Journalist Chronicles Ordinary People Fighting Extremism In Africa

Oct 25, 2017
Originally published on October 26, 2017 5:42 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Christians and Muslims in Africa who are resisting extremism within Christianity and Islam are the subject of a new book by our guest Alexis Okeowo. She says she wanted to get past standard journalistic narratives of war and tragedy and show people as flawed, complicated individuals trying to improve their lives even in the face of extremist violence.

Okeowo was born and grew up in Alabama the daughter of two immigrants from Nigeria. She moved to Uganda at the age of 22 for an internship at a newspaper. Five years after that, she moved from Brooklyn to Nigeria, where she lived for three years before returning to Brooklyn in 2015. She's now a staff writer for The New Yorker. She spoke to FRESH AIR's Dave Davies about her new book, "A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women And Men Fighting Extremism In Africa." And just a heads up - this conversation includes upsetting descriptions of violence.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Alexis Okeowo, welcome to FRESH AIR. So I want to talk about this woman Eunice in Uganda. Tell us about her. Where did she grow up? What put her in peril?

ALEXIS OKEOWO: Eunice grew up in northern Uganda. She had a pretty happy childhood - a lot of siblings, a mother who took care of her and her family. But when she was young, she began to notice things around her change almost suddenly. The Lord's Resistance Army, a fundamentalist Christian rebel group, was waging a rebellion in the north. And they were killing civilians. They were mutilating them. And perhaps most importantly, they were abducting thousands of children to become child soldiers. And so people around Eunice - the people she knew, other children - were being abducted. Her cousins - other relatives were being killed. And she herself ended up being abducted one night when she was visiting her sister at her sister's boarding school. And from there, her life completely turned upside down.

DAVIES: Tell us about the Lord's Resistance Army. I mean, they were, you said, a fundamentalist Christian rebel group headed by this guy Joseph Kony, right? What were they motivated by? What was their ideology, their theology?

OKEOWO: The Lord's Resistance Army, or the LRA, was founded by Joseph Kony, a former altar boy who became psychotic. He claimed that he heard visions that told him that Uganda should be ruled by the Ten Commandments. But really, his rebellion was rooted in a desire to restore a dominance to the ethnic group to which he belonged, the Acholi ethnic group. And so because he said he heard these visions, he recruited fellow soldiers and started this rebellion and became quickly very brutal.

He decreed that people's hands should be cut off if they were caught working on the Sabbath. He also ordered that people's lips should be cut off - their ears if they didn't obey what he said. And so the people who followed him quickly began to realize that this was not the kind of war they wanted to fight. And so he and the people who were left with him started to abduct people. And that's when they started to abduct thousands of children. And by the - within a couple of years, most of the group was composed of abducted children.

DAVIES: The rebels had a habit of having the child soldiers go back to the villages they had come from - for what purpose?

OKEOWO: They wanted them to go back to the villages to abduct people or kill people or steal things so that the children would feel like they no longer had a home to go back to, that they had injured their communities to the point that their home communities wouldn't want them back and so that they no longer had any a sense of family or identity. They wanted to rip them from everything that they held dear.

DAVIES: So Eunice is in the bush under the control of these rebels, clearly terrified. I mean, she's 15, right?

OKEOWO: Yeah.

DAVIES: She early on was forced to commit an act of violence. You want to describe that?

OKEOWO: Yes, so as I mentioned, Joseph Kony had a very warped interpretation of what Christianity was. And so when the group came upon a woman farming one day on a Sunday, one of the rebels ordered Eunice to cut off the woman's hand because she was working on the Sabbath. And Eunice was appalled. I mean, she had - she'd never been in a fight before, and now these men were telling her to cut off a woman's hand. But it was either do that or be killed. And so she did it.

DAVIES: So how does she encounter the man who would eventually become her life partner, this kid Bosco?

OKEOWO: So about a few weeks in after she was abducted, she and the other girls are taken to a rebel camp, and they're introduced to a lot of the rebel leaders, including Kony. And the rebel leaders start plucking girls from the group and pairing them off with boys who had also been abducted and were now child soldiers. And they were telling the boys, these girls will now be your wives.

And Eunice was looking at this sort of shocked. And then she is taken, too, and paired with a boy who they tell her will now be her bush husband, a boy named Bosco who's only a few years older than her and who had been taken himself a few years prior. And she goes with him to their bush hut, this fragile tent that would become their home. And that first night, he rapes her because he said that's what he's supposed to do. She's now his wife.

DAVIES: One of the things about this story - and it happened among many tens of thousands of Ugandans during this period - is that, you know, the perpetrators of violence are themselves victims.

OKEOWO: Yeah.

DAVIES: I mean, Bosco had been abducted. And you know, the rebels would force the kids to commit acts of violence I assume to desensitize them and make it clear what their circumstances were. There was one particularly savage episode involving Bosco and his brother. You want to tell us about this?

OKEOWO: Yes, so Bosco also grew up in northern Uganda, had siblings that he loved, was very close to his brothers. And even though he was sleeping in the bush himself, trying to avoid detection by the rebels for up to weeks at a time, the one night he goes back with his brothers and cousins to sleep at home, the rebels come and take him and his cousins and brothers. And that very first night, they make the rebels - the rebels make all the boys sit in a circle. And they tell them that their old lives are gone and that they have to follow the rebels' orders now.

And one of the first things they do is kill Bosco's brother. And they sort of slice him down the middle of his body. And they also cut off his hand. And then they force each of the children to take his brother's hand, put it inside his body and then take it out. And Bosco was just looking at this with, you know, complete disbelief. You know, he's almost numb. But he does it. He has to do it, otherwise he knows he'll be next - that he'll be killed.

DAVIES: So we were talking about Eunice, this 15-year-old girl. She's abducted in northern Uganda by the Lord's Resistance Army. And this young man Bosco, who was also an abducted child soldier, is paired with her to be husband and wife. And as you told us, it begins with a rape. He asks her to sleep with him their first night together. She refuses. He rapes her.

OKEOWO: Yes.

DAVIES: Obviously it was a horrific experience. She had no sexual contact before then.

OKEOWO: Yeah.

DAVIES: This was her first intimate contact with a male.

OKEOWO: Yeah.

DAVIES: But she is kept in the Lord's Resistance Army, and they end up developing a life together. What was it like? I mean, this went on for a few years. What did they...

OKEOWO: They ended up, as I said, forming a bond because it was a very unpredictable, dangerous life. You know, there were times when they would go without food when they were hiding from the Ugandan army, and Bosco would have to scrounge out food for them and protect her when the military attacks them.

And of course they eventually ended up having a child in the bush. And that was really the moment at which Eunice said that she began to feel something more towards Bosco. At that point, they were really reliant on each other. They were protecting each other. And once they had the baby, they began to talk more freely with each other and realized that they both didn't want to be there and that they both wanted to help each other get out of that situation.

DAVIES: And that obviously wasn't easy. I mean, the Lord's Resistance Army were intent upon keeping people captive. How did it come that opportunities arose for them to escape?

OKEOWO: Yes, the LRA was very intent on keeping people captive and kept them shielded from the news and would tell them lies about how they were about to win the war and that everyone would become rich. But the thing with the LRA is that in order to avoid detection and capture, they often roamed around in spread-out, small groups. And so they would continually separate and splinter off into small groups.

So Eunice and Bosco had a few chances to try and escape whenever their group would divide into smaller ones. They realized that maybe this was a chance to get away. And so they tried a few times but were unsuccessful at first.

DAVIES: And there were radio broadcasts at this point. I think the Lord's Resistance Army was somewhat weakened and more isolated in the country, right? And there were radio broadcasts that featured people who had escaped, so they knew that this was happening, and people were returning to society.

OKEOWO: Yeah, exactly. There was a radio station that would play messages from rebels who had escaped or had been captured and who were saying on the radio, I'm safe; I'm alive; other people should try to escape. But the rebel leaders would tell the abducted children, you know, these are lies. The military executed these rebels right after they made their messages on the radio. So even though Eunice and Bosco heard these messages, they were a little uncertain as to what would happen to them when they escaped. But they felt like it was worth the risk.

DAVIES: So Eunice manages to escape first, makes her way home to her village, right? And then does Bosco hear her on the radio, and that how he - is that how he knows that she has made it safely home?

OKEOWO: He does. He - after a couple of months, he hears her on the radio. And actually, at that same time, he's with another rebel commander who says that, actually, you know, this is Eunice, but I'm sure she's dead, that the - that we know the military executes rebels after they've escaped. But he does hear her voice, and that ignites this inkling, this feeling in him that he needs to be - get free too.

DAVIES: So Bosco's escape is - there's an interesting detail here. He's out in the bush with two other soldiers, and he suggests, hey, why don't we make a run for it? What happens?

OKEOWO: Right. Well, he suggests that, but the other two rebels don't agree. And so Bosco just makes a drastic decision, and he decides to shoot them just in a kind of a - and in a rapid, sudden decision. And then from there, he escapes from them and tries to make his way home.

DAVIES: So he kills them both - a measure of the level of violence that he was accustomed to, I guess.

OKEOWO: Yeah, exactly, exactly. And he was so desperate to get to Eunice, to get to their child and to get back home.

DAVIES: So here's where the story takes a fascinating turn because Eunice is home with her mother, having been through this horrific ordeal. And he wants to come and find her. What's her attitude towards welcoming him back if he makes it?

OKEOWO: So it's interesting because they're not the only couple that that went through this that were paired together in captivity and then later escaped. And people in northern Uganda, people in their community, their families, they watched these couples with fascination because whenever the women decided to reunite with the men they were paired to in the bush, they were often shocked and appalled.

They couldn't understand why the women would agree to be with men they were forced to be paired with. But for Eunice, it made sense to her. This was a man she had grown to trust, and rely on, and to love and with whom she had a child. And she wanted to be with someone who understood what she had been through.

DAVIES: Yeah, it's fascinating. When I read this, where she said, even if they hadn't had a child together, that she would still want him because she wanted someone who understood that experience, and it - I have to say, it reminded me of stories of combat veterans coming back with PTSD, and their strongest bonds, in some ways, are with the other soldiers or Marines in their unit. There's - because just no one can quite understand what they've been through but people who have shared it.

OKEOWO: Yeah, that's a good comparison because, of course, both Eunice and Bosco are experiencing PTSD, even though they don't recognize it. They've been through this incredibly traumatic situation but were able to survive it a - largely because of each other, and that bond is not something either wants to just discard.

DAVIES: Alexis Okeowo's book is "A Moonless, Starless Sky." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMBINO SONG, "AZAMANE (MY BROTHERS UNITED)")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Alexis Okeowo. She is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her new book is "A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women And Men Fighting Extremism In Africa." It's four stories about ordinary people in very difficult circumstances in four different countries in Africa.

How did Ugandan society, how did the government regard, you know, rebels returning from the bush? I mean, they're victims, but they also were perpetrators of terrible violence.

OKEOWO: Exactly, and the government often treated them like both. So for a while, it gave returned rebels amnesty. It would give them modest packages of a little bit of money, a little bit of housing items like bedding and things like that to help them get back on their feet. But then after a while, it ended amnesty, and it started putting on trial higher-up rebels and accusing them of serious crimes.

But it was a very confusing approach because on the one hand, these are people who are victims. Nearly all of them were abducted as children and forced to do things they didn't want to do. But then of course the things they were doing were very serious. And so I think the government was very conflicted about how to treat them, how to treat people who were forced to do things that really did hurt other people, though.

And so it would also do things like compel some of the returned rebels to work with the military in hunting for their former comrades, even children who they used as scouts. And so you had in the military barracks in Uganda soldiers sometimes sleeping side by side with ex-rebels, both of them hunting for rebels still out there fighting.

DAVIES: So following the traditional custom, Eunice, the woman, goes to live with the family of the husband - right? - Bosco's...

OKEOWO: Yes.

DAVIES: ...Family and has a hut in his village. And they make a life. They farm. What's it like for them together, both returned rebels in this village?

OKEOWO: So they get back to Bosco's mother's village. They move into their new home. They start farming. And it's hard for them at first. The farming was really hard work. It was - the new baby had been born. They now have two children. They're trying to provide for the family. And it's almost not as easy as it was in the bush, in captivity because there, if you wanted food, you would just loot it. You could just steal the things you needed. You had other people in the rebel group who at least were looking out for you.

But here, back home, their neighbors, their relatives kind of looked at them with a sense of unease. They weren't really comfortable with them back. They couldn't figure them out. People would come by and visit and then leave just as quickly. Farming was difficult. It was very hard for them to adjust being back home.

DAVIES: You know, you're dealing with two people here who've suffered enormously and have had almost no professional help. I think Bosco had a therapy session or two. But there just weren't - and this was a whole kind of society that had this horrible experience. And I wondered when you spoke to them if they had a detachment from their emotions as a survival mechanism that made them hard to talk honestly about it?

OKEOWO: Well, I think that at first possibly, but I think that the more time I spent with them and the more deeply we talked about these things, they became more open. And what at first perhaps was a very matter-of-fact recounting of what happened to them began to deepen each time we talk. And they began to share more of their emotions and how they felt at different parts in their lives.

And in a way, it sort of became a therapy session in some ways because I don't think they were used to people asking them not only what had happened to them but how they felt at each point in their lives and how they were coping with it now. And I think it was welcomed in some ways to get it off their chest and also to process it and analyze it in a certain way just by virtue of talking about it with a journalist.

DAVIES: How're they doing?

OKEOWO: You know, it's interesting. You know, with some of these stories in the book, it's not necessarily that there's a happy or a sad ending. It's just sort of a regular ending in the sense that they're still - you know, with Eunice and Bosco, they're still farming. They're still sending the children to school. They're still, you know, going to the market and doing the things that they do in their everyday life. And they say that things have improved with their neighbors, that they feel more accepted now, that they feel like they have more people to turn to. And that was nice to hear. And it was just nice to hear that they're all healthy and still getting on with the business of living.

DAVIES: And what about Ugandan society? Is it more stable? Is the Lord's Resistance Army still around?

OKEOWO: Yeah, I mean, Uganda's society's a lot more stable. The LRA is still wreaking havoc but not in northern Uganda anymore. You know, now it's in Central African Republic doing the same things it was doing before on a lesser scale. But it's still a menace.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Alexis Okeowo, author of the new book "A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women And Men Fighting Extremism In Africa." We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. John Powers will review a new collection of short stories by an author he describes as an extraordinary young writer. And John Powers will review two new - it's really Kevin Whitehead. Sorry. Kevin's going to review two new albums featuring drummer Tom Rainey that illustrate two different approaches to playing jazz counterpoint. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTONIO SANCHEZ'S "NAR-THIS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Alexis Okeowo, author of a new nonfiction book about ordinary men and women fighting extremism in Africa. It's called "A Moonless, Starless Sky." She's a staff writer at The New Yorker and is the daughter of two immigrants from Nigeria. She spent time living in Nigeria and Uganda.

DAVIES: I want to talk a bit about the story you tell us in Nigeria. You know, a lot of Americans first learned of the group Boko Haram in 2014 when they attacked a school and took 300 girls captive. You were not in Nigeria. You were in Senegal at the time, right? Did you want to get over there and cover this story?

OKEOWO: Yes. I just happened to be in Senegal. I was learning French. I was doing a little bit of work there. And then this kidnapping happened, and I knew I immediately needed to get back and cover it. I mean, it was the most unexpected, extraordinary thing that had happened in this war against Boko Haram - 300-plus girls taken in the middle of the night from their boarding school.

DAVIES: Tell us where the group Boko Haram came from. What are they about?

OKEOWO: Yes. Boko Haram started - it was around 2001 in northeastern Nigeria by a young Muslim cleric who was preaching against corruption and social ills. At the time, you know, Nigeria had - and still does - a vast oil wealth, but a lot of it was disappearing due to graft, due to, you know, politicians, generals just stealing money. And so the founder of Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf, saw this and said that there needed to be a return to a purer society. In his view it was an Islamic society that would again provide for the welfare of the people, make sure that there was a more equal sharing of resources because he believed that all of the corruption was due to Western values, due to Western education.

And so at first, in its first years, Boko Haram was actually not that violent. They tried to kind of create a separatist community, and Mohammed Yusuf acquired actually thousands of followers. It was only a few years later on when his group started having violent encounters with the police and with the military. And then Mohammed Yusuf, the leader, was actually killed in police custody. The group became incredibly violent and launched a rebellion and started killing civilians, attacking mosques and churches, homes, weddings, funerals, you know, launching suicide attacks through the region and then eventually kidnapping boys and girls, too, to force them to be part of the group. And so at the time of the kidnapping of these 300-plus girls, thousands of people had been killed in the northeast, you know, thousands more displaced from their homes. It was an active war zone.

DAVIES: Right. You met a girl who had been in the kidnapping and had managed to escape by leaping from one of the trucks as she was - as they were being taken away. That's a remarkable story. You also write about a man who was part of a civilian resistance movement, and this is really remarkable because the Nigerian army was remarkably ineffective at fighting Boko Haram. How did this civilian vigilante thing arise?

OKEOWO: Yes. So I read about a man who goes by the nickname of Elder. And you know, Elder grew up in a time in northeastern Nigeria when it was safe, when people were enjoying the fruits of Nigeria's oil wealth. You could get a diploma, go onto college, get a good job with the government. And he grew up happy, married, had kids, became an auditor for the state government. And then he watched his home around him fall apart. He saw his neighbors, friends, family either be killed or hurt by Boko Haram and then also watch as the military was completely ineffective in stopping the group and in fact often pursued the wrong people, pursued innocent people who were harmed by the group.

And so around 2013, members of Boko Haram were still living pretty openly in a lot of the cities and towns in northeastern Nigeria, and after an attack, it's members would go and hide among the residents of the community. So people knew who they were. You could walk on the street and pass a Boko Haram member and not say anything because you wanted to stay alive. But then one day, a man, a taxi driver, performs a citizen's arrest of a man he believes to be a Boko Haram member - finds him with guns and turns him in to the military.

And then other people started joining in. They start going after people they believed to be members of Boko Haram, go in groups to these suspects' houses, apprehend them and then turn them into the military. And it became just this sudden mass movement. Hundreds of boys and men and some women began to join. And you know, within a few weeks, terrorists were either running from the city where Elder is from, or they were going into hiding. And Elder and these other men decided to form a group called the Civilian Joint Task Force. And Elder eventually became a commander of his unit, leading 8,000 men in what would become a thousand-strong vigilante force fighting this terrorist group.

DAVIES: And so this vigilante group, the Civilian Joint Task Force - is that what it's called? - actually with using, you know, pretty rudimentary weapons - they had nothing very sophisticated...

OKEOWO: Right, right.

DAVIES: ...Would capture these folks one, two, three or four at a time. Then they would hand them over to the military. What would become of them then?

OKEOWO: Yes. So as you said, they were using machetes. They were using homemade guns that, as Elder told me, sometimes wouldn't even work. And then they would hand them over to the military, and the military would often detain them at this military base. Occasionally they would have trials of these suspects, or sometimes they would sentence these suspects to death and execute them not shortly - and execute them shortly after.

And so, you know, the military was guilty of a lot of human rights abuses. And I think after these vigilantes turned in these suspects, it became very hazy as to what was happening to these men and boys who were being apprehended. But the vigilantes were more concerned about the fact that they wanted to rid their communities of these people who they considered threats to their way of life and to their families. They were obsessed with keeping their families safe and so were prepared to go to any lengths to do that.

DAVIES: A desperate...

OKEOWO: Sometimes...

DAVIES: ...Situation, desperate measures.

OKEOWO: It was a very - yeah. You're right.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, it's an inspiring story in a lot of ways, but there's also a troubling side to it. I mean, you know, there wasn't any probable cause or, you know, trials. And in fact, I believe this man Elder who you knew - his own nephew was associated with Boko Haram. He was captured and killed by the military. Was it effective? Did it make a difference? Did it change this part of northeastern Nigeria?

OKEOWO: That's the thing. It really did. You know, it - as I said, it started in the northeast in the largest city called Maiduguri. And Maiduguri really did undergo a transformation after the vigilante force began. It was no longer a safe haven for terrorists who had made it their home, who were launching attacks from there. They had to leave and form camps elsewhere. And it changed the way, I think, residents of Maiduguri felt. They felt safer. They felt like, OK, there's not going to be a sudden attack exploding on the street.

But at the same time, because these vigilantes had assumed their own version of law and order, it created a new instability because even though residents might not be worried about terrorists as much, they were worried about these new checkpoints where vigilante members were wielding, you know, machetes and checking cars and deciding who got to pass. And as you said, they were apprehending people, and there was very little due process in a sense. The military would detain the suspects or execute them without very thorough trials.

So it was a very complex phenomenon. I understood the motivations of the vigilantes, but I didn't agree with some of their tactics, and that was something I brought up with Elder. And I think it was something he was still coming to terms with because it was a desperate situation, and he wanted to do anything he could.

DAVIES: We should just return to the story of the kidnapped girls. What became of the more than 300 girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram?

OKEOWO: So of the more than 300 girls, in the initial days after the kidnapping, over 50 of them escaped and returned home, went back to school. Later on, there were a few girls who were able to escape of their own volition. But this was, you know, a few years after the abduction. Recently, at least 80 girls were traded by the group for Boko Haram members released by the government. And then of the rest, we don't know where they are. We don't know if they're still alive.

DAVIES: Alexis Okeowo, thanks so much for speaking with us.

OKEOWO: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Alexis Okeowo is a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the new book "A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Men And Women Fighting Extremism In Africa." She spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies, who's also WHYY's senior reporter. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.