Denis Okema poses with his family and his family in Uganda using SKYPE and a digital projector. (Photo by John Clang)

Denis Okema poses with his family and his family in Uganda using SKYPE and a digital projector. (Photo by John Clang)

by Sue Ann Rybak

It’s easy get lost in the hustle and bustle of the holiday. Recently, a story about one man and his struggle to survive, his unbreakable spirit of hope and an impossible family photograph reminded me that family is the greatest gift of all.

At the age of 10, while he was in Gulu, Uganda, Denis Fred Okema, a graduate student at Chestnut Hill College, was kidnapped by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), where he experienced unfathomable brutality and backbreaking labor serving the rebels. Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes.

Okema, 34, recalled the horrors he faced everyday and his harrowing escape from captivity.

“The war was at its peak,” Okema said. “There were no hospitals functioning, no markets, no transportation. I was home with my grandmother when the rebels came.”

The rebels were looking for Okema’s father but could not find him. They decided to take his uncle instead, and when Okema cried out for his uncle, the soldiers decided to take him as well.

“The main thing about the war in Northern Uganda is that the perpetrators of the war and the victims are members of the same societies,” Okema said. “So, they know each other. They [the rebels] always harm the people they know.

“Because I was unable to carry the AK-47 gun, I was excused [from fighting],” he said.

Okema was forced to be a mule for the soldiers. He said children who refused to work were often tortured and killed.

“My job in captivity was to fetch water and firewood for cooking, and because they know that a child’s understanding of a geographic area is very limited, there was less supervision,” Okema said.

He said that mistake gave him the opportunity to escape.

“I was sent to get water for the commander who was injured,” Okema said. “I knew that I had to do something if I was ever going to escape. I had two minutes of insane courage and a lot of luck.”

Okema, whose uncle died in captivity, ran through the jungle praying he would not cross paths with his captors.

“I probably would have been killed if I was caught,” said Okema, who was held in captivity for months. “There was no telling what they would do. We heard stories of people who had escaped and went to their former homes and later the entire village was killed.”

Okema was eventually reunited with his mother, who had to walk 20 miles to get her son back. But, sadly, soon after he was orphaned at the age of 12.

Love finds a way

One day, Okema and some other children were outside playing war games when they were approached by a woman named Abitimo Odongkara, who fled Uganda in 1974 as a young woman to escape Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

Odongkara returned to Uganda in 1983 with the hope of starting a school.

“She didn’t like the idea that children took war as a game, so she decided to teach us how to write,” Okema said.

Thanks to Odongkara, Okema and a handful of other children began lessons that were taught under a tree on her compound. Eventually, Odongkara founded the Upper Nile Institute for Appropriate Technology School (UNIFAT). Later, Odongkara adopted Okema and paid for his education.

On the UNIFAT website, Odongkara recalled seeing Okema and the other children playing war games. She wrote, “my heart cried as I remembered that it was because of war that I once left my country.”

Odongkara went on to say that the children “have since become part of my family.”

“She is my Mom,” said Okema, whose name means one who will be tested. “We talk almost weekly. She offered to pay for my tuition after I graduated from UNIFAT. It was the best gift.”

Okema, who has a bachelor’s degree in development studies from Makerere University in Kampala, said the school’s motto, “Learning for love and understanding,” reflects Abitimo’s belief that education begins the path to peace.

In an effort to change the situation in Uganda, Okema, who has worked with Mercy Corps as a conflict specialist in Sudan and Uganda, became involved in politics. Tragically, in a case of mistaken identity on Dec. 26, 2010, his older brother was murdered. When Okema tried to investigate, a friend involved in government affairs warned Okema that his life was in danger.

“I had to make the process as discrete as possible,” Okema said. “Only three people in my family knew I was going to leave. It was pretty intense because I was being watched all the time. When I left Uganda, the objective was to get to safety. I didn’t have any photos of myself or my family. Family is the most important thing to me. Everything else is temporary.”

The Impossible Family Portrait

A chance meeting offered Okema a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. John Kovach, who is an associate professor at Chestnut Hill College in the Department of Sociology, Criminal Justice and Human Service, invited Okema to his house for dinner. Greg Mitnick, Kovach’s stepson, a director at Station film, told Okema about a documentary-style ad he was doing for Skype.

Initially Okema said he was hesitant about participating in the project. He worried that his enemies would harm his family.

“Everyday, I wake up worried about my son,” said Okema, referring to his late brother’s son, “and that day to see him running around and playing. It was like I was home seeing him play and grow up. Unfortunately, I can’t do that everyday but even the one day was just priceless. It was one of the most wonderful experiences I have had since I came to the United States.”

During the Skype session, John Clang, an artist, projected Okema’s family onto a wall and had him stand next to them. Clang took Okema’s photo and made a family portrait for him.

Mitnick told his stepfather later that when he presented Okema with the framed photograph, “Denis started to softly cry. It was the first photo that he ever had.”

Nat Livingston Johnson, who is also a director at Station film, recalled the “genuine joy and incredible pride on everyone’s faces.” Both Mitnick and Johnson are part of a New York-based directorial duo known as Peking.

“When Denis first saw his family projected to that scale he was moved beyond words,” Mitnik said. “Being projected life-size over Skype is a pretty unique experience. It’s awfully close to the classic 3-D hologram thing we’ve all seen in 90s sci-fi flicks. Skype seamlessly keeps people together, all across the world.”

Clang said the campaign “acknowledges the human side of such technological advancement.”

“This innovation connects people, strings together hearts even when people are physically apart,” he added.

Okema will be separated from his family once again this Christmas, but thanks to a Chestnut Hill professor’s stepson, Okema received his Christmas present early – a family portrait. Okema’s story reminds us that family is the greatest gift of all.

To watch the SKYPE video of Okema and “The Impossible Portrait” go to skypestaytogether.com/denis/

This holiday, consider giving the gift of an education to children, many of whom are orphans, at the Upper Nile Institute For Appropriate Technology School (UNIFAT). The little school that began under a tree now has 1,300 pupils. To make a donation or for more information about UNIFAT, go to www.friendsofunifat.org.