Chased out of their native Uganda, the Lord’s Resistance Army has filtered west into Congo, where in the past two months they have killed 900 civilians and displaced another 150,000, according to the UN. They are notorious for the forced conscription of children as soldiers and sex slaves. One of these children was Richard Mitambwoko, 17, who was kidnapped from his school last year. He recounts what happened

It was 7 September last year when the LRA came to our village. I lived in Duru, which is 90km from the town of Dungu in the north-eastern corner of Congo.

They came into our classroom and locked the doors behind them. I was in my second year of secondary school. There were 58 of us in the class – we were all terrified. We tried to escape through the windows, but the soldiers caught us and tied us up. It wasn’t just our class though, they did the same to the entire school.

Once we were all tied up they marched us to the home of a priest – he was an Italian priest – and forced us to steal everything from his house. Then, once we had taken all we could they marched us back to the road. From there we turned in the direction of the bush.

We walked and walked until it was dark, and at last arrived at a place where we could pass the night. We were separated, the young to the left, old to the right. Those of us who were young were between the ages of eight and 17, both boys and girls. We stayed outside while the older ones were taken to sleep inside a house.

In the morning the older ones were allowed to leave – but we weren’t. All of us children, even the smallest, were told to pick up the soldiers’ bags and equipment and keep walking. We continued all day until we reached a small village called Madore, where we spent the night.

The soldiers gave us water but no food. We were so hungry. There were about 100 of us, all young children and all crying; everyone was very scared.

The next day we continued until we reached another village. I think it was called Ganagabo. That was at the end of the third day. There, the soldiers presented us to their chief, Joseph Kony. He looked us over and authorised his soldiers to take us to the fields and guard us there. He said he would come later.   

When he came he divided us into groups, boys in one, girls in another. He then divided the boys again, making us stand in separate brigades. But the girls were taken away – even the very youngest – and given to the officers.

The groups of boys were sent to different locations. My brigade spent the night in a field that had the same name as the military base there. It was called Swahili, and it became our base.

Every day was the same. We left early, at the break of dawn. We worked in the fields until midday, when we had a two-hour break, and then we returned and worked until 6pm. We cultivated various crops – beans, sorghum and some others. They gave us water, but there were always a lot of guards around and they beat us to make us work quicker and harder. After work we would be sent to collect water for the officers. Then once we’d given it to them for their baths, we’d go back to where we slept. We were allowed to have baths too – twice a week if we were lucky.

Life went on like this, with hard work and beatings, until one day our camp was bombed. I don’t know exactly when it happened, as time in the bush is meaningless. After I returned to my family I found out that I had been in the bush for about four months, but other than that I have no sense of time passing.

When we were bombed I fled with a group of about 90 LRA soldiers. We spent a month in the bush, always fleeing the FARDC [Congolese military]. I didn’t try to escape the whole time I was with the LRA. I was terrified. They said they would kill anyone who tried to escape. I had seen it happen. People who had tried to flee had been killed right in front of my eyes.

Then one day the FARDC caught up with us and attacked us again. This time our group split up, fleeing in different directions. In my group there were four of us who had been kidnapped and two LRA soldiers. Every night at midnight the six of us would set out through the bush. We didn’t eat anything at all. This continued for four full days. We had no strength but we had no choice except to continue. I was very scared.

On the fourth day one of us said that if we had the chance we should try to escape the two soldiers. If we stayed we would die, but we knew that if we left we might die too. So, when the LRA soldier who came with us when we went to fetch the water went to relieve himself, we took a chance and fled as fast as we could into the bush. We had absolutely no idea where we were or which direction to go in. Another two days passed. We were still without food and we were running out of strength.

Then I remembered something my father had told me long ago. He said that if I was ever lost in the bush I should follow where the sun sets. So that’s what we did. And after two days we found a road at last.

We hadn’t eaten in six days, but we knew that at some point we were bound to find food. It was this knowledge that gave us strength to keep going. Finally, we came upon a field of sweet potatoes; we threw ourselves on it, digging furiously at the earth.

However, it was at that moment that the FARDC came by and saw us. They thought we were LRA. My friend wanted to flee but I said no, we should go to them and tell them we were hostages and we were Congolese.

So that’s what we did. We told the FARDC our story and they took us to the chief of their locality. We told him that we had been kidnapped on 7 September from the village of Duru. He said he would have to have our story confirmed – and if he found out it was a lie he would know we were spies and there would be trouble.

But they took us in and gave us food. Our stomachs had shrunk so much from not eating that we couldn’t eat very much. We spent five days at their base. When they found out our story was true they brought us to Coopi [an Italian NGO]. There they put us in touch with our families and at last, after four months, we were reunited with them.

Life with the LRA is not normal. What they do is use you to find other recruits, and when you come across them you have to hit them, you have to draw blood. This goes on all the time. It gets so that when they don’t kill you, you feel good. That’s how it works – you just want to feel good.

Also, whenever they feel like it, they melt plastic bottles and drip the plastic onto your skin. That’s what all these marks on my arms are from. They did it to me when we were in the bush; some of the others had tried to escape so they punished all of us.

I have no idea why the LRA are doing this. None at all. They are referred to as a Christian army, but there is no Christianity there. Anyone who says Joseph Kony and his soldiers are Christians is a liar. God doesn’t exist. If he did he wouldn’t let us be kidnapped, he wouldn’t let this happen.

Among the LRA soldiers there are young ones like me and older ones too. I talked a lot with those who were my age. They said they wanted to leave but had killed too many people for it to be possible. They said they would suffer too much if they left.

Most of the soldiers were Ugandans, they spoke Acholi. When we were first kidnapped there were some who spoke my Congolese dialect, Lingala, but little by little I learned to speak to them in Acholi.

We were obliged to be like them. We were in a military camp, and a military formation. We had to do what they did. One time when our friends fled into the bush, we had to go and trap them and hand them back to the LRA. They were killed in front of us, as an example.

I didn’t kill. Mostly I went into houses and robbed them, but my friends were forced to kill.

The whole time I was there I thought about nothing but death. I saw people being killed every day and I had to do such bad things all the time. I didn’t know if I would see my family again. The LRA had killed a lot of people when they attacked our village. They had stayed behind to burn it, too. I didn’t know if my family was alive.

Afterwards, reunited with my family, it was like a wake. Everyone was crying and crying and crying. I discovered that my 10-year-old sister had been taken, she had spent a month with them. My 13-year-old sister is still gone. There are still a lot of children in the bush with the soldiers.

I have nightmares all the time. I jump out of my sleep in fear, imagining the LRA are there and I have to go with them again.

• Richard Mitambwoko was interviewed by Susan Schulman. If you would like to respond to Richard’s account, feel free to leave a comment here.