By Rosebell Kagumire
It was a teary reunion as Florence Nakyanzi met her 17-year-old son just over eight years since he was taken from their home in Kikonda village, Kibale district. For Irumba Bushobozi, Nakyanzis son, it was ray of light on his long way back home.
Nakyanzi, a widow in her early 60s was trying so hard to hold her tears as she sat next to Bushobozi, a son she long believed was dead.
They exchanged gaze in disbelief as they sat in one of the courtrooms at Buganda Road Court waiting for the magistrate to give a verdict on Bushobozi’s bail application.
Much as Bushobozi is facing one of the gravest crimes in the land â€“ treason, for the moment that didnt seem to matter for Nakyanzi; she was now sure her son was alive.
The magistrate did not mention Bushobozi’s case in the first ten cases, and then he took a break. It was at this point that Nakyanzi was told his son had been granted bail and could go home with her.
I cant believe it. My son that was taken from home in 2000 is here with me and he can go home. I still cant believe it, said Nakyanzi.
Bushobozi’s case is a rare one. In 2000, at the age of 9, Bushobozi was in primary three when the rebels of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) made attacks in his village.
Narrating his ordeal to The Independent, that he faintly remembers, Bushobozi said he was asked not to scream or look behind as the rebels handcuffed him.
The rebels came to our home at about 7 pm and forced all of us to lie down. I was picked and they left my mother and two brothers in the house but my father was asked to lie down outside the house, said Bushobozi.
It was then that Bushobozi was abducted and he would spend six years with ADF in the bushes of western Uganda and sometimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
However, taking Bushobozi was not the only blow to the family. The family head, John Kagiraha who was the local council chairman of Kikonda was killed.
The rebels killed my husband on the same day as he tried to ask where they were taking our son, I saw him as he bargained for his own life asking rebels to take all our property but spare him, said Nakyanzi. It is a most cruel way for anyone to die.
October 15, Nakyanzi together with other relatives were half jubilant, half worried as they welcomed the bail verdict and also heard their son would have to return to court on December 8.
With feebleness in his voice, Bushobozi said he stayed in the bush with the ADF for close to six years.
I didnt know the exact areas where I moved in those years. Some people said we were in Congo and then other times I couldnt tell where we were, said Bushobozi in few broken Luganda words that he had learnt in the two years he has stayed in Kampala.
Unlike many child combatants who have been forced to fight and kill, Bushobozi said the rebels always spared him because of his age.
â€œI was one of the youngest abductees so I was only forced to carry loot, and other things. I was not given any gun during my time there.â€
Bushobozi walks with a limp as a result of a gun shot sustained from â€œcrossfire between the ADF and UPDF in mid 2006,â€ the day he was captured by the army.
He told The Independent that it was after that he was brought to Mbarara barracks where they tried to treat the bullet wound for a month.
â€œI spent a month in Mbarara barracks but treatment wasnâ€™t good so they transferred me to Mbuya Military Hospital where I stayed for about a year,â€ Bushobozi said.
The Naguru Remand Home received Bushobozi from the military in 2007.
It was at Naguru, that probation officers took interest in Bushobozi’s story and started the process of contacting the relatives.
One of the probation officers said it wasnt proper for the military to hold a child captured from the frontline for one year and after that send him to a remand home.
Bushobozi was charged with treason in July last year.
According to the charge sheet from CID headquarters dated July 12, 2007, Bushobozi, together with two women were charged with treason and concealment of treason. But the charges were later amended on September 3, 2007 to cover only treason.
Bushobozi was arrested during combat together with Natukunda Kauther Bint Abdullai, a Muslim teacher aged 22 from Makindye and Matama Ustine Sara also 22 from ADF camp in Bundibugyo in 2006 but it took a year before they were charged.
The charge sheet in the case file BUG-CO-2198-07 before Buganda Road Court further read, the three and others still at large between 2006 and 2007 in the districts of Kampala and Mubende contrived a plot to overthrow the government of Uganda by force of arms.
The charge goes on to say the trio expressed such a plot by mobilizing logistical support and conducted recruitment for the ADF to overthrow the government which contravenes Section 23 (1) C and D of the Penal Code Act.
Emotive as it is, this is not the first time government has charged formerly abducted children with treason.
In late 2002, two boys aged 14 and 16 in criminal cases JA004 and JA006, were charged with treason in Gulu and Moyo but the charges were later dropped after pressure from human rights organisations.
At that time, Human Rights Watch wrote to the Minister of Justice saying the charges were unjust because children are forcibly abducted, brutalised and compelled to participate in acts of violence and therefore are rarely autonomous actors.
Bushobozi’s detention, both by the military and at the remand home and denying him prompt access to legal assistance contravenes the Convention on the Rights of the Child of which Uganda is a signatory.
The convention spells that detention of children should never be arbitrary or illegal, and should only be seen as a measure of absolute last resort and for the shortest period of time.
Treason is a capital offense and although children below 18 at the time of offense cannot face death penalty on conviction, itâ€™s not appropriate to impose the charge against children in this situation.
Bushobozi and others have not been committed to High Court and he saw a magistrate for the first time the day he was granted bail.
Cases like these are just a tip of the iceberg of the dire situation of many former child combatants in Uganda. They also help raise the question of when does one cease to be a victim of war.
According to United Nations Childrenâ€™s Fund (UNICEF) records from northern Uganda, the history has been to minimise the time children spend between returnÂ to the military and civil organisations or their homes.
â€œMost children from the LRA war went through Child Protection Unit under UPDF for a short time before they were handed over to community based organisations for rehabilitation,â€ said Chulho Hyun, UNICEF communication chief in Kampala.
These cases, analysts say, show discrimination since thousands of children with similar experiences have not been similarly charged, and have been able to receive rehabilitation assistance and to return to their communities.
The army spokesperson Maj. Paddy Ankunda told The Independent that usually children spend no more than two weeks in the hands of the military.
In northern Uganda children are retained for one or two weeks to give them psychological support and we try to see if they have good information we can use, said Ankunda.
However Ankunda said children from ADF are taken home since most of them come from areas in western Uganda where ADF operates.
Asked why Bushobozi has remained in military custody for months, Ankunda said it was unusual but he couldnt rule out the medical factor.
Human rights watchdogs warn that such charges may discourage children currently under captivity from seeking escape or surrendering to the Ugandan army.
Cornelius Williams, a child protection specialist with UNICEF said government should do more to protect child combatants.
â€œThis kind of approach (like in Bushoboziâ€™s case) by government could be linked to the lack of child protection services for children from armed conflict in the country.â€
According to the Childrenâ€™s Act section 88, the age of criminal responsibility is 12 but questions remains how can a justice system hold abducted child soldiers criminally responsible.
David Mpanga, a criminal lawyer said: â€œIn such a case where the purported crime is as grave as treason which involves an adult forcing a juvenile to commit a crime, the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) should use his discretion to have such a child rehabilitated rather than charged.â€
The deputy DPP Amos Ngolobe told The Independent that much as the state could charge children with treason, Bushobozi’s case is unusual.
This child being above 12 years, can be tried; they committed a crime but usually former child soldiers we tell them to seek amnesty.
Even though the 2000 Amnesty Act spells that a child over 12 years from combat should be provided with protection, the same law requires that these children sign up for amnesty.
Amnesty was put in place for people who have taken part in a rebellion as a way to denounce those activities and seek forgiveness.Â So why should a law require children, who fought not on their own will, seek forgiveness from a government that never protected them in the first place?
Fundamental questions remain unanswered as to why children should plead for crimes they had no control over including a charge of plotting to overthrow the government.
For the last year, Bushobozi has been frequenting this court without any hearing because his co-accused who were held in Luzira would be produced on different days without informing the remand home.
For Bushobozi’s mother, the case is a puzzle that she cannot try to comprehend.
Putting a subtle smile after her son was granted bail, Nakyanzi said, I am glad he can go home with us but how can a government, instead of compensating him, have a case against him?
Nakyanzi also wants government t compensate her for the murder of her husband, who was a local council chairman when he was killed by the rebels.
He had worked for the government but I have never got compensation that is given to other families that lost relatives to rebels, said Nakyanzi who gets her income from farming.
Bushobozi will return to court on December 8 but his dreams are beyond that date.
Even if I still have to answer treason charges, he said, I want to go back to school.
As much as she prays her son gets acquitted of treason, Nakyanzi is worried about not being able to provide for the education and psycho-social support to Bushobozi
However the immediate worry remains the treason charges that still hang on her sons head.
Nakyanzi will continue to use her little income from her farm produce to trek with her son from Kibale to report to court in Kampala until the hearings are closed and verdict is given. Hopefully, the law will shift from its mechanical approach and wear a human face.