Unified 4 Uganda: Moeller High School students, teachers support children living in war's shadow

SYCAMORE TWP., Oh. - At age 10, Innocent Opwonya became a child soldier in Uganda. In the dead of night, rebel forces from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) abducted the boy from his village.

For the next three nights, his captors forced him to walk more than 400 miles to reach their training camp in the Southern Sudan. Two weeks later, he began carrying a gun. LRA leader Joseph Kony visited the camp and told the young soldiers to forget about their families and their former lives. 

"Sometimes it feels like a painful past but when you think about it, it is gone and hopefully somebody can benefit out of it,” he said. “And if there’s somebody who can life change out of what you went through, why not. Some kids went through deeper troubles than I did and they still want to do better with their lives. “

The desire to better the lives of children hit home for Archbishop Moeller High School. 

Teacher Connie Ring said the idea for the organization started in 2005, after she and a small group of Moeller High School students saw the documentary Invisible Children: Rough Cut during an educational conference.  The film features the night commuting children of Gulu, many whom had been hurt or disfigured by the rebel soldiers. The next day, she student Will Tardio sought her out to take action.

“He basically found me and said I can’t have seen this and do nothing. We have to do something,” Ring said. “And my response to him was, 'What do you want to do?' And really the organization started at that moment.” 

Unified for Uganda (U4U) is the product of their mission to make a difference for Ugandan children.

Focusing the mission

After extensive research, Ring and her students connected with Abitimo Rebecca Odongkara, who operated UNIFAT (Upper Nile Institution for Appropriate Technology), a Ugandan school through seventh grade. 

Odongkara told Ring that children showed up every day begging to go to school. Ring said Moeller decided the best course of action was to create sponsorships at $300 per child.

Today, U4U raises funds to sponsor impoverished children’s education and welfare in Uganda. (Formerly known as Unified for UNIFAT, the student-run organization recently adopted the new name to better reflect the scope of its efforts). 

Each $300 sponsorship pays for:

  • tuition
  • two school uniforms
  • a school sweater
  • a pair of shoes
  • a school lunch
  • emergency medicine usually associated with malaria

Ring said the organization began by sponsoring 10 children. In 2013, U4U is sponsoring 115 children in both primary and secondary schools.

“And ultimately it’s still a student-run organization,” she said. “What started with one student and one teacher is now in 27 locations and not all in the Cincinnati area. Our budget is between $70,000 and $80,000 per year and the kids raise it all.”

Spreading the mission

As Moeller students graduate and go to college, Ring said they have taken the organization with them-- opening chapters in universities including Xavier and Miami of Ohio.

U4U media and technology director Will Tardio took his passion a step further. In an unprecedented level of commitment, he moved to Uganda after graduating from Miami University to better serve the cause. He currently runs a small sustainability project: an Internet café, which offsets some of the local expenses.

Tardio also acts as coordinator for the four local mentors who take on many roles including guidance counselors, surrogate parents and social workers for the children in order to help them succeed.

As media director, Tardio maintains the organization’s website and contributes most of its powerful films and photos from Uganda.

Tardio portrays the tragedies and triumphs of a people trying to heal themselves and help their children. He has no regrets about moving to Africa, as he sees firsthand the impact U4U is making every day.

“I think it’s a little bit of a long-term and a short-term support, you’re serving them a hot meal and the clothes and everything like that, but the long term is you’re setting them up to have the best possible chance of having a future,” he said. “If you ask any child what they want, a few may say toys, but they’ll also say education. They have an enthusiasm for school over there.”

Helping close to home

In addition to helping those in Uganda, U4U provides valuable educational opportunities for local high school students. As the organization was founded and is still based a Moeller High School, U4U offers internships for students as an option for class credit.

Senior and U4U intern, Connor Iuni, said he spent countless hours working on his application. Transferring in from Kings High School halfway through his freshman year, he felt compelled go back to his former school and encourage students to start a chapter there.

“I heard about U4U and I wanted to do something like that instead of just putting clothes in a box,” Iuni said. “I wanted to do something bigger that had a greater impact.”

As a non-profit, U4U features two major fundraising events. The fall social event is a high school mixer open to all area teens and has proved wildly popular, nearly reaching 1,000 person capacity of the Moeller activity center each year, Ring said.

The second event takes place in the spring and is still in the planning stages. In the past organizers have held an Amazing Race through Cincinnati with each stop relating somehow to the children in Uganda. She said for adults, organizers are selling tickets to the Rusty Ball in November featuring the band Rusty Griswolds. A portion of the proceeds go to the organization, along with proceeds from silent auction items.

“And no one gets paid,” Ring said. “We’re all volunteers. So, when a sponsor comes and says they want to sponsor a child, the full $300 goes to sponsor a child. We’ll have some fundraisers that are open to the public that have some small administrative fees, but because there’s no salaries an unbelievable percentage of the money raised goes directly to the cause.”

A child soldier's life: Then and now 

On Opwonya's first attempt to escape the LRA, other children nearly beat him to death as punishment. On his second attempt he gained his freedom. He returned to his village and began the process of night commuting to Gulu, a city where thousands of children hid during the night as to not be abducted. 

In 2007, the Ugandan government expelled the LRA and Joseph Kony from the country, but according to Opwonya, the wounds are slow to heal for a country ravaged from a brutal civil war for more than two decades.

Opwonya still revels in how his life played out. After someone in America saw him featured in the "Invisible Children" documentary, they sponsored him to go to school. He said this year he’s proudly graduating from university in Uganda. 

Although U4U did not play a role in his own education, Opwonya said he is happy to help the cause. For the next few weeks, Opwonya will be sharing his story with U4U's 27 chapters located in the Tri-state, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia.

"I read a lot about Unified for Uganda and what they are doing and I feel like I have just the perfect place to be," he said. "I try to be involved with any movement that is for a better cause that is for a life changing cause. That’s how I got so involved with Unified for Uganda."

He said he owes so much to the kindness and generosity of people whom he’s never met. He sums up his commitment for helping others in Uganda with a version of a quote from Malcolm X:

“A friend in Uganda once told me this quote,” he said. “If you don’t stand for something now, you will fall for anything in the future.”

How you can help:

Next page: Innocent Opwonya, in his own words

In his own words: Innocent Opwonya's life as a child solider

 

Taken

The war began in 1986 and I was born in 1989. I was abducted when I was 10 years old. So, it was late in the night, and for a lot of time we would sleep at home and it was me, my sister and my parents. When we sleep at home, we never slept inside, we always slept in the bush in this garden that was a little bushy and for one reason we did not clear it was so we could go hide out.

So, we would go outside and sleep in the bush and that way if the rebels come and kick in the door, they find nobody and for a lot of time when they find nobody, they set the hut on fire. So, we would sleep out, but this one specific day it was raining a lot, so due to the massive rain the bush was so soaking wet we couldn’t even go in because it was still raining late at night, and so we said, there are no stupid rebels who will be moving at this time of the night. It’s raining and it’s so messed up, so we decided to sleep inside. But it wasn’t what we expected, quite a little late, I couldn’t tell the time exactly, but I was the first one to wake up because I heard a knock on the door – they kept saying wake up, wake up. And they didn’t say my name and they had no clue who it was.

My dad is a very curious person. He always wants to know how you are sleeping, how things are going for you. Sometimes they didn’t even sleep at night checking on us. So in the back of my mind, I said this is my dad. But again, he would say my name, because every time he knocks he says the name. When we would sleep in the hut he would check on us, but he would always say his name. And so I waited for that and seconds later they just kicked through the door.

I was put on gunpoint and a flashlight was right by the gun, and they asked me to move out and before I even got up, they pulled me out. They pulled my sister, and then they realized she’s a girl and they wanted to get just boys only and they pushed her back in and locked the door on her. Meanwhile, my parents had gone. A lot of times we would also go into town, my sister and I would go to night commute and so for that reason, they were not used to having us at home. So when my dad realized that he has kids behind, he made his way back and that’s when they got him as well.

Into the night

We got tied up, your hands in the back and your waist all tied up and the rope used to tie you is used to tie another person. And so they divided us, adults in one line and kids in one line. And so they told us we were moving to the Southern Sudan, which is 400 to 700 miles away from us. And we walked. We walked for three straight nights and we only walked at night – they felt we would get ambushed by the government in the daytime because they would be patrolling everywhere during the daytime. And so we moved at night and the first night I was already so tired and being only 10 years of age, it was a lot of work for me.

I remember begging them for the first time because I was so tired and I needed to rest, and once they grant you a rest means they’re going to kill you, but me I didn’t know. So, if they say they’re going to let you rest, they shoot you or kill you and leave you there. And so I asked for that and my dad did this (makes gesture of putting finger to lips) then I kept quiet.

The second night we kept moving again and I was having swollen feet and I cried out again the second time, and said I really, really can’t move anymore and they said "You have to, this is the only option or we’re going. You’re not the only kid here, some of them are younger than you and they’re not complaining – who do you think you are?" So my dad saw me with a lot of pity in his eyes and the third time I couldn’t hold it. You’re walking and you’re stepping, yet you feel the pain every time you feel a foot step – so I made a really loud alarm. And my dad came between two of the guys who came after me – that’s when they released him and he was the only one taken in a different direction.

They took him out of the whole team and that was the very last time I saw him and that was in the year 2000. So, I kept moving with them, and this time around, there was nothing you could do about it. And even after they told me this is really your very, very last warning – they say, I know you’re shouting and you’re trying to expose us to government soldiers and we’re not going to let that happen. And so we moved to the Southern Sudan.

Training to kill

When we got to the Southern Sudan, we got divided again. We the kids, we went to a specific camp completely for kids only. They put an age limit for 15 and below. So, for the rebels, not like the government Uganda where a child is 18 years and below, for the rebels it’s 15 and below – 16 or 17 you are not there. So, they took us to this camp and the second in command was this 14-year-old boy and the rebel commander was a grown up and he was in charge. Three days later, they took us out for training.

The first thing we did was a warm up exercise. Very early in the morning at 6:00 a.m. we were out on the road running and we were warming up and we ran until 10 in the morning. Then they took us out and said the training is beginning right now and it’s beginning the toughest way. And they had the tunnels dug already and they were really shallow tunnels. They were thin and really long.

So, this is how it works: they pair a newly abducted to a trained kid – and some of them were born there, so they know so much about guns – and they believe guns are the only ways, the key to everything. And so they paired you up and because you were new you don’t have the gun, the trained kid has the gun.You’re new, so you go to from one edge of the tunnel and you have to move under the tunnel, beneath the tunnel while this old kid was training you would be fighting about the ground leveling the tunnel in trying to get you.

In case any part of your body is above the tunnel you get would get hurt. That training specifically is called narrow escape, so you can escape from the smallest possible space. That’s why they’re trying to train you to know when you get ambushed and you have no other option but to just to escape in the smallest space possible. So, adult trainers came in where they divided us and we were given toy guns and you’re supposed to shoot at each other. And they also trained us how to cock the gun, how to dismantle the gun and how to load bullets and when you’re out of bullets what do you do, like fighting back without a gun.

Induction into the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)

And so, after two weeks, we had a passover ceremony where the rebel commander Joseph Kony came himself and he came with his convoy. The brought guns, they brought sweets. That day, I remember eating really good, I ate a lot of food and I thought, this is such a place to be. And he told us, "From now on, I’m not going to request you, but I’m going to ask you to try to forget about your families because you have a new family."

"See all these brothers and sisters you have here, and I’m going to be your godfather. I’m going to make sure everything you need is catered for and you will lead the happiest life ever. But that can only happen on one condition, you cooperate with me," and by cooperating, they should not see you listening to a radio, because by then peace talk commercials were on the Gulu radio stations.

So they didn’t want us to hear about any of this and you should not be found with a cell phone as the least penalty is firing squad – they’ll shoot you. So I was given a gun called G2 and it was almost three quarter my weight, but you have to lift it everywhere you go. You have this specific number and sometimes they collect them and you have to know your number so you can get it back. And the moving stated going on and some days it got so rough.

Some days we don’t see food completely. Some days you survive on raw greens like tomatoes the ones you get out there. A lot of times we would loot food from the local Sudanese - I would say almost all of them had guns too. So, to get food from them, you have to get in fire exchange. A lot of kids were unlucky and didn’t make it.

The first attempt at escape

I was brought to Northern Uganda a couple of times to come to loot things and sometimes abduct kids like I was abducted. Though after a month it was really weighing on me, so it was like a perfect timing when they took me on a night duty and I said, today we are only five and I thought nobody is going to be seeing me because these other kids are distance away from me. I took off and I started running away and I would say I didn’t plan it because I had my gun boots on and they were making a lot of noise, and I couldn’t run fast in them.

And so one of the boys was on the watch tower and he saw me. He flashed the light, we had this really strong alarm flash that completely can hit you from distance. So, he blew the whistle while flashing it on me and kids ran toward me and they grabbed me. The next day in the general assembly, I was brought in a local court where kids have to decide between a severe beating and a firing squad.

So, I was to be judged on: was I to be shot or given a really severe beating? Because it was my first time, kids decided I should just be beaten. And that’s what happened. The beating left me down and paralyzed for over two straight weeks. I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t do a lot – all I could do is just lay on the bed and wait if my friend give me something to eat. I don’t know how it happened. Maybe God played this really big part and didn’t want to see me go at that time. So I got on my legs again and I started – from that time on, I found myself a real soldier. I made my commitment to do all it takes to make sure the government is out - to make sure I fulfill what I’m there for because for me, that was a mission. I felt like I was there for a mission and the mission would not end unless the contract is done.

The contract is for Joseph Kony to overthrow the government of Uganda. So, I made up my mind and I tried to be so cooperative and I tried to be the first on the line for anything else I was asked to do with a group of people. After two months and a lot of cooperation I put in, the commander of the center made me the second in command for a unit. We had a really small unit, and my unit had 15, we had only three girls, but 15 kids in total. So I was second in command to another boy. Most of the first commanders they put 14-year-olds and I was second in command to one. I was 10, and that was my second month with them.

The second attempt at freedom

After two months, I got out with this unit of mine and my commander was there as well. We went out to abduct girls, because that’s how rebels choose their wives, the leaders choose their wives out of the abducted girls and get any kind of food that we could if possible. So we targeted this one really rich family that was in the north as well. We came in and me and the commander say we have to make a plan, we can’t go all inside and we cannot all remain outside.

So what we do, we divide ourselves and say five are going inside and nine are staying out. But one of us has to go in, and I chose to stay out and I stayed with these nine, and I commanded them how to stand around and make a circle around that family so that nobody could escape and so we would know if the government soldiers were coming to attack us as well. So, that way I found myself again standing in a lonely place that the rest of my boys were standing a distance from me.

Something came into my mind, and I thank God I didn’t think twice about it – it said just take off, run right now. And this time I removed my gun boots and I started running. I took off and I didn’t go far before I hid in the bush. I kept so quiet, not even shaking at all. And people were running past that bush and I knew they weren’t running after me. I went the other direction and came to a nearby home with a lot of cars. I still had on all my soldier attire including the gun.

And this lady came out early in the morning going to work on her farm and she saw me and she fainted. She was completely gone - she just knew I was there to take her life. But when she got better, I just explained to her that I just needed her help. But she would not believe me until I removed my gun and handed it to her and say – here’s my gun, I’m harmless, I have nothing. I just need your help to take me back to my family.

The journey home

She helped me and she connected me to the local leaders who contacted the government barracks and the government barracks sent in soldiers from a nearby detail who took me. I went through days and days of questioning in the government barracks as well. They thought that I was maybe a spy from the rebels. So sometimes you are there with seven different gun points from the government soldiers – they just put you in a lot of gun points when you’re talking. And they trying to scare the truth out of you and all I could do is just cry, and loudly tell them anything that they ask me that I thought is positive and could help.

I got rescued that way and I was taken to a counseling center, World Vision, it’s an international organization. And after a good time of counseling, that’s when they sent my name in an announcement with other kids who had escaped earlier, and my mom came and picked me up.

Invisible Children

When I got home, I started night commuting to a newly-opened night commuting center in town. They had this really cool system of leadership. They elect leaders every year - they elect a new president of the center, a child president. By then I was 11 already.

So after one year of night commuting there, I aspired to be the president of the center with two other boys. But I was the smallest and other kids love it when you’re young and small because they can get their way. So, for one reason or the next, they elected me the president of the center. And the center had 3,500 kids which was huge. I had responsibilities like serving blankets to each one of the kids among others and making sure they take showers when they come to the center. I chose nine other members to work with me and I assigned them different roles. 

And this is the tricky part: all the nine members I chose were either two years older than me or at least bigger than me. I did that because sometimes kids would come so strong and I would tell them to do something and they would refuse. When that happened, I just called on my members and say, 'okay you’re going to do it now.'

So it went really good. I was also responsible for welcoming visitors to the center and that’s how I met the film makers of Invisible Children. They came and made film of me and they were asking me about the center and there were very few kids who could speak English. I couldn’t either, but I could try. I had a lot of broken words that I could join together to mean something. So they made this documentary and they came to the U.S. and tried to create awareness with it. 

When they came back to Uganda, they had some money and that’s when they put me in school. They covered my tuition and proud to say this year I’m graduating from the university and having looked at all that I went through and thinking that a lot of kids went to deeper troubles than I did.

A brighter future

I know a lot of Americans who helped me and put me through school. Some of them have never even seen me and never met me, but that small video made them believe a lot. I realize the value of education and how much I myself, just me alone cannot do anything to change the whole of northern Uganda.

I read a lot about Unified 4 Uganda and what they are doing and I feel like I have just the perfect place to be. I try to be involved with any movement that is for a better cause that is for a life changing cause. That’s how I got so involved with Unified 4 Uganda.

So, they asked me to come and share my life story with people because, sometimes it feels like a painful past but when you think about it, it is gone and hopefully somebody can benefit out of it. And if there’s somebody who can life change out of what you went through, why not. So I said I would be more than glad to speak to people. Some kids went through a lot and they still want to do better with their lives.

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