2 August 2007
Faces of a conflict: this young mother had her lips and ears cut off with a rifle bayonet by LRA rebel soldiers.
Photo: Jonathan Hyams
While international attention increasingly focuses on Sudan, just a few kilometres south of the country’s border with Uganda the fallout from a rebel war has continued mostly unnoticed for nearly 20 years. The war began when cult leader Joseph Kony told his band of followers, disillusioned by the country’s changeable politics, that he was in conversation with God on how to run the country according to the Ten Commandments. His Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has since terrorized locals, stealing from villages, burning huts, brutally mutilating villagers and kidnapping vulnerable children to coerce them into being their foot-soldiers. Two million Ugandans have been displaced and thousands have lost their lives. The LRA has faced consistent but ineffective resistance from the Ugandan Government’s army, until last year, when President Yoweri Museveni pushed for a ceasefire.
But peace will only come with compromise. Kony and three of his commanders are wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity and are refusing to set down their weapons until charges are dropped. Museveni has considered granting them an amnesty to regain control of his country, even though he himself had initially invited the ICC to Uganda. Talks so far have stagnated and the current round is set to end as this article goes to print. But while these men sit comfortably in military tents talking terms, what will become of the forgotten victims of this war? Can an assortment of NGOs and vague policy promises deliver education, economy and infrastructure in Northern Uganda? Or will determined former soldiers, raped women and terrorized children create their own future? Rebecca Wearn tells their stories.
The Night Commuters
As dusk settles on the town of Gulu, the potholed clay roads turn grey-blue in the retreating sunlight and shadows from the cement-block buildings start to lose shape. Most Ugandans in this part of the country are now beginning to make their way to bed for the evening. The two million people forced out of their villages by the conflict have no electricity to extend their day and they will be up before the sun to toil on the patches of land they have reclaimed for subsistence farming. But not everyone in Gulu district can rest easy this evening: over a hundred children are making their way wearily to the centre of town by twilight to find a safe place to sleep.
As the Lord’s Resistance Army grew throughout the 1990s, so did the ferocity of its violence. Anyone found moving along roads or riding a bicycle without permission was told they had broken LRA law and had their lips severed with a machete, their ears sliced off or an eye gouged out with a piece of wire. Recruitment was forced upon the vulnerable, supplies were stolen from the weak. In most cases, the victims were children or young women. Some children were forced to murder their parents, beating them with sticks or torching their family home, because the rebels knew if a child thought it had nothing to live for, it would be acquiescent to their cause. At times they simply forced children walking home from the fields or school to carry their belongings and did not let them go.
The kidnappings and torture instilled terror in the community and in 2003, when media and NGO attention began to flicker on the conflict, a series of night shelters was built in Gulu so that parents could send their children to a safe place to sleep. They provided temporary beds to 7,000 children, who became known as the Night Commuters. Today, as the peace talks continue their sporadic progress and a ceasefire, despite having officially ended, still appears to be adhered to, the night shelters are being closed. The majority of the young commuters now sleep at home with their remaining relatives. But this group of over 110 youngsters, aged 8 to 17, who still frequent the last remaining shelter do not want to go home.
Fred Mugisha is 12. He lives with his mother, sevenyear- old brother and five sisters, aged 8 to 14, two of whom have children of their own. His father died of dysentery five years ago. Fred walks two hours every day to sleep in central Gulu. ‘I come here for my protection from the rebels,’ he says quietly, his round eyes turned down to inspect a tear in his oversized vest. ‘My house is in the bush where they attack.’ His siblings sometimes join him when they are too afraid to stay at home. ‘I want this war to stop so I can go back to my village, dig a garden and grow crops with my family again. Children would not need this shelter any more then, because they would not be afraid.’
The shelter manager, James Kidega, was initially confused as to why his young charges insisted on returning when the country was preparing for peace, so he conducted a survey. ‘The war is still on their minds,’ he explains, but adds that it was not just terror that was making the kids commute. ‘Parents have become so used to children sleeping out that they no longer have the space for them’ says Kidega. ‘Some of the children have been together so long they do not want to be apart and some of them have no-one else.’ His findings are mirrored by Emilio Oguva, Dean of Gulu University Medical School and Professor of Psychology. He says abduction remains a reality for the community and until some extensive rehabilitation takes place the scars from their war wounds will remain raw. ‘Children who have been affected by this war are irritable and aggressive, their drive to do anything is low compared to other children,’ says Oguva. ‘If you do not provide emotional support for these children they will continue to be scared, they will not achieve academically and this will affect the local economy.’
Suicide is a big problem in Northern Uganda and, according to Oguva, in one district of 18,000 people 206 killed themselves in 2004, 105 in 2005 and 91 last year. ‘Some children as young as eight attempt to take their own lives.’
Young men who escape the clutches of the LRA are often plunged straight into national service with the Ugandan People’s Democratic Front (UPDF). In November 2003 an investigation by Human Rights Watch and UNICEF found that 120 of 1200 UPDF recruits were under the age of 18. There is little else for a young man to do in Northern Uganda. The report recommended that the United Nations should enter into dialogue with the Ugandan Government on its continued recruitment of children into the UPDF, with a view to immediately ending this practice. It also said that the UN should develop strategies to protect children vulnerable to abduction by the LRA. Today the UN is involved in peace talks and in moving people from the crowded camps into overflow facilities, but any active Government policy for the victims of the war is yet to materialize.
Monica with her dependents, for whom she scrapes a living by selling home-cooked food.
Photo: Jonathan Hyams
From the shadows
If the military is the only option for men, women have even less awaiting them in peacetime. The conflict has stalled enterprise and infrastructure in the region and most of those sufficiently educated have left the district. Gulu town is a haphazard patchwork of brightly coloured mobile telecoms signs, emblazoning the concrete walls of general stores and restaurants serving steaming plates of hearty beans and matoke (mashed plantain). On every corner boda-boda (motorbike taxi) drivers whistle to offer rides out to the camps from the shade of their repair shops. There is ambition here, spirited determination to emulate the capital city Kampala, but the rural areas, where the vast majority live in camps, are bereft of opportunity.
Girls who are taken by the LRA have two choices in the bush: fight as a soldier or become a wife to one of the officers. Senior commanders in the army have many wives, selected for their youth because this reduces the risk of their contracting HIV. This is a marriage of rape, slavery and unexpected childbirth, and if the girls resist, they are killed.
When these women escape they are often barely out of their teens, starved of education and living with the shame of what they have endured. Aid agencies have supported community ventures for these women, such as The Mother- Daughter Project in Gulu. But manager Kevin Aciro knows how hard it is to help these girls rebuild their lives. ‘These mothers feel battered, they fear responsibility and think they are a burden to their families,’ she says. ‘They do not have pride in their children. We aim to mend the relationship that was broken.’ The biggest problem for the child-mothers is to see a future for themselves and their children.
Monica Atto has four children to support after a decade in the bush. She was 13 when she was taken from her home in Kitgum district in 1994 as she walked home with two friends from school. She is the only one of the three to have escaped alive. Initially Monica was trained to be a fighter. She had a gun and a rank. But soon after training she fell pregnant. ‘When I was abducted, I had not even had my first period, so I had most of my first experiences in life in the bush,’ she recalls coldly. ‘Within months of being in captivity I was given to a 30-year-old man, Major Francis Okech.’ Francis died three years later while Monica was pregnant with his second child.
As a widow Monica was damaged goods: ‘As soon as I had delivered my baby I was given to another family as a servant. I worked for them for three years like a prisoner.’ But Monica found something rare in captivity, a relationship based on mutual care. ‘Francis had relatives in the bush and one day his cousin asked me to stay with him because he had seen I was suffering, and he said he would take care of me and my family. I felt happy because now my children were able to eat and I did not have to work so hard.’ She and John Obita, just three years her senior, are still together and have two more children.
Her relationship may explain Monica’s long service with the LRA, but her family eventually made her move on. One day her first-born asked her about home. ‘She wanted to see my village and my family, she understood that we were in the bush because she had met civilians, and would not believe me when I said there was no home,’ says Monica weakly. ‘It upset me, so we decided to escape together.’ Two days after she fled, Monica put a message out on a local radio network for abductees, and as soon as John heard she was safe, he came and found her in Gulu.
Typically, John joined the national army, and as Monica’s family still lived up by the Sudanese border, where fighting continued, she chose to stay with him in the barracks. She has only seen her mother twice in over 15 years. With some measure of security but with little to do, Monica decided to begin taking meals she had prepared to a local school to sell, with the support of The Mother-Daughter Project. Soon a dozen of the other army wives joined her and it has become a small business, but Monica is worried about dwindling profits. Despite sitting in the equatorial sunshine laughing with her new friends, Monica seems very aware of her isolation. Those who have been abducted are often cut out of society and she refuses to go to market in a group because she knows her second-hand clothing marks her as a returnee. Monica hopes she is invisible when she is on her own.
One of the women working with Monica is Lily Laker. She has four young children from her life in captivity plus four from her sister, whose husband was killed by the rebels. The school meals make the women about 5,000 Ugandan shillings profit each day, roughly three dollars. ‘In the bush it was difficult to live with other women and in the villages you are often called a murderer,’ explains Lily. When they return there is not enough work to go around, leading to aggressive competition. One of the largest challenges faced by The Mother-Daughter Project is encouraging young women to stop competing and start cooperating.
Lily was abducted on her way home from school in 1995, when she was 15. The rebels came to her village and pretended to work alongside her, but soon they rounded up a group of children to force them into the bush, including her brother, who was later killed. ‘My main job was carrying luggage, the supplies and artillery, but we were always running from helicopters and overhead bombardments,’ says Lily, staring into the distance and avoiding any eye contact. Earlier she had been giggling as she introduced her troop of semi-naked offspring. But now she is distant and repressing any emotions.
‘One day the senior commanders put me with a man called Sunday Olum, he was much older than me,’ she recalls. ‘There was no ceremony, we were just forced upon one another and then he was killed in action. After a little while I was found another husband.’ Lily and her second partner, Bosco Lawo, have remained together despite his LRA service gaining him four other wives. The rebels moved around to avoid the UPDF, into surrounding districts and even into the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. Lily and Bosco escaped together in 2000 when the rebels had moved back to Gulu.
‘The night before we escaped one of the young soldiers had tried to run away but he was found and stabbed to death with bayonets in front of us all, as an example.’ But other soldiers persuaded her the bush was going to burn in the dry season, and told her to escape. ‘They told me I could leave at midnight but I thought it was a trick. So I asked them to carry one of my children so I could be sure they were with me,’ she explains. ‘Eleven of us escaped together that night and we emerged near a village.’
Kevin Aciro would say Lily and Monica were some of the more fortunate ones: ‘The girls who come back with their husbands are lucky because the men can find income but those who return alone may not even know their husband’s name and cannot get any support.’ But Lily wants more. ‘I want to change, I want my own piece of land to build huts on for my family and I want to afford for all of them to study,’ she says, her words picking up pace with the weight of her ambition. ‘I am not happy with my husband taking care of the work, I want to return home but I must wait for peace.’ Kevin Aciro has seen this desperation mirrored in the faces of many other returnee women. ‘It is important that the Government of Uganda should take responsibility for these people: we need an active policy to help them begin again,’ she says.
It seems that the next chapter for Uganda will be written by the same two men who were there at the start of the conflict. But as Kony and Museveni negotiate their terms for peace, will the men, women and children of Gulu be their priority? The Government has become complacent about the impact international aid and project work have had in the region and now, as the camps become overpopulated, the shelters close, and funding dries up for The Mother- Daughter Project, the road to recovery becomes less clear. Peace talks may yet succeed, but where peace is really needed is in the hearts of Ugandans themselves.
Making the eightkilometre trek to the night shelter in Gulu as dusk falls.
Photo: Jonathan Hyams