“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.
Janet told me she’s now pregnant as a result of the attack. She didn’t know which one of the men is the father. She said that at least she’s somewhat lucky – a test confirmed that she didn’t contract HIV in the assault.
She paused for a few seconds, absent-mindedly stroking the prominent bulge around her middle. We were sat in the shade of a mango tree in her uncle’s compound. Janet was now seven months pregnant, and it was this same uncle in Lira that has taken her into his home.
“I’m not happy that I’m going to give birth to this child whose father I don’t even know, and I don’t even have the money to take care of it. I wanted to abort it, but CCVS [a Lira-based NGO] told me that if something is already in you, you should be in a position to accept it.”
Janet said she has also been stigmatized by her uncle’s wife who sees her and her unborn child as just more mouths to feed. The wife has said Janet is an adult and should look after herself despite what she’s been through.
“She says that she has many of her own children and everything requires money. And besides, she says I was the one who wanted to be raped. I tell her that I couldn’t fight off three soldiers, but she doesn’t listen. She says the baby will add more problems for her.”
In Acholi culture, being a single mother is a taboo and will typically deflect any potential suitors. But there’s also the more immediate financial ramifications. How can she afford to feed, clothe, and educate her unborn child? Her parents were killed in the war. And Janet already has one child from the bush that her brother is looking after. How will she cope with a second?
Janet said that she’s considered suicide.
She told me she sometimes regrets having escaped from the LRA. She said she has had no support even from the government. When she first came back from the bush last year, she was brought to the GUSCO reception centre.
She was told to leave just three weeks later.
Unlike her predecessors though, Janet did not receive counseling, she did not receive an amnesty package, she did not receive any vocational skills training to help set her up for her post-conflict life.
“I felt that I was unlucky because I had come back from the bush later. Those who came back in 2003 got all the services and there were so many NGOs offering services to returnees...some were taken to school, others were built houses, others opened for them businesses…but by the time I had come back all of these activities had closed.”
The interviews I conducted with 39 other former abductees corroborate Janet’s views. Most came back when the reception centres were first set up five to ten years earlier. They stayed at GUSCO for many months, received amnesty packages of money and household items, and were taught a trade – typically tailoring. But the landscape had changed by 2006. The collapse of the Juba peace talks saw the LRA relocate to South Sudan, making it harder for children to escape back to their homes in northern Uganda.
As a result, the numbers of returnees dwindled drastically.
A report on the Rachele reception centre recorded that in 2003 576 children passed through its doors. This number decreased to 216 the following year. By September 2006, there were 11 (de Temmermann, 2006). Shortly after the centre was converted to a school.
I visited GUSCO in July 2011 to see for myself what services they were offering. What I found corroborated Janet’s account.
The buildings that ring the central courtyard were empty, and dilapidated. Ringed-red with rust, the swings in the playground hung motionless, the see-saws sat idle. The vocational training room was padlocked shut.
It was like a ghost town.
In the few hours that I was there I saw but one woman who was practicing her baking skills, making buns over a charcoal fire.
I spoke to James Ocitti, a social worker at GUSCO. He said they had 40 returnees come through the centre in 2010, and just 24 in 2011. He admitted that not all the women received the same treatment. It was not uncommon he said that they ran out of sewing machines to hand out. Ocitti said that at least they could still give the women tailoring training.
But I asked Janet what use did she think the training was without the means to practice it?
“So now these services don’t exist for people like me…the government should do something to help people like me because I have received no assistance since my return, and no-one has followed up with me to see how I am coping.”
This leaves women like Janet, a late returnee, in a quandary. Her abduction has robbed her, and others, of an education.
Thankfully the Centre for Children in Vulnerable Situations (CCVS), a Lira-based organization, has stepped in to fill this humanitarian breach. CCVS has chosen Janet for their tailoring pilot program. A local tailor at Lira market trains Janet five days a week for free. In return, CCVS provide the tailor with a sewing machine.
I visited Janet a number of times at the bustling, labrythine market.
She proudly showed off the dresses and blouses she’d made. [pictures] She smiled broadly when I applauded her on her work. Janet said she hopes to make a living as a tailor once her 12 months of training are over.
But she checked her optimism in her next sentence.
“I have already learnt how to tailor but most people come to you when you have materials. They choose a material and then you sew it for them. But I don’t have money to buy materials so I cannot guess after one year where I will be. I have to take care of myself and my child as well. It is very hard to predict the future. So I don’t know where you will find me in one years time.”