Life hasn’t dealt Ugandan former rebel Opono Opondo an easy hand. Like Dominic Ongwen, he was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as a child and forced to participate in the rebel groups reign of terror over Northern Uganda. However, unlike Ongwen, who’s on trial at the International Criminal Court, Opondo has been granted amnesty by the Ugandan government. Despite this he has been turned away by his family and community in the northern city of Gulu.
This relay circuit of victim-turned-perpetrator-turned-pariah is the subject of the new film by Maartje Wegdam and Ariadne Asimakopoulos aptly titled “No place for a rebel”. The two filmmakers sat down at the premiere of their movie for an interview with Justice Hub’s Janet Anderson to talk about their project – the unique tale of innocence lost – that’s Opono Opondo’s life, and what they expect audiences to take away from the film. Lightly edited for clarity, the interview has been published here as part of Justice Hub’s #MyJustice series.
JH: Could you sum up the story of the film in a couple of lines?
Maartje Wegdam: The film is a portrait of Opono Opondo who is a 26-year-old young man. He was abducted at the age of 10 by the rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army. He stayed with the rebels for 16 years – until he was 26. At that age he escaped the army and came home. We have been following him for three years upon his return home while he’s trying to reintegrate into the community. We see all the obstacles as he attempts to reconnect with his family, with the people that are close to him and the things that prevent him from really starting over.
JH: Why this particular film? What was the inspiration for it?
Ariadne Asimakopoulos: In 2010, [ while I was studying] I went to Gulu in Uganda to do field work for my Master’s research. It was actually the trial against [former LRA commander Colonel Thomas] Kwoyelo that really triggered me because it was the first trial; he was the first not get amnesty and then I read that he was actually also abducted at the age of 13.
It made me think. How does that work? When you are abducted as a child, you grow up in the LRA, then you escape. In (Kwoyelo’s) case, he was captured. You come and then you are brought to trial. I researched what people in the community thought of the trial. How does it impact them? Do they have an opinion at all? Do they know about it? So that was the start. I stayed there for months.
Maartje and I have known each other since we were very young. When I came home, Maartje had also returned from New York where she studied film. That’s when we started talking about this. She read my thesis. It was really the victim-perpetrator dichotomy that really triggered us.
Maartje Wegdam: I think we also realised that [a] thesis can be very academic, [but] could attract a broader audience if you take a small piece of it and turn that into a film. So it was not the intention to turn the whole thesis into a film because that would be too broad. We took the victim-perpetrator dichotomy and searched for a person who could embody these different sides internally.
JH: What kind of struggle does Opondo go through himself? I understand that it’s difficult for him to integrate back into society but how does he feel?
Ariadne Asimakopoulos: It plays on many levels I think. When he returned home, he went to his family and after six weeks he decided to leave again. He does not feel welcome there, he feels unsafe even. People in Gulu suspect that he was part of an atrocity that took place and he fears [his neighbours] might do something to him. His father and his brother told him that they don’t want him there either. He left and he was all alone in Gulu town. He has no means to provide for himself. He has physical problems still, so he cannot do physical work which makes it difficult for him to find a job.
Maartje Wegdam: I think he has the intention to start over and to invest in his future but he is being held back by external factors and also by internal trauma. That’s what it really boils down to. He feels like he’s really not part of this community or family. He doesn’t feel the warmth of the community, which he felt while in the LRA. He feels like he is a soldier. That’s his identity. He feels really out of place. He never said this, but to me, he comes across as kind of a lost soul who is trying to find somewhere to land.
JH: How does the film explore the issue of accountability?
Ariadne Asimakopoulos: Opondo has an amnesty certificate so at least formally he doesn’t have to fear prosecution. While we were filming there in 2015, suddenly [Dominic] Ongwen surrendered. It was a blessing for us because we were looking for a hook to integrate the justice component in the story.
Maartje Wegdam: Also, while prosecution isn’t part of Opondo’s daily life, he does reflect on the things happening around him like the arrest of Ongwen, his prosecution and how feels about his own amnesty. I think he is very reflective, very eloquent on these issues. You can see that he has thought about it.
Ariadne Asimakopoulos: He weighs his words very carefully when he responds to questions about Ongwen. He says the government failed to protect him but he doesn’t want to say anything else. Because although he has his amnesty certificate now, he doesn’t know what might happen in the future. He doesn’t want to jeopardise his amnesty but you can feel that he has very strong opinions.
JH: Does the he worry that the community might still want to force him to face some sort of reckoning?
Ariadne Asimakopoulos: He is very aware of the community around him and what they say or think about him. He is more afraid that the community could either revenge, gossip or stigmatise him than he is afraid of being arrested at this point because he does have the amnesty certificate.
To add to what Maartje said before, Opondo also said that he thinks they should give all LRA soldiers who were abducted as children amnesty (including Ongwen) but they shouldn’t use the word “forgiveness” because they were really young when they went to the bush so they didn’t know what they were doing. He feels very strongly that the forgiveness card is being played in the wrong way.
JH: How does he feel about the film now?
Maartje Wegdam: The thing is he hasn’t seen it yet. We’ve been working since January, every day, to finish the film so there was really no time. Also, he is somewhere we cannot reach him. We cannot just schedule a meeting with him.
Ariadne Asimakopoulos: During the filming process, we were really open with him about what we want the film to show. I think the more open you are in the beginning and the less you keep the protagonist of the film in the dark, the more assured you can be that someone will appreciate it. Maybe he’s not going to like everything he sees but I think he will understand the purpose of it and I think he will find that it reflects his situation and personality. That I think is what we can hope for.
JH: Whet effect do you expect the film to have?
Ariadne Asimakopoulos: For a general audience, it will evoke thoughts on the grey area between victim and perpetrator and also what happens when they come home. Unlike how it’s often portrayed, the story doesn’t end when the child soldier comes home. It’s just the beginning of a new chapter.
Maartje Wegdam: Reflecting on the Ongwen case, Opondo says when he was abducted himself, he was young and innocent and didn’t know what he was doing. But of course you can also argue that at one point he was 20, 25, 26. Can you still say “I didn’t know what I was doing”? Other people escaped, why didn’t you escape or at least try to escape? These are also questions that we hope to trigger. We are not giving the answers. These are not easy questions but that is what you want people to think about.
Ariadne Asimakopoulos: Also because they are universal questions. They don’t only apply to the situation in Uganda. The film is a vehicle to think about these things in a broader context. Also, we hope to start a discussion about how people like Opondo can be integrated back into society so that they be part of rebuilding the community in a post-conflict context.