Corporal Henry is 14 years old. When he grows up, he wants to be a doctor. But today Corporal Henry and his fellow guerrillas were sweeping forward in a long line north towards the town of Mbale, eastern Uganda’s provincial capital.
They walked quickly under the heat of the midday sun, through a land deserted by its population. On their way they passed the smouldering remains of huts, some with charred corpses inside, left in the wake of their retreating adversaries, soldiers of what until days before had been the government army.
Behind them trundled an old tipper truck piled high with boxes of ammunition, and alongside that a black Mercedes, recently acquired by their commander from a fleeing cabinet minister and now a staff car. The guerrillas themselves were dressed in a motley assortment of fatigues, no two alike. They were heavily armed with Kalashnikov rifles, machine-guns and rocket-launchers. Most of this weaponry, like the clothing, had been stripped from their enemy.
The guerrillas on the march were the ‘men’ of the 11th battalion, from the hardened mobile brigade of the Ugandan National Resistance Army. Fresh from their victory in the capital Kampala, they are an elite force. But their average age is about 16 and they look like a group of refugees. In many ways the NRA is precisely that, a refugee army of children, but it is also a disciplined and effective fighting force.
Of an army of over 10,000 soldiers, almost half are under 15 years old. The rest are mostly under 20, and even the commanders are still in their early twenties. The fighters look even younger than their years in their baggy adult clothes and too-big boots. But it is this group of youths that has defeated the rampaging forces of the old regime.
For years now the very name Uganda had been synonymous with extreme violence and cruelty. From the gruesome depths of the regime of Idi Amin in the 1970s to the dark excesses of Milton Obote’s army in the 1980s hundreds of thousands of civilians, ordinary Ugandan men, women and children, have died.
It was from this cauldron of violence that the National Resistance Army was born: a home-grown army with one thing in common — they had all enough, and were driven only, it seems, by desire to restore normality and security to their land.