In an extract from her book A Moonless, Starless Sky, Alexis Okeowo tells the story of a child soldier and a kidnapped schoolgirl in Uganda – and, below, talks about changing perceptions of Africa.
The moonless, starless sky was bright the evening Eunice met Bosco in the forests of southern Sudan. The year was 1996, and Eunice had been kidnapped two weeks earlier from a school in a town called Aboke, in northern Uganda, by men who called themselves the Lord’s Resistance Army. Founded by a young man named Joseph Kony in 1987, the LRA was raiding villages in Uganda’s north and abducting children while routing the Ugandan army. Eunice was a thoughtful girl of 15 with inquisitive eyes and closely cropped hair, and she had been visiting her older sister at a girls’ boarding school when rebels surrounded the building. The men, who were really boys if you looked at them closely, tied the girls together with rope and forced them to trek through the forests of northern Uganda, on the way to Sudan, for over a week while they cooked, did laundry, and fetched water for them. Eunice was frightened and exhausted. She was still wearing the blue cotton skirt, her best one, and the matching blouse that she had thought would impress her sister’s friends. Eunice wanted to attend their school one day, too, be among these accomplished girls, and she had hoped to show them that she could fit in, be smart and interesting, dress like they did.
The girls eventually crossed into Sudan and stopped in an area of tall grass and thick, looming trees. More men emerged, including Kony. Rebels began plucking girls from the group, choosing the prettiest ones first. Eunice watched with a swelling sense of dread. There was nowhere to run. They were everywhere. A boy named Bosco, who looked like he was no older than 17, appeared in front of her. He was wearing rain boots, a green military uniform that slouched on his thin frame, and a matching cap over bushy hair. Another rebel, who seemed like he was one of the men in charge, nudged Bosco closer toward Eunice and told him, “This will be your wife.”
Eunice was still; she felt paralysed. She had nearly just died when the Ugandan military emerged out of nowhere and fired gunshots at the rebels as they led the girls through the bush, and death, she thought, would make more sense than what was happening to her now. “You’re blessed that you’ve come to me. We thought that you girls might refuse us. You’ll be OK,” Bosco said to her.
Bosco was 19. Three years earlier, the LRA had also kidnapped him and trained him to be a soldier. Bosco had felt himself become hardened to the killings and kidnappings he was ordered to carry out. But when he first saw Eunice, he fantasised of a new family that would replace the siblings and mother he had lost. He imagined that he had finally found someone to trust. She was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen.
Eunice was repulsed. Bosco led her to a tent constructed of tree branches with a tarp laid on top, a fragile bush hut, where they would begin the rest of their lives. Eunice’s first night with Bosco at the camp felt like another nightmare. He asked her to sleep with him, and she refused. He insisted, and raped her – her first sexual experience. The following months were strained and uncomfortable.
Eunice was depressed and afraid of him. At night, she listened to birds crying while lying on her mat woven of grass, leaves, and branches, and longing for home. Eunice tried to escape once but was caught. She and her friend, a young woman like herself, had been washing clothes in a stream when they decided to run. Rebels stationed high in the trees spotted them. Bosco had defended her, prevented her from being killed.
On his forays away from camp, Bosco wanted to be back with Eunice, but he sensed her fear around him and set about trying to win her trust. When LRA leaders asked Eunice to participate on looting or abduction trips, Bosco would lie to them and say that he had ordered her to perform other tasks.
She still occasionally had to go on those raids, and so he shielded her in battle. During food shortages in the camp, he scrounged up water and bread and brought it to their tent to surprise her. Those periods of hunger were excruciating; they had to dig up wild cassava, roots, and leaves to quell their empty stomachs. For Bosco, life had improved immensely. The pair cooked together, made a home, and worked together to move their belongings when they shifted locations – it was what he had long wanted.
Eunice noticed his devotion. “I would tell him my fears and he would encourage me. I started feeling free with him because I thought he was the only one who could help me,” Eunice said of their first years. “We were happy to have each other because we thought we were all we had left. It was not easy to return home, so we got used to the life. We chatted, we laughed.” She became resigned to her fate, and felt that it was time to be practical. She watched Bosco and saw a boy who had been forceful and insensitive, but who seemed to care about her and was also resigned to his own fate. As the years passed, she stopped hiding her feelings. She realised that she respected him. Four years after their first meeting, Eunice, now 19, had their first child, a boy they named Edimon.
Bosco was 23. It was the happiest day for each since before their abductions. They each spent as much time as they could with their son, and caring for him brought them together. They confided in each other about their pasts and families. “I felt like he was the closest person to me on Earth. Especially after I became pregnant, he started taking me in closer to him and asking how we could make our future together,” Eunice remembered.
Kony reassured his group that they would rule Uganda one day, and the couple imagined what life would be like once Bosco was a rich government minister. During battle, Bosco took notice of how fat the government soldiers were; someday, he knew he would be equally as well fed. In the late 1990s the group had several thousand members, and it wasn’t a stretch to believe they could be victorious.
Only years later, when gunfight after gunfight had produced little change in their circumstances, did he begin to see Kony was lying to them. There would be no redemption for the LRA’s child soldiers.
Three years after their son’s birth, Eunice gathered the courage to tell Bosco that she was still thinking about what it would be like to go home. He confessed that he had been thinking about it, too. A radio station in Gulu called 102 Mega FM had launched a show broadcasting messages from rebels who had escaped or surrendered, and who announced that it was safe to come home. LRA commanders would angrily turn off the radio when the show came on a couple of evenings a week, and say that the messages had been recorded before the army executed the returned rebels. LRA leaders liked to listen to the radio to keep updated on world news. Bosco had begun to have doubts, however. Eunice was pregnant again, and she struggled to carry their son, a gun, and their belongings during battle.
She hated the reality that they could be ambushed at any moment. They knew that the bush was not a place to raise a family.
One morning, while gathering firewood, with their baby on her back, food strapped to her stomach, and water in a jerry can balanced on her head, Eunice simply walked away from the camp and didn’t stop walking until night fell. Bosco planned to wait to hear Eunice’s message on 102 Mega FM, and then, when he was assured that she and their son were alive, he would try to join them.
After Eunice escaped, Bosco didn’t hear from her, or hear news of her, for three months. Then, one day, as Bosco was talking with another rebel, a familiar voice came on the radio. It was Eunice. She was safe in Gulu [Bosco’s home village] with their son. After a fitful night of sleep in the forest, Eunice and Edimon had come upon people working in a garden, and she asked for their help. They put her in a vehicle that dropped her off at the army barracks in Gulu. After announcing her arrival on the radio, Eunice had gone to a rehabilitation centre, one of several run by nonprofits that helped former combatants get back on their feet.
LRA commanders realised that Eunice was missing from the camp through her radio message. Because the rebels roamed in far-flung groups to avoid detection, none of the leaders had noticed Eunice’s disappearance yet. When they asked Bosco how she had fled, he told them that she had wandered out of his sight during battle and been rescued by the army. They believed him. Eunice was dead, his commanders told him, and her voice was just a recording. Bosco wondered if they were telling the truth. “I was not going to escape if I didn’t think she was alive,” he recalled.
About a year later, Bosco was sent on patrol from the LRA’s base in Sudan with a few other men. Along the route, he stopped two boys he recognised from his home area to ask if his mother was alive, and if Eunice had returned.
The boys said yes. (His father, however, had been shot and killed by the LRA.) Bosco was elated and ready to do anything to reach home. When he was unable to persuade the rebels with him to escape, he shot them. He then loitered in the bush for two weeks until he thought it was safe to surrender.
He ended up at Gulu’s military base, full of soldiers who had once hunted him and who were now sleeping, eating, and hanging out, and he was told they wanted to transfer him to a rehabilitation centre. Instead, he left the base to go find his family. “With the love I had for my mother and Eunice, I couldn’t stay in the barracks,” Bosco said.
Eunice had heard that her mother, Margaret, was alive and went to see her after a few weeks of therapy and sewing training at her rehabilitation centre. She went back home and found her mother sick, but overjoyed to see her and her grandson. Margaret had thought she would never see her daughter again. Eunice, who had become a graceful young woman, was going to give birth to her second child, and was relieved to be in a place where she could bring up children.
Bosco’s mother, Auma, had also heard Eunice on the radio. She had listened in shock when Eunice said she had returned with the child of a rebel named Bosco. She came to find Eunice at her mother’s home. “She asked me, ‘Is my son really alive?’” Eunice recalled. “I told her that he would try to follow me, and she asked if I was sure that I would wait for him. I told her I would. I had his children, and I believed he was coming.”
In early 2005, Bosco made it home from the base to see Auma. Then, nervous and excited, he set off for Eunice’s mother’s house without telling anyone there he was coming. He showed up at the compound and came face to face with Eunice. She dropped what she was holding and stared at him in shock. Eunice tried to lift Bosco, and then he tried to carry her, and they both collapsed into each other, laughing and crying.
Bosco told Eunice’s mother that they had been in the bush together. He asked her if she would allow Eunice to join him in his village so that they could live as a couple. Margaret refused.
Margaret told Bosco that he had abducted her daughter and forced her to be his wife. She blamed him for all the misery Eunice had endured since she was taken. Eunice pleaded with her mother, and Margaret seemed to soften. If Bosco paid a dowry, she said, she would allow a marriage. In Acholi culture, men were required to pay dowries to the families of their intended wives; Margaret knew Bosco could not pay. He had neither money nor animals. Eunice was furious.
In a fit of rage and frustration, she ingested poison and set fire to her hut on her family compound. Her family stopped her before she burned the whole place down. They rushed her to the hospital. “I wanted to do a lot of damage and then kill myself,” Eunice told me. “I was so happy to see him, and had been afraid he would not come back.” The next day, her mother relented and let them leave together.
Eunice’s mother was not the only parent who viewed couples like Eunice and Bosco as illegitimate. Across the north, families watched with dismay as their daughters reunited with the men to whom they were assigned in the bush.
After reuniting, Eunice and Bosco lived in a refugee camp for a few months before moving into a modest hut of their own on Bosco’s family compound in 2007. To Eunice and Bosco’s surprise, Eunice’s mother offered an apology, and the couple forgave her. The day Eunice, Bosco and I first met, in July of 2012, we sat outside in their courtyard on small wooden chairs. Heavy clouds floated above us; it was the height of the rainy season.
As we talked, Eunice and Bosco told me how much they revelled in the tranquillity of the place. Both farmers, they worked in the green fields in the early mornings; Eunice cooked for the family; they both shopped and socialised at the local market and went to church on Sundays; and they played with their children. The family was poor. They had to save up to afford meat for their meals, and the children were out of school when I saw them again in 2014 because their fees hadn’t been paid. But, as Eunice told me, she and Bosco were “living together like people who were not forced to be together”. Without the stain of the bush.
But Bosco, who had grown into a quiet man with long limbs, high cheekbones, and an easy smile, drank with an alarming frequency when he first returned. Life had been hard in the camp, and was even more difficult when they returned to his family’s land. In the bush, if you needed food or medicine, you could just loot it. Here, the farming was gruelling, and Bosco suffered from severe stomach and chest pains.
The bush forced many things upon him: family, responsibility for the life and death of others before he was ready or knew what to do with it. It also took things away: the chance to continue his education, the hope of any kind of real prosperity away from the rural life he had always known.
In the first years after their escape, his pain brought on anger. Eunice assumed that he was drinking out of frustration with their son Edimon. The little boy was having seizure-like spells. Bosco became aggressive and would bark orders at Eunice, behaviour that reminded her of being in captivity. “I was not happy either, but he chose to drink,” Eunice said. She cried as we talked.
After four unhappy years, Bosco’s relatives intervened, pressuring him to cut back on his drinking. He started receiving counselling from a local organisation, and carpentry training from another. Eunice, meanwhile, tried to keep the past at bay. She needed to quell her doubts about Bosco; she knew that, deep down, he was good. Nearly all the women she knew from the LRA who had escaped were with their rebel husbands.
When I first visited Eunice and Bosco in the summer of 2012, their son Edimon later asked Eunice why we were there. The 12-year-old was curious about the stranger asking his parents so many questions. Eunice told him as little as she could: that she and his father had been in the bush with the LRA, and that I was there to support them. Despite our best attempts to shoo the children away, Edimon overheard some of what his parents told me about their lives in the bush.
When I visited the family again in 2014, they told me that Edimon’s fits were getting worse. Eunice and Bosco believed Edimon was possessed. Bosco told me the possession had come about because he had killed people, and those murders had infected his son with what are called cen, or bad spirits, in Acholi.
Beginning when he was seven, Edimon’s spells or seizures initially lasted for only a few minutes. Then he would be alert again. Now, for one to two hours he was practically comatose, as if he were not breathing. It was evident that Eunice and Bosco were deeply traumatised from their abductions and ensuing lives in the bush. Had they passed their trauma on to their son? Was that even possible?
Eunice tried to explain what Bosco meant when he talked about possession. “When we take Edimon to the hospital, they don’t find anything,” she said. “Bosco was forced to kill. I was also forced to kill. Maybe it’s a combination of those people we killed, revenging on Edimon.”
She said during Edimon’s spells, he would say things like, “Why have you killed me?” or “Why have you shot me?” And, “You thought that I could not find you.” Then he would become silent, drifting into a catatonic state.
I came to believe that Edimon’s condition might be a case of transgenerational trauma because I could see how I had also become possessed by Eunice and Bosco’s stories. After my first visit with them in the summer of 2012, I returned to New York feeling unmoored and not knowing why. When I returned to northern Uganda two years later, I was no longer feeling depressed, but I was still fixated on Eunice and Bosco. I felt a fondness and respect for Eunice. I was also once an African girl, like Eunice. And, but for the grace of fate, I could have been born outside of Gulu instead of Texas.
I had no idea what choices I would have made had I been in her place but I admired the resistance in the actions that had seemed the simplest to her. She returned home despite the LRA’s attempt to rip her from all that she had known, despite its attempt to make her an unrecognisable soldier in its cult-like brigade. She then fought to be with a man against the extreme prejudice of her community. “You will not break me,” she seemed to be saying with every decision she made. “Not again.”
This is an edited extract from A Moonless, Starless Sky by Alexis Okeowo published by Corsair (£14.99). To order it for £12.74 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99