddenly I had this gun and I thought it was cool, you could shoot it and there was sound, but later everything changed. You realized that you are among men, and you realize that you’re not allowed to be a girl, you are not allowed to be a little girl. You’re supposed to be a soldier, and soldiers have short hair, the soldiers has no earrings, the soldier don’t laugh, the soldier don’t cry, and I remember, when my commander told us that we should “love the gun” because the gun was my mother, the gun was my everything.

SS: Did it make you feel powerful, did having a gun make you feel powerful?

CK: With the gun you felt powerful, because you could shoot anybody, you know. You are no more this little girl, you had power in this gun, with this little finger, placing it on there and, you know, ending someone’s life. But later, everything changed, when they told you that you have to love your gun more than yourself. A gun was your mother, a gun was your best friend. There was this fear of losing your gun. There was this fear of not falling asleep, because you were scared: what if somebody comes and takes your gun. So you always had to sleep holding your gun so tightly, close to you.

SS: But to me, when I read your story, what was startling is that you joined Uganda’s National Resistance Army on your own accord. I mean, usually children are kidnapped and forced to be soldiers, but you wanted to do yourself – what’s so attractive about military life of 8 year old child?

CK: I think it wasn’t my choice. I don’t think any child or any little boy or little girl has a choice to make decisions, and if you do wish to carry a gun, the older person should not allow you. So it could never be “my choice”, it could never be any child’s choice to join and become a child soldier, because to become a child soldier – it’s like a death sentence, because for the rest of your life it haunts you – you always look at yourself different from other girls or other boys. Looking today, living in Denmark, I had to learn everything like a little child – I had to learn to be a girl, I had to learn how to sit, I had to learn what girls talk about when they’re together, I had to learn what clothes girls wear – so, nobody, no child can choose to become a child soldier or no child can choose to carry a gun.

SS: So, you’re saying that you had to learn everything from the beginning – but back then you also had to learn how to kill, how to torture… How do you teach a kid to do those things? Did the children just do anything they were told?

CK: I think the child is the most obedient, because we missed our parents, we missed love, we missed somebody to care for us, we missed somebody to look in your eyes and say: “I love you”. We missed somebody we could count on; but people there didn’t care and so we did everything to please our commanders. We did terrible things so that our commanders could love us, could consider us. Also, the funny thing was, or not even funny – we wanted to impress each other, we, kids, we liked to do terrible things so we are given nicknames, nicknames like “commando”, “strike commando” and when I look back…

SS: When you say that kids were actually competing amongst each other, trying to impress each other and to try to be cool – I just wonder, what was considered “cool” back then? Like, killing? What else?

CK: What was considered cool was to smoke, because we were given cigarettes – each of us – and because they said “whenever you begin to think, then you can light a cigarette”, and you know you had to be on guard duty for hours, so you smoked and smoked and smoked, because you were given many cigarettes. Also, what was considered cool was the way your cigarette, the way you held your gun, the way you put your magazine in, and also, when you tortured your enemies – because your commanders told you who to love, who to hate.

SS: You’re talking about the competition between the children trying to impress each other – but was there also some kind of friendship? I mean, if you had to look into your commander’s eye and sort of, you know, ask for love, in that look, were also looking for love amongst your peers, among the child soldiers that you were fighting along with?

CK: In such a situation, you develop instinct, very strong instinct, so when your commander called you, you had seconds to know whether he is happy or whether he is angry – so you were prepared already as you marched to him. What hurts me most is the girls… you know, there are boy child soldiers, there are girl child soldiers, and of course, everybody suffers – and also, for boys, maybe there are many terrible things done to them, that they will never tell us. But for girls, I remember, little, 10 years old, girls being pregnant and 12-year old girls carrying a baby. One image I will never forget: these girls were not paid and the commanders who abused them and how made them pregnant denied that they were responsible as fathers – and then these girls went and took their military uniform to tailor, to make little shirts for their own child, little dress for their little daughters. So you found a mother in military uniform and her child in military uniform… I’m sorry, I don’t want this interview to focus only on me, but on many other child soldiers…

SS: Absolutely, and you’re just like a perfect example of what happened to so many other girls. I know you’ve also had a baby when you were 14 – your first baby. I just wonder, what happened to those girls who actually refused to give sexual favors to their commanders?

CK: That is very laughable to say “refused” – there was no way you could refuse.

SS: So you were just raped, basically.

CK: Not even raped, because the commander called you and said “at 9 o’clock report to my place” and the whole day you were thinking about 9 o’clock, you wished 9 o’clock would never come. After 9 o’clock, with your gun, you marched to commander’s place. You could not say “no”. The first word they taught you…or two words they taught you were: never say “no”, so you always had to say “yes, sir!” Number two was “love your gun more than your own life”. Going to being cool, today, like, in schools, there are kids who think they are cool, and we did all of those things, you know, but we didn’t know the impact of… for example, there were kids who were afraid to torture – because we are not all the same – and there were kids who enjoyed doing it; and if you didn’t do or if you didn’t show pleasure in doing that, they laughed at you, they made fun of you – and if you were a girl, they said “you are girlfriend to the enemy”. Of course, this all seemed as a joke, but today I’m an old person and when I look back, it breaks my heart and I’ve lost everything I ever loved. Of course, we had friendship among ourselves – but they all are lost. My history, my childhood friends, my parents, my sisters – everything I ever loved is gone. No one will ever tell me how I looked like when I was 4 years old..

SS: But would you want to be, like, if someone from the old, child soldiers for instance, came along and said “Hello, China, I am also alive, we fought together, let’s be friends again” – would you want to be friends with someone who would bring you back all those memories, someone who is associated with that past, filled with pain and horror?

CK: The thing is, it is that person exactly who will know me. I will not have to hide from that child soldier who I was with – so, I’ll open my arms to accept that person, because that’s the person I cannot be ashamed of to cry or to tell what happened to me and maybe for him to tell what happened. That will be the perfect and the best friend you could have, because at the end of the day, nobody knows us, they always look at us as: “Ah, child soldier, she was a child soldier, oh” – because we are the same kids, we could cry if we were allowed, we had wishes like any other normal child, and that’s the thing that we should be careful to look at child soldiers as if it is something… we are the same, we have feelings, we can cry like everybody else.

SS: So, going back, about how girls were getting pregnant from their commanders – you had a child when you were just 14. What happened to children born under these circumstances? Were mothers allowed to keep them?

CK: I was actually not even 14, I was less than 14 when I had my kid, because I was until, like, seven months of pregnancy, and I didn’t know I was pregnant, and when I went to the hospital, the doctor was laughing, calling everybody, because I thought I was sick. The doctor told me I had a child in my stomach, and because I was young and no one had told me how everything works, I didn’t believe; I didn’t believe because I thought: “Me, to have a human being in my stomach? No, it cannot be”. Of course, I only believed when the child came out.

SS: So how did you give birth? Did someone help you give birth to this child?

CK: Yes, I was lucky to be near the city and went to the hospital. But for many other girls, of course, they died, because they were too young, and no one had prepared them, they not had gone to hospital to be checked up, so many of them bled to death ,because they were in the bush, and so on. And later, they took them to one camp, because they said they were putting into shame the image of the army – and today, that is the reason for me that I don’t feel sorry for myself – I don’t cry because I said to myself – “I’m lucky, I now live far away”. The only reason which gives me energy, which made work so hard against the use of child soldiers, is the fear of what happened to those girls with their children.

SS: Were there relationships between soldiers and officers, in the sense that did anyone ever become a superior’s wife, general’s wife so to say?

CK: Maybe one in five hundred girls. They were ashamed of us, you know, the boys made fun of us that the girls were the “food of the officers” and the officers also just used these girls, because they didn’t want to have anything to do with them afterwards, they said “everyone goes there too”, you know.

SS: Let me ask you something – usually, like, even in horrible circumstances like this, even where there’s war and there’s army and it’s ruthless, there are still chances of love, right? Were there ever any instance at all when girls like you and officers who started off as using those girls then became couples, maybe formed families, maybe, thought differently?

CK: We are not talking about girls, we are talking about children – these are little girls. How can a little girl fall in love? We didn’t know anything. They knew something and they messed us up, they messed up hundreds of little girls’ bodies. It tears my heart in pieces: living in Denmark and seeing how life, how every kid is treated, how every little girl is treated, but hundreds of other little girls were not allowed to be little girls, and they were not allowed to feel how it feels to live in freedom. I blame the world for what happened to so many of those little girls and to me: to have lived from 8 to 18, as a child soldier, I think it is a shame to every man and every woman.

SS: I know that you eventually fled to South Africa, you managed to escape. Tell me a bit about that escape, what made you decide one day that “that’s it, I have to leave” and how did you make it? It wasn’t an easy journey.

CK: It was not planned. To be honest with you, I didn’t even know where I was going, because at time, I was still…ok, I was 17, but I was like a child – the way I was thinking, the way I was planning, and you also have to remember that being in danger, being in humiliation, being in rape field, being in killing field, being in torture field – you lose the sense of fear, so you just do…and if God exists, then He was there, to be there with you, because you’ve lost the sense of danger. It was a coincidence because one commander wanted to use my body and this time I was in military police and I said “No” and he took my gun and so he ordered me to be arrested, and you know, the law was “if you lose a gun, you’ll be tied to a tree and shot”. So that’s why I decided to run away, but where? The only place I knew was to run to Kenya. I had some civilian friends and they told me how to get a passport and so on; they did everything for me. I remember going to my father to ask him if he could sell some of his cows to give me the money so I could go as far away as I could, and when I got there I found my father dying, so I felt shame and couldn’t tell him what I had come to do, so I just left and, I will not go into details, and so I said, “it’s my time to go to Kenya” and that’s how I go to South Africa.

SS: But you could have done that also a little earlier, no? You stayed with the Resistance Army for ten years, like you’ve said.

CK: It was forbidden to have a passport as a soldier, it was forbidden to travel out of the country, and besides, we didn’t know that you have to have a passport to run away and also, if you run away and they catch you, they will execute you, they made us to watch what happens to a person when you run away from the military, so… you cannot even tell a child soldier “why you didn’t run away?” – To run away and to go where? You have to remember that many of these child soldiers have their names changed and it is difficult for the parents to come look for them, because they don’t know which name to ask for. You can even pass your parent without knowing that it is your parent, because you were grown in the military, carrying a gun, you will pass each other.

SS: Let me ask you something – you are describing these horrible abuses, right, that you’ve suffered as a kid. But you were kids with guns, how come no one was actually afraid that one of you could actually snap and shoot the abuser – or did that ever happen?

CK: Because they knew us, they knew us more than we knew ourselves. It is them who told us how to be and what to be, and so, how could they be scared of us? There were many kids who couldn’t take it, but instead, they shot themselves. They ended their lives. There were some who would just shoot those who are in front of him and also shoot themselves. So, our guns were not meant for the officers, or those monsters who were abusing us. Our gun was meant for the enemy, as we were told.

SS: Thank you so much for sharing this unbelievable life story with us. You’re now obviously in Copenhagen, you even work in the kindergarten, you’re somewhat assembled yourself to live and lead a normal life. Thank you so much for speaking out about this, for the letting the world know how horrible that really is to be a child soldier – because we hear of child soldiers, but we don’t realize what it really is until we speak to people like you. We wish you all the best in your future endeavors. Thank you so much once again for sharing your story with us. You’re a beautiful woman with – I know – a very beautiful life ahead of you. We were talking to China Keitetsi, former child soldiers, talking about her devastating childhood, serving in Uganda’s army and how she managed to change her life around many years later. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.