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. Much has been written about the Ugandan conflict and the ordeals of child soldiers, but very little has been written about the particular challenges women face after they have returned to their communities.
Though the guns have been silent in northern Uganda for more than half a decade now, these formerly abducted women are still struggling to survive years after returning to their communities.
Five of these women agreed to be the subject of even greater scrutiny, and were given digital cameras to document their post-conflict lives. Extensive interviews were also conducted with non-governmental organizations (NGO) workers in Uganda to complete the picture of reintegration in the north.
“In the bush you are only a wife at night. During daytime you are taken to the battlefields. So when you are a wife, you must obey your husband when he tells you to fight, while you then must fulfill his sexual needs at night.” (Ocwee, June 2011).These 40 women, including Mary, are what residents of northern Uganda’s Acholi district call dwog paco ; a returnee from the Ugandan bush. The Acholi phrase means “come back home”. Ironically this derogatory label became a widespread term for former abductees as a result of the popular radio program ‘Dwog Paco ’ that was transmitted in northern Uganda from 2004 to 2006. The broadcast targeted children who had been abducted by the LRA. The message was simple: come back home, don’t be afraid. The program attempted to dispel rumours that returnees would be jailed or killed by the Ugandan government upon their return.
The phrase has since been adopted as a way to mark out and to stigmatize these returnees in their communities.
Abducted when she was only nine, Mary spent eight years – almost half of her life – as a child soldier. She was but one of the 30,000 children forcefully abducted from their homes in northern Uganda over the last two decades, 25% of whom were girls (Annan and Blattmann, 2011).
And contrary to another common misconception, Mary and the other female child soldiers were more than just bush wives or sex slaves. Women’s roles in the LRA are fluid, overlapping and multiple including provider, porter, mother and fighter, as well as “wife.”
Thus, female child soldiers were expected to perform the same roles as their male counterparts, and many more. One study reported that 12 per cent of female abductees were used primarily as fighters, while 72% received weapons and military training (McKay and Mazurana, 2004).
Mary escaped from the LRA five years ago, and yet she tells me that life is still hard for her. Five years on, she still wakes up to see the spirits of those she was forced to kill, standing over her bed. Five years on she is still stigmatized by her own community. Her own mother and brother insult and beat the children she returned with. Five years on, she has to toil on other people’s land to make a living. She never received a formal education and so has no immediate opportunities for a better job. Five years on, she cannot afford the drugs she needs to combat the HIV infection she contracted as a bush wife. And she can’t afford the bus fare to get to the hospital, just an hour away – so she goes without.
And she is not alone.
Sadly, Mary’s experiences are representative of the 40 formerly abducted women I interviewed in the summer of 2011, who still struggle to survive. This is despite the continued existence of reception centres and aid agencies in the war-affected regions of Uganda. There are systemic problems at every stage and level of aid, from the first point of contact at reception centres, to foreign and indigenous NGOs, to government rehabilitation initiatives.
This project is primarily an examination of how these women are negotiating their post-abduction lives. What problems are they facing? What help have they received? What kind of future is in store for them? This website focuses not only on the experiences of five of the women but, by drawing on testimony from the remaining 35, it will highlight key issues that continue to obstruct the successful reintegration of formerly abducted women in Uganda today. These include: inadequacies in vocational skills training; improper treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, and minimal effort to address the gender divide in post-conflict Uganda.
I should be clear that this project is by no means intended to belittle the experiences of male abductees. There is no denying that they too experienced significant trauma, in some cases were also raped, and have also struggled upon their return. This project includes interviews with academics who argue that the approaches of many non-governmental organizations resulted in men suffering because of a gender bias. Others have argued that the conflict has actually empowered women and upset the balance of things in what is traditionally a patriarchal society.
“Life has remained the same for me. In the bush I suffered with my children, and back home I am still suffering with them. I’m weary with my burdens. God must be punishing me. Sometimes I curse having been born.” (Ocwee, June 2011).
Finally I was adamant that these women would have the opportunity to tell their own stories. Researcher fatigue is a common malaise in northern Uganda where the Acholi feel they have been poked, prodded and examined by journalists and researchers looking for an insight into a child soldier’s life. So how could I best address this fatigue, and find the medium to cross the linguistic and cultural divide?
Anthropographia was the solution. It’s a visual advocacy of sorts. I wanted these women to actively participate; to help others see the world through their eyes and to help me fairly represent their own stories.
Five of the 40 women were given a digital camera, provided with some basic photography training and then asked to take photos that represented their daily lives: from visits to the local health centre; to their homes, places of work, and friends and family. This approach actively involved them in the research, taught them a new marketable skill, and gave me an invaluable fly-on-the-wall view of what their post-abduction lives are like. The results were staggering not only in terms of how quickly the women developed their photographic skills, but the untold stories they also revealed.
So this project is dedicated to the 40 incredible women who you will hear from in these pages. Women brave and kind enough to talk not only a journalist, but a male one at that, with such candour about the most personal elements of their post-abduction lives.
40 women, 40 stories.
Stories of loss, rejection, and despair. But also stories of hope, optimism, and small personal victories.