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.
“Now I am getting used to life at home but whenever I am stuck in life and I have a lot of thoughts, I sometimes feel that I would be good if I was in the bush because I had power and access to whatever I wanted. For example ambushing vehicles…and in the bush you can get what you want from people because you have a gun – but here I do not have a gun. In the bush we were free to do anything we want without much control.”
I found it hard to reconcile the two sides of Alice.
Alice is now 19 years old – she was abducted from Namokora sub-county when she was just 12. Her parents were out in the fields digging and she was on her way to the market to sell vegetables.
She spent three and a half years with the LRA. As a porter, as a babysitter, as a fighter. She was never given as a wife officially, but she told me that she was raped by the commander who she was babysitting for. She came back from the bush with a child as a result.
Surprisingly, the young children abducted by the LRA were also expected to go to school:
“We were taught normal classroom teaching – how to read and write, arithmetic…but they also taught us how to use a gun and to kill.”
Alice escaped from the LRA after she was injured in a skirmish with government troops. Shot in the leg, she was left behind on the battlefield. It took a week of walking before Alice finally reached the nearest town. She had to plead with the UPDF soldiers who found her to take her to their barracks and not kill her.
After a couple of months at the barracks, she was taken to Rachele reception centre in Lira where she says she was given food, guidance, and counseling. All the former abductees were involved in drama and singing. She says they were also encouraged to debate whether life in the bush or back at home is better.
But she was there for but a month before returning to her old community in 2005. She described what it was like:
“When I returned home I was given an egg that I stepped on [traditional cleansing ceremony] but people still insulted me, especially the soldiers that came to drink alcohol from our place. I told my mother to stop making alcohol so that they would no longer come. I was aggressive towards my family, so my mother decided to slaughter a goat. She invited the elders to give me blessing because they had initially got an information that I was dead and they had even buried my clothes.”
Alice, like many returnees, suffered a dual vulnerability as victim and perpetrator. Upon her return she said she was stigmatized by the community. They not only talked behind her back but hurled insults at her as she waited in line at the borehole with her jerrycan.
Her past has also impacted her ability to find a husband:
“When I came back home a boy seduced me and I had two children with him. Later he started calling me a rebel and that I have 'cen' [haunted by spirits of those she was forced to kill] so he said he no longer wants to be with me…I came home and ignored our children. I wanted to throw them in a pit latrine but my parents took care of the children until now. It is the children that make my life feel ruined. My mother already has seven children and I didn’t want to burden her further.”
Since her return Alice said her health has been suffering. As a result of constant rape in the bush, she said that she has a problem with her uterus. One week she missed one of our interviews as she was rushed to hospital to stem heavy bleeding. She also contracted syphilis.
Alice also complained of chest pain from carrying heavy loads in the bush and the constant beatings. A local NGO pays for her to do tailoring lessons, but she said that she can’t sit at the machine for long before having to lie down.
I also learned from her that upon her return her father, an alcoholic, pimped her out to a UPDF soldier for a bicycle and booze.
But Alice said the pain is not only physical. She said to this day she is haunted by cen, the spirits of people she killed in the bush. Some nights she said she wakes up as they are strangling her.
“There was some woman who we killed in a group - I was even the fourth person to cut her with a machete. She still comes to me in a dream telling me that my daughter you are killing me for nothing…others that I killed appear in an open grave and they talk to me. I normally wake up then, I get a terrible heartbeat and start crying. Prayers have at least reduced the problem. There’s another man I personally killed because when we abducted him, he slapped me. I pierced him with my bayonet. He also comes into my dreams but normally appears lying face down the ground but says nothing to me.”
Alice’s attitude towards the future was also ambivalent. In one interview she said the vocational training the NGO provides is a waste of time. She said she goes back home to find her family toiling in the fields without her, and that she feels that she should be helping them there. And yet at the end of our final interview she said she’s optimistic about the future. She expects to finish the tailoring course and start a successful business.
I don’t know what the future holds for Alice. She’s a strong woman who’s survived a terrible chapter in her life, and yet I sometimes sensed a darker side to her when she talks about how life was easier with a gun.
“Once you develop the mindset of the bush life, you can do anything.”