Boyhood in a Warzone.
The first time Francis Okello was shot he was 11 years old. The machine gun slipped from his hands as a bullet ripped through his thigh. The darkness of the night exploded in flames as a grenade burst. Shrapnel embedded itself in his shoulder, ribs, and sternum.
Okello wasn’t fighting for his home. He wasn’t fighting for his country. He wasn’t even fighting for his life. He was fighting because he knew the man who would murder his family if he didn’t. He was fighting because that man wouldn’t be satisfied by killing his parents, aunts and uncles. That man said he wouldn’t stop until he burned Okello’s village to the ground as an example of what would happen if a person didn’t follow orders.
Okello was the firstborn of his siblings. His family farmed for a living and every day he walked to school with his brothers and cousins. At the end of that school term in 1998 Okello finished 4th grade. He liked studying. He liked taking care of his 9 year old brother, Isaac. He liked being a kid.
But that all changed in a night. The Lord’s Resistance Army had been abducting children across Northern Uganda, but not in Okello’s district. Okello went to sleep in a house with five other children, his arms wrapped around them to make them feel safe. At 11 o’clock the door burst open and rough hands dragged them from their sleep. They were pushed out of the house at gunpoint. As they stumbled through the dark, Okello reached out to protect Isaac. The captors whispered harsh words and ordered the children to march. Exhausted and terrified, they struggled through the night. After 5 kilometers, Isaac couldn’t keep up. His legs shaking and his lungs burning, he sunk to the ground. Rather than waste a bullet and rouse the neighbors, the soldiers tossed Isaac off the trail and kept the other boys marching.
The boys marched until time became a blur. Day after day, soldiers pushed them to their feet at 6 am, they kept moving until midnight.
“We walked around Northern Uganda for 3 Months,” Okello says. “If I escaped they knew where I came from, so we surrendered. As one person, I cannot cause a problem for my whole community. God should just be on our side and we stay alive.”
Things changed when the boys crossed the border into Southern Sudan. “They bought for us new guns,” Okello says. He and his friends entered a compound where weapons of all kinds were stacked in piles. “‘Go and pick any type you like’ they said.” That night the largest of the children were sent to the front lines. Okello’s best friend didn’t return.
Five Years of Fighting.
“Before I finished that year I was selected to come back to Uganda to ‘work,’” says Okello. He still calls fighting work. “They selected me to go and attack the soldiers at an army barracks, and by bad luck I happened to be shot.” Okello massages a scar and for a moment his gaze goes far away. “Even now the bullet is still inside me.”
Okello was dragged off the battlefield by his friends. For three months he stayed in hiding deep in the bush recovering from his wounds. Then he went back to fighting.
Those days are burned into Okello’s mind. He remembers the dates of every event. He remembers the miles he walked. He remembers the friends he lost. “Even now I am missing them,” he says. “I don’t know if they are alive. I don’t know if they are dead. You just keep walking. I just kept working.”
He turned 12.
He kept walking
He turned 13.
He kept walking
He turned 14.
He kept walking. He saw the worst things a person can see. He saw the ugliest side of humanity. He swore he would be different, and he clung to the memory of his family. He remembered his mom who loved him, his brothers who looked up to him.
The Last time Francis Okello was shot he was 15 years old. “That’s when I got this problem with my leg,” he says, wrapping his knuckles against his prosthesis. While fighting in Sudan a bullet pierced just below his knee and left his leg below his calf.
This time the wound didn’t heal. He developed gangrene and his foot detached from his body. Attempting to save the leg, field surgeons amputated just below his knee. “They found there was no blood in the bone and too many insects in the flesh,” he says matter of factly. The surgeons amputated again, and again the wound refused to heal.
As the fighting got closer to where Okello struggled for his life, the medics and his friends fled. They put him in the back of a truck, drove him into the bush, and pushed him out without food or water. “They decided to just dump me there,” he says. “They left me to die in the bush, just like that.”
For three days and nights Okello lay and waited to die. He waited for starvation or for an animal to kill him. “Since God is there I said to him, ‘If this is the way I die, it’s ok. I appreciate you and thank you that I made it this far.’”
As the sun burned through the sky for the third day in a row, thirst parched Okello’s throat and flies buzzed around his leg. “It came to my mind that I should kill myself,” he says, “but on the other side I believed that God could do a miracle for me. I could have cried, but I didn’t have the energy.”
“After three days that’s when God did his miracle,” Okello says. As he lay waiting for death he heard voices. It was enemy soldiers searching the area. “Let them come and finish me,” Okello said as he collected the little energy he had left. “I raised up my voice,” he remembers. “They were our enemies, but that day they met me there and I think God was on my side. I was thinking they were going to kill me but, but good enough, they took me and treated me.”
Okello found himself deep in enemy territory in a hospital bed between the very men who had shot him. “Those people who were exchanging bullets, we were treated together,” he says.
After being treated Okello went to a World Vision center in Sudan that was rehabilitating and reuniting child soldiers with their families. He found old friends there. “That’s where I started getting that encouragement. I started to think I will continue to live. My heart grew strong after seeing my friends.”
When Okello entered his home village he looked around for a familiar face. He saw a woman who looked like his grandmother. Lines of worry were creased deeply into her face. The two stared at eachother while shock and recognition washed over them both. As he swung towards her on his crutches, Okello’s mother reached towards him then fainted, crumpling to the ground in a surge of relief and emotion.
“I was there,” Okello says. “Life was going to continue. If they handed me over to my parents I was going to be protected.”
Okello was abducted at 11 years old. He had just finished fourth grade. Back home at 16 years old he watched his family digging their living from the red dirt. Isaac had found his way home safely and was helping to support the family. Without a leg Okello had no hope of being a successful farmer. He spoke with his parents, and determinedly made his way to school on his crutches. There he enrolled himself in 5th grade.
Page by page, chapter by chapter, Okello learned. He sat in class next to boys who were years younger and lifetimes less experienced. He raised his hand high calling out the answers. By the second term he was at the top of his class.
Okello graduated from primary school. He returned for secondary school and graduated, again, at the top of his class. From there he went on for a degree in social work.
“I chose social work because I know there are many people who are having problems,” Okello says. “There are many people who have faced challenges. I want to show the community that at any point you can still do something important.”
And now, with Sole Hope, Okello is doing just that. He’s building shoes and caring for patients who come to the Outreach House. He’s a man who had his childhood stolen and has dedicated himself to empowering the most vulnerable children in the community. He know’s what it’s like to suffer, and he know’s what it it’s like to choose hope in the darkest times. He know’s that situations don’t have to define a person.
As we stand together this morning at the Outreach House Okello calls out encouragement to patients dribbling a soccer ball. They just got there and he already knows their names. “When I talk to a child who has jiggers, I can tell him, based on my experience, that this is not the end for him,” Okello says. “He can succeed even with this challenge.”