Child Soldier: Fighting for my life

By China Keitetsi (Uganda). Jacana Media 2005.

!</public/images/covers/englisch/youth/shadows_on_Africa/Child_Soldier._F_ghting_for_my_Life._By_China_Keitetsi.jpg! There are some books told by former child soldiers. Some stories, like the ones of China Keitetsi and Ishmael Beah, drew much attention to the fact that there may be as many as 300,000 child soldiers fighting in more than fifty conflicts around the world. The wars they report about – in countries such as Sudan, Sierra Leone or Congo – were vicious civil wars and rebellions that devastated the lives of families as well as entire societies. The children were hopped-up on drugs and armed with modern guns, easy enough to use so that children could operate them. UNICEF, engaged in action against the abuse of children in war, argues that the easy-to-use weapons contribute to the phenomenon of child soldiers

China is one of the many girls who went through hell and back. She was at war long before the civil war in Uganda had begun. She grew up in western Uganda, working on a farm with her father and grandmother. Her mother had left the family, and she and her sister were routinely beaten up by her father and stepmother. In her rage against her abusive family, she recalls trying to poison her stepmother and stepbrothers.

But the family fighting was just the beginning. Soon real war took over. She says that when she first saw children marching in military uniforms, she instantly wanted to join. “I could feel an excitement growing in my stomach,” she wrote. “It was like a brand-new game, and I wished that I was there marching along with them.” At age 9, she became a child soldier in the rebel movement that brought Yoweri Museveni to power in Uganda in 1986.

Mr. Museveni, the Ugandan president, is portrayed in China Keitetsi’s book as a heartless rebel who overlooked the abuse that she and other child soldiers endured. She writes directly to him in the book: “I shed my blood for you. I played your game although I didn’t know the rules. I saw your face shine while mine was drained of its color.”

In her memoir, she describes the brutalities of the bush war through the eyes of an adolescent – one of hundreds of thousands of children who have fought in wars in Africa. She says she has killed so many people that she has lost track of the number. She recounts how her fellow rebels raped her repeatedly.

“I don’t want to hear or see any child going through the same long road I went through,” she wrote in the foreword to “Child Soldier: Fighting for My Life,” published in South Africa in 2002. “Sometimes I feel as if I am 6 years old, and sometimes it’s as though I am 100 years old because of all I have seen.”

Her real first name is Gorret. She picked up the nickname China from an army commander who thought she looked Chinese. It is but one reminder of her old life. China fled Uganda in the mid-1990’s, after the rebel army turned into the official government fighting force. She managed to make her way to South Africa, where she received refugee status, arguing that the Ugandan government was persecuting her. She was relocated in 1999 to Denmark, where she lives today. A son she had with a former rebel commander, and another child, a girl, remain in South Africa.

Still, the battles have not ended. She fights for her reputation against a Ugandan government that is embarrassed by her account, and that therefore has launched an aggressive campaign to discredit her. Ms. Keitetsi’s age is the central question. Ugandan officials acknowledge that she joined the army, but they say that she was 17 at the time and that she never saw combat.

China Keitetsi says she initially wrote the book as a form of therapy, drawing attention to the plight of child soldiers. “If I stop talking, I will be betraying my life and the life of so many of my young comrades,” she said, brushing off the Ugandan government’s campaign against her. “I haven’t put this behind me completely. I still dream about guns. Sometimes I still give orders like a sergeant. In some ways, I’ll always be a soldier.”