D   W   O   G         P   A   C   O           reintegrating female former child soldiers in northern Uganda


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.

“Initially I was a babysitter to the other wives’ children – I was told I was too young to do anything. But I was then given as a wife when I was 12 – if you refuse, they will kill you…I was also given a gun. I could then go loot and fight – I was also given a person to kill [as part of an initiation].”

Now back in her old community of Olupe, Mary still fetches water from that same borehole - a constant reminder of her abduction.

She said the reaction to her return was mixed:

“The day I reported back my mother was very happy but she hated the children I came back with. She wanted to know who the father was. She says that children who come back from the bush could cause damage to her home.”

Mary’s relationship with her mother is a complicated one - someone who Mary paints as a dictatorial figure in her life.

In addition to the non-acceptance of her children, Mary said her mother will not let her sleep at the family home at nights. Instead Mary lives in nearby Patongo, in a tukul she can barely afford as a single mother.

Mary also held her mother responsible for the fact that she did not receive financial assistance from the World Vision reception centre upon her return. She added that her mother has also forbade her to attend a local school that was paid for by foreign donors.

I was outraged by what Mary told me and so I decided to also speak with her mother, Jessica, to find out the reasons for these decisions.

The result was a vital reminder that there are always two sides to every story.

“I would not let Mary go to World Vision, as I was told there were Ugandan army soldiers there. There were rumours that formerly abducted girls would be killed by these government soldiers or taken as wives. I wanted to hide Mary from them, to protect her.”

Jessica admitted that she feels no love for her grandchildren, rather seeing them as illegitimate offspring of an LRA commander who will just be an extra financial burden on her.

This hereditary – or secondary – stigma is sadly a common phenomenon.

Interview with Jessica Acaya, mother of former child soldier Mary by Dwog Paco

Jessica told me she is 61 – old by Ugandan standards – and that there are days she is too weak to work in the fields.

But why wouldn’t she let Mary live with her?

“Last year [2010] she tried to come back and the community chased her away. If she comes back to live, people have said they will burn her in our hut alive. They don’t want her here because they believe she took part in a massacre and participated in slaughtering people. Even now though, when she comes to visit, people threaten to put petrol on my doors and burn me alive.”

Finally Jessica addressed why she didn’t want Mary to go to school, despite the fact the tuition is paid for and that she never received a formal education as a result of her abduction.

She told me that if Mary was at school she would have to look after the children. But Jessica said she was too old to look after them, and was already struggling to feed her own immediate family. She argued education has brought them more problems – that Mary should stay and support her children at home. Jessica also accused local NGO staff, responsible for distributing the tuition fees given by donors, of siphoning off money from these funds into their own pockets.

“The youth centre has also used Mary. That youth centre is standing because of Mary. Any white person who comes, they give Mary to talk to them. She gets nothing and its the centre that benefits. They are using her. They have even threatened to arrest her if she does not go to school.”

Despite the assistance that Mary has received, she just scrapes by.

The youth centre set up a bead-making project in 2010. The former child soldiers who form the group meet three times a week to make bead bracelets and necklaces. Mary gets 500 shillings [20 cents] for each bracelet or necklace she makes. She can make one in a day.

It’s a strange choice of work for somewhere like Patongo that sees little to no tourism, and where the locals don’t have the disposable income to fritter on jewellery.

Each woman contributes a portion of their earnings to a communal pot that will be used to pay for more bead-making supplies.

But Mary again thought the youth centre directors are pocketing some of the money.

The other days she toils on other people’s land - 2,000 shillings [80 cents] for more than 10 hours of back-breaking work.

I asked Mary what she would choose to do if she had the money. Her response was interesting. Open a restaurant she replied.

I’d asked the same question to a number of the women I’d interviewed and the common responses were: open a restaurant or tailoring. I had to wonder why only these options? Why not choose to go back to school or buy their own land to till?

My theory is that former abductees are parroting the options given to them by the reception centres and NGOs – and poor ones at that.

I was drawn in by Mary’s story and decided to help her set up a restaurant. I left a small amount of money with a local NGO to help her buy what she needed: pots; pans; rice; onions; potatoes; beans; chicken; plates; cutlery; thermoses; tables, and chairs.

It was a paltry gesture, but I wanted to help her in whatever way I could.

But since I left Uganda I have heard that Mary has had another child. She is only seen intermittently in the village. No one knows who the father is or where she lives now.

The supplies lie idle in the bare restaurant to-be.

Before I left Patongo for the last time, Mary also told me of the other problems she was facing. She said that she is still haunted by the spirits of those she was forced to kill:

“At day and night I see a large group of armed people come into my bedroom…other times I hear people crying, but when I wake up I do not find anything. I find that praying can help.”

The occurrence of what the Acholi refer to as cen – what we would call PTSD – is common amongst former returnees. But in rural areas there’s no access to professional counseling, and nationally only 1 per cent of the country’s health budget deals with mental health.

Mary also told me she contracted HIV as a result of being a wife to an LRA commander.

“But the problem I have now is accessing drugs. The health centre often runs out and we are forced to go to Kalongo [an hour bus ride away]. I don’t have a bicycle and the bus journey costs 10,000 shillings [$4]. So if you have no money, then you are forced to spend the whole month without the drugs you need until the centre gets re-stocked.”

I asked Mary how life now compared to her life in the bush. Her response shocked and saddened me.

“When it comes to taking care of our children, then life in the bush was better because you can just go and rob things forcefully from people. But here you have to work.”

After this interview I thought more about her response. Mary grew up knowing no other way. She was habituated to theft and violence over an 11-year period.

Put in that context, it’d be hard for any of us to adjust.