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China Keitetsi

A Former Child Soldier Fights Her Memories



CHINA KEITETSI'S entire life has been a battle.

As a young girl growing up in western Uganda, she says, she was beaten by her father and grandmother. 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 would take over.

At age 9, she says, she became a child soldier in the rebel movement that brought Yoweri Museveni to power in Uganda in 1986, and she has written a memoir of that time.

In her book, 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."

Still the battles have not ended. These days she fights for her reputation against a Ugandan government that is embarrassed by her account and that has launched an aggressive campaign to discredit her.

Mr. Museveni, the Ugandan president, is portrayed in Ms. 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."

Lies, says the Ugandan government, which has even named what it calls the Committee Into Keitetsi's Hoax.

The committee, formed by the president and his advisers, has prepared a documentary of its own to counter Ms. Keitetsi's claims. John Nagenda, a senior media adviser to the Ugandan president, traveled through Europe recently raising questions about her.

He and the Ugandan ambassador to Denmark recently visited the Danish publisher of Ms. Keitetsi's book, pointing out what they call the many fabrications. Meanwhile, government lawyers are consulting with a British law firm about whether legal action is possible.

"How this small-town girl from backwater Uganda managed to hoodwink seasoned media people, and others in their wake, might one day make a dazzling movie in its own right," a government brochure says.

But Ms. Keitetsi has many backers. "We just met her once and we didn't have any doubt," said Monica Gram, her Danish literary agent. Unicef and Amnesty International continue to use Ms. Keitetsi to draw attention to the global problem of child soldiers.

MS. KEITETSI says she is 27, but her age and other aspects of her story are in dispute. Her former commanders, stung by her insider account, say they do not remember her fighting with them.

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." Soon, she says, she was.

Her real first name is Gorret. She picked up the nickname China, the one she still uses, from an army commander who thought she looked Chinese. It is but one reminder of her old life.

Ms. Keitetsi fled Uganda in the mid-1990's, after the rebel army turned into the official government fighting force, and she eventually managed to make her way to South Africa.

From there, she received refugee status, arguing that the Ugandan government was persecuting her. She was relocated in 1999 to Denmark, where she lives today, by the United Nations high commissioner for refugees.

She says she fears returning to Uganda. A son she had with a former rebel commander remains there. Unmarried, she left behind another child, a girl, in South Africa.

EVEN from the serenity of her new home, she says, the battles continue. "I dream about being captured," she said in a telephone interview from Gladsakse, in eastern Denmark, where she currently lives. "I dream about shootings. When I wake up my heart is beating so fast it will take me three or four hours to go to sleep."

Her book, not yet available in the United States, is written in simple English and translated into several foreign languages, and has had moderate success in Germany, Holland, Belgium, the Czech Republic and South Africa. A British publisher recently bought the rights as well. A documentary about her life won an international award, prompting Miramax to buy the film rights.

In the process, Ms. Keitetsi has become an international spokeswoman on the plight of child soldiers, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Kofi Annan, Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela. Hollywood celebrities have crossed paths with her as well, including Harrison Ford, Whoopi Goldberg and Robert De Niro.

Many of the disputed portions of Ms. Keitetsi's story are difficult to pin down so many years later. Like most rebel movements, Mr. Museveni's National Resistance Army did not keep accurate records of each fighter.

Aides to the president acknowledge that children were part of the rebel movement that successfully toppled the dictatorship of Milton Obote. But former fighters say the children were not used as soldiers, but had been abandoned and were protected by the rebels and given odd jobs during the military campaign.

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. The rebels had already taken Kampala and were running Uganda by the time she signed up, Mr. Museveni's aides say.

But Ms. Keitetsi insists she was 9 when she first became a rebel. She portrays herself as being at the front lines during some of the fiercest fighting of the rebel campaign. Ms. Keitetsi's Web site ( features photographs of her in uniform, although it is impossible to determine her age.

Ms. Keitetsi says she initially wrote the book as a form of therapy, not self-promotion. Drawing attention to the plight of child soldiers, not herself, is her goal, she says.

In early July, she went to Rwanda, which borders her former home, and met with other former child soldiers, who had fought in Congo and Uganda. She said she came back more determined to help.

"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."

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