“We were in school before. It was our 6th year. Everything was fine.”
For the last four years, Camille Marie-Regnault, Invisible Children’s Protection Programs Officer, has worked with our teams in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and eastern Central African Republic (CAR) to ensure that communities in the region have the safety they need and deserve. Last week, she arrived in Dungu, DRC, and had the opportunity to meet with two young men who had just escaped from captivity in Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). This is what they told her:
It’s nine o’clock on a Friday morning. I am sitting under a makeshift veranda in Dungu, DRC, with Olivier* (20) and Marc* (21), two young men from CAR. They’ve recently escaped from LRA captivity after spending a year and five months in the bush. They were beaten and forced to walk thousands of miles away from their families, marching from eastern CAR to Sudan’s Darfur region, and then all the way to Garamba National Park in DRC.
“You know, in the bush, [LRA commanders] don’t treat us like humans. We suffer, we’re hungry, we get sick. We were tied up to each other because they were scared we would escape.”
In early 2016, cousins Olivier and Marc, were abducted together by LRA fighters while on their way to meet their grandfather in his field. I was working from our office in eastern CAR at the time and I remember, quite clearly, being overwhelmed with the steady stream of reports from our Early Warning Radio Network about children and youth being abducted by the LRA. 296 people, including 57 children, were abducted in the first three months of 2016. I didn’t know their names at the time, but I recorded the abduction of Olivier and Marc in our database. Later, our team broke the story of the LRA’s surge of abductions, leading to promises from UN peacekeeping mission stationed in the region to conduct more patrols.
Listening to Olivier and Marc in Dungu over a year after reporting their abduction, I began to understand their ordeal better. For months after their abduction, they were forced to attack and loot other communities like their own, to learn how to use a weapon they didn’t want to carry, and to sleep in the jungle with nothing but tarps protecting them from the rain. They tell me of how, not long after their abduction, LRA commanders separated them, forcing them to go with different groups of captives. They didn’t see one another until early 2017, when their two groups met again in DRC to plan a series of attacks en route to Garamba National Park.
They were told by their commanders that Joseph Kony had issued orders that their groups should poach elephants and bring their ivory back to Kony’s group further north. Not long after their reunion, Olivier, Marc, and the rest of the LRA fighters and captives in their group began making their way toward Garamba, looting communities for supplies along the way. In early July, they looted a mining camp south of the park, stealing gold, diamonds, and other supplies. After the attack, Marc and Olivier told me that the group commanders were extremely happy and decided to celebrate their success by drinking alcohol they had looted from nearby communities. Marc and Olivier knew that this was their chance to escape:
“Our commanders were drunk. They had looted alcohol so they were happy and got drunk. They drank for three days. The first two nights we wanted to escape but it was raining too much. The third night, the sky was clear. We just took off and ran in the middle of the night. In the morning, we hid our weapons because we didn’t want people to be scared of us. We saw a man working in his field so we went to him and we explained our situation. He took us to the closest village and then that was it. We were out.”
Olivier and Marc were scared, but they had hope that even though they were in a foreign country, they would receive assistance from civilians they met. They had seen fliers and heard the ‘Come Home’ messages that Invisible Children and other groups have distributed in recent years. Though their commanders would beat them if they picked up a flier, they had managed to read a few words of fliers scattered in the bush when they were marching. They knew they could come out and be safe. They knew that there were people ready to welcome them and help them be reunited with their families.
After some time, Olivier asks me when he will be able to go home. I tell him we were trying to find his family. That all the details he gave us about his family were very important and that we’re able to use our Early Warning Radio Network in CAR to find his parents, let them know that he and Marc are safe, and help find a way to get them home. I also told him about the increase in fighting between ex-Seleka factions and anti-balaka militias in CAR. That the place he calls home is once again being torn apart by violence and sectarian tensions. They ask more questions and I tell them that many thousands have been displaced and are living in camps. A lot of houses were burned down and insecurity is omnipresent. It’s tough to move around, in and out of the community but that we are still working to find their families and help them be reunited.
The boys look at me and nod their heads. They look at each other and Olivier taps Marc on his shoulder. “Okay, merci!”
We take pictures together, so they “can remember the people here”. I tell them I’ll come by next week to see how they’re doing. As I walk away Marc shouts “Don’t forget to print our pictures”, and we laugh. They’ve traveled a long journey over the past 18 months, and they still have a long way to go, but their laughter reminds me of the resilience that has carried them this far.
Olivier and Marc are two of hundreds of people abducted by LRA groups in eastern CAR between January and March of 2016. Today, they are fortunate enough to have escaped from the LRA and have a second chance at life.
Our programs have been a part of Olivier and Marc’s story from the beginning of their saga with the LRA. Our Early Warning Radio Network and LRA Crisis Tracker were the first to report on this series of abductions and alerted the world to renewed efforts by the LRA to abduct large numbers of young boys in central Africa in order to train them as child soldiers to rebuild their ranks. Fliers and ‘Come Home’ messages that we’ve supported helped them make the brave decision to escape. Today, we’re using our Early Warning Radio Network to help them trace their families so they can return home. Thanks to the fliers and ‘Come Home’ messages they heard and their own bravery, Marc and Olivier are now free and on their way to being reunited with their families. However, dozens of other young people, just like them, remain in LRA captivity to this day, and thousands more are at risk of violence and abduction.
With your help, our ‘Come Home’ radio messages are helping encourage others in LRA captivity to lay down their weapons and escape and programs like our Early Warning Radio Network and other community-based protection programs are helping make communities across central Africa safer so that they can prevent child abductions from ever happening in the first place.
*Olivier and Marc’s names have been changed, and their faces pixelated to protect their identities.