I always dreaded interviewing Mary. Not because I didn’t like her. Far from it. Outwardly Mary appears like any other 21-year old girl. She’s vivacious, full of life, always smiling.
But that smile vanished every time we sat down to talk about her life since her abduction. She would look down at the floor, away from the camera, and respond haltingly about the problems facing her even four years after her return.
That’s why I dreaded interviewing Mary. I don’t believe any of the women liked talking, or being reminded about their problems, but with Mary the discomfort was always painfully visible.
Abducted aged just six as she went to the borehole to collect water, Mary spent 11 years in the bush with the LRA.
That’s over half of her life.
Read more about Mary's story - navigate to her page under the THE WOMEN tab.
Mary doesn’t look like a child soldier.
Go on, prove me wrong.Show this picture to a work colleague, to a family member or the person next to you on the bus. Most of us know about the abduction and use of children as soldiers in far-flung places such as Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka and Colombia. We’ve absorbed the media image of a child soldier as a teenage boy gripping a Kalashnikov, a necklace of bullets draped around his narrow shoulders, sky-high on a cocktail of drugs and booze.
“I was 12 years old when I was given my first gun. I was given a person to kill to test that I was strong-hearted. I passed the test. I was then told I was ready. ‘Go out now,’ they said. ‘Loot and kill.’ ” (Achege, June 2011).
It’s hard to imagine that these words were spoken by Mary, now a 21-year old woman eking out an existence near Gulu, in northern Uganda. Yet this multimedia project includes in-depth interviews with 40 such women - women like Mary who were abducted as children by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) to loot and kill at the height of the LRA’s campaign against the Ugandan military.
Read more about the project - select the ABOUT tab.
“When I went to the water place to fetch water some three soldiers came and found me at the water source. One of them told me that he would like me to become his wife. I told him that I can never fall in love with him because he is a soldier. He then said why should I tell him that, does it mean I have denied his proposal? Then the other two soldiers grabbed and defeated me because I was struggling with the man who said he loved me and he then banged my head with a gun then my head started bleeding. He tore my dress and raped me. The other two soldiers stood aside while checking if there was any one coming over.”
Janet’s account of how she was gang raped by soldiers was shocking in its own right. But it was more so when I found out that she was raped not by LRA rebels, but by UPDF soldiers.
And the most tragic part? She’d only just escaped from the bush a few weeks earlier after 12 years – more than half of her life – as an abductee.
Read more about Janet's story - navigate to her page under the THE WOMEN tab.
Okengkuc was the little boy’s name.
It means ‘missing something good or fun’, explained Christine.
In Acholi culture a birth name often describes the circumstances of birth or the state of the family at the time of birth. The name Otto suggested that many brothers and sisters had died; Oketch means that one was born during a famine; Odoki means that the mother had threatened to go back to her parents; Bongomin means without brothers; Olanya means that the mother felt abandoned.
Okengkuc is Christine’s second-born. She said she called him that because of the problems she was having at the time.
“Life was not easy when I came back from the bush. I did not have a husband, and I had no money…There was a lot of insults and finger-pointing. People in the village tell each man who wants to make love to you, that you are a formerly abducted woman, that you have problems.”
Read more about Christine's story - navigate to her page under the THE WOMEN tab.
Jennifer’s story started out like all the others I’d heard from the formerly abducted women of Uganda. Abducted at a young age by the LRA. Trained to fight in Sudan. Given as a wife at 14. A wife and soldier both for ten, long years. Rejected by her own family and community upon her return.
“My family feared me when I came back…one of my brothers did not allow his daughter to spend time with me fearing I would teach her how to become a prostitute…and the community felt that I was the one leading the LRA rebels to our village to come and abduct children during the conflict…some of the village members say that they saw me among the rebels, and yet I was in Sudan at that time.”
But Jennifer’s story had a unique twist to it. While at the World Vision reception centre in Gulu, she met a man that she knew from her own LRA faction, Christopher. They now have four children together and are happily married.
Trust me, this is unusual.
Read more about Jennifer's story - navigate to her page under the THE WOMEN tab.
Victim of war, or cold-blooded killer?
Alice Oyella is a young woman of contradictions. I never knew what to make of her in our interviews.
One minute she told me how happy she was to be back home in Kitgum, learning how to tailor – a positive role model for other returnees. The next she proudly told me that she was selected to fight in the elite Chapu battalion, and how even now she has the urge to kill UPDF soldiers and to loot civilians.
Alice was admittedly an anomaly in the 40 interviews I conducted. Almost all of the women I talked to admitted in one way or another that they killed – but not as brazenly as Alice. Maybe it’s the fact that she doesn’t fit into the stereotype of a former child soldier – somebody who should be a ‘victim’, apologetic, reticent.
She is clearly still traumatized, haunted nightly by the spirits of those she killed, and yet she says she misses the elevated status she had as a member of Chapu.
Read more about Alice's story - navigate to her page under the THE WOMEN tab.