Ugandan women and girls tell their personal stories of rape, abuse, displacement, enslavement and torture.
Over the past year, IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, has collaborated with the Uganda Women Writers Association (FEMRITE), to produce “Today you will understand,” a collection of the personal war stories of 16 women.
Five female writers from FEMRITE canvassed northern Uganda to interview women affected by the war between the government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Most of the women were still living in IDP (internally displaced person) camps. The stories were recorded and aired on Ugandan radio stations; three are in English and featured below.
Source: IRIN Radio in local partnership with FEMRITE, Uganda Women Writers’ Association.
A child soldier who was abducted at 12 and spent eight years in the bush, married to a rebel commander.
Eunice I grew up with my mom, two kids and my father. I went to school but I was abducted when I was 12 years in P7. It was night when we were just sat outside after eating supper. From nowhere we saw the rebels coming. They just took me up, I left my father and my mother there and the other siblings.
They just beat them and they took me. From there we moved on foot up to Sudan. It was very long. On the way we faced some difficulties, there was no food, we could go to some villages, the nearby villages and we get food from there. We loot I mean. We even met some UPDF soldiers and they chased us seriously but we survived.
I remember we found a man and then from there they told the man that he should go with us to Sudan. He was resisting so they chopped him into two pieces.
Interviewer At that time you were telling us you were around 12 years old. Were you the youngest person in that group or were there other people who were even younger than you?
Eunice There were other people who were even younger than me. There was a boy who was just seven years and he was the youngest. He suffered a lot. You know, we took five days from Gulu where they abducted me from up to to Sudan. But that boy his legs swelled. He was just there, he suffered a lot.
Interviewer’s Interlude (reading) This time tomorrow: Yesterday I woke up here. Today I wake up here. Tugging at my sagging tummy, listening to the old tune, asking myself, “will it be the same this time tomorrow?”
Eunice When they abducted me we were many girls, we were age 12 and above. So they selected us and gave us to the rebel commanders. For me they gave me to a man, he was too big.
Interviewer Were you the first wife or you were the first in line? You were one of the many wives?
Eunice In fact, I was the seventh!
Interviewer You were the seventh wife?
Interviewer Did you have any special duties as the wife to the rebel commander?
Eunice There was not any special duty. In fact all it was about suffering. Forcing you into sex when you don’t want, beating you up when you have done a small mistake. Moving – you don’t stay in one place – without eating anything. One kind of suffering I faced was cooking too much food for many army commanders. And you know those other women (wives) they also used to mistreat me. It was so difficult, so many problems, eh, even I can’t tell.
Interviewer Was there any good side to being the wife of a commander compared to those people who were maybe not married to the rebel commander?
Eunice At least the army commanders after looting things like clothes, food, they bring and you also have a share. But now those (others) they have to suffer, sometimes they stay for a week without eating but at least I can eat at least one meal a day.
Interviewer For how long did you stay in the bush?
Eunice I stayed in the bush for eight years. I saw some changes at least. When I had just gone, I used to hate the fighting. I used even to feel pity when they are killing people, but as I was getting used to it I saw it as normal and I also wanted to learn how to shoot.
Interviewer Did you ever hold a gun maybe during your stay?
Eunice I did not hold one but I had wanted to.
Interviewer They did not allow you?
Interviewer Is there any special reason because we understand that in the bush everyone has a gun?
Eunice The other army commander refused me but me, I had wanted to.
Interviewer To learn how to shoot or to hold a gun?
Eunice How to shoot.
Interviewer What other changes did you see? When I had entered in my first year, life was like this, and now eight years later life is like this. Were things going for the better or for the worse?
Eunice Things were going for the worse. As I was married, I was the seventh wife, there were six other wives and they used to mistreat me. The war was just increasing and Kony was becoming more stronger and stronger because he was abducting more and more especially the boys. They could train them for one month on how to shoot, how to loot things and they get everything.
Interviewer’s Interlude (reading) When they came, you said they would go. You said they were insects. You laughed at them. You said they would not be here this time today. Today, guns rock us to sleep. The burning camps with our chapped lips and noses. Crying babies rest their lips on nippleless breasts. You still blot on our wounds, like a rat and its spray.
Eunice Life in Uganda as compared to Sudan is so fantastic and interesting. I got an opportunity of going back to school. I am even being helped with other basic things like clothes.
Interviewer Did you ever think of coming back to Uganda when you were in Sudan?
Eunice No, because escaping itself was very difficult. I saw many people killed on the spot for trying to escape.
Interviewer It seems you got used to seeing death every day when you were an abductee. How did you manage to escape?
Eunice It was one day when the UPDF soldiers had ambushed us. As they were trying to shoot the Kony rebels, some people escaped. Some were killed by the UPDF soldiers but for me I was hiding somewhere. All those Kony rebels had run away, so me I remained somewhere in the bush, so, when I saw that there was only UPDF soldiers who were remaining, I surrendered. I raised up my hands, they saw me and they came for me. They put me in the helicopter then we came to Uganda. At that time, I was the only one.
Interviewer I would like you to tell us, do you remember any touching event when you were still under Kony’s rebels?
Eunice While I was still there in Sudan, there were these boys, they had just recruited them. They told one boy to go and to loot food in Kitgum. He refused, and, they just put him in a big mortar, very big, they just put him in there and they pounded him.
Interviewer After you were rescued by the UPDF, how did your life go on from there?
Eunice After the UPDF had rescued me, they took me to GUSCO. It is an NGO that helps abducted children. I stayed there for two months and they started telling me about going back to school. The next year, they took me to a secondary school in S1. Life at school was not so easy. Students would laugh at me because I looked different from them. [GUSCO: Gulu Support the Children Organization – local NGO offering psycho-social support, education and advocacy for war affected children]
Interviewer What do you mean you looked different from them?
Eunice I mean my body, wounds. So life was not easy for me. They would discriminate (against) me. Even in the dining room, they do not want to sit with me. But, as time went on, students got used to me and I started being friendly with them, they also started being friendly to me.
Interviewer Did you try looking for your relatives or are you now alone? What happened when you came back?
Eunice When I was in S3, I tried looking for my relatives but I failed to find my parents and the other two siblings. I only found my auntie, a sister to my father, and she is the one who took me in.
Interviewer What about your village, haven’t you tried going back?
Eunice I went there and I found that our house got burnt down.
Interviewer Interlude (reading) You gave them days waited. Months. Now its years we wait. Will it be the same this tomorrow?
Interviewer You are in S6 as we are talking. I can see that you have come a long way and you are a very strong woman and even your English is good compared to the life you’ve gone through. I would like to commend you for that.
Eunice Thank you madam.
Interviewer But again I would like to find out, what are your hopes for the future – how do you see yourself in the future?
Eunice At University I want to do civil engineering, I become an engineer. Maybe after studying my course, I will also go and work for an NGO like GUSCO. I would like to help the ones who were once abducted. From there I will become a successful woman, married with children.
Interviewer You want to lead a normal life?
Interviewer You seem to be one of the few lucky ones who come out of such situations and to lead a very good life. What advice would you give to those people who were once abducted and have not had help like you?
Eunice I encourage them to have hope and to also seek help. And I also encourage them if they were once studying to go back to education. Because that will be helpful to them.
Interviewer Do you have anything you would like to add as we are winding up. Maybe something you would like to say?
Eunice I encourage the people of Uganda and Gulu most especially, to work hand in hand with the government so that the peace talks that are going on go on successfully because we have suffered a lot.
A mother whose daughter was abducted and trapped in the bush for eight years.
Josephine It was in 1995 when my child was captured by the rebels and the child was Nancy. That child was captured during nighttime and after she was captured we really suffered. Even before the child was captured we were also suffering because of the rebels. We couldn’t even sleep in the bush, we could not even eat, every time we were beaten by the rain in the bush. After that, when the child was captured, the child stayed for eight years in the bush before she tried to escape.
When she escaped we were also in danger because the rebels did not like the child to escape from them. After the escape, the rebels began to disturb us and they were planning to even kill us but, good enough, we were informed and we ran away from the home where we were staying. And after our departure, the rebels came and found that we were not there. They captured a certain boy and they tried to make inquiries from that boy so that he could tell them where we were. Because they had the names of killing us with the parents of the child.
And after that, we saw that the case is very serious, and we tried to take the child to my home. After that we stayed and the child is there. But up to now, we are still suffering in the camp, there is nothing to eat. Life in the camp is very risky, we are also aware that whenever we are caught by the rebels, we will be killed, with the father of the child.
So not only the child, but also other people are suffering. And now, people are preparing to go back home. But we hear through rumors that those rebels are coming back to disturb people. As I talk now, we are living a risky life.
Interviewer How did your child manage to escape?
Josephine The child told me that they had gone to rob some things in the bush. So there was a certain child who was her best friend and she was a bit older than my daughter. She was the one who told her to escape at that moment. They did so and came and reported at Gang Diang (barracks).
Interviewer They reported at Gang Diang Barracks. Why were the rebels so furious about her escape?
Josephine The girl said she was suffering a lot in the bush. They couldn’t even sleep. They had to keep looking, moving, looking for food. Sometimes they could be even fired by the guns. She said one day she was told to go and collect some, just to rob some food from a certain home. And she was almost going to be killed. It was God’s power otherwise the bomb could have killed her. So she said that she had a risky life. There was not enough food, everything could go and fight, and after fighting, you rob the things. The food.
Interviewer Did she tell you anything in particular that happened to her when she was in the bush?
Josephine The only thing she told me is that she was suffering. Every time she could be forced to go and fight. She could be forced to go and kill people. And then when you refused to kill the people you are going to be killed.
Interviewer Are there any major things that happened to you after the escape of your child?
Josephine Nothing happened apart from the threatening words. It is the rebels who were threatening who are planning that whenever they get me they are going to kill me.
Interviewer How did the rebels threaten you, did they go through radio?
Josephine One day they came after our departure, and wrote a letter and the letter is still with the RDC [Office of local government Resident District Commissioner]. It was saying that if I don’t bring back their child, they are going to kill me and the whole clan, not only me. The letter is there, up to now.
Interviewer Why do they claim it was their child yet the child is yours?
Josephine How do I know?
Interlude (poem) The New Green, by Constance Sabonya. The serene scene of green outside my window, once praised as a masterpiece of nature now holds to another gleam. All my personal colors of green—army green, civilians, whisper and hurry past the menacing guests. That there is a Kalishnikov, the other a grenade. The citizenry discusses the accessories of the new green. The allure of the night green, long forgotten. Why? Why will the managers of society not let the green long loved outside my window be.
Interviewer Was she open to tell you everything or she was still going through the pain?
Josephine The only thing she told me was that she was loved very much and that Otti [Vincent Otti, Kony’s second in command and spokesperson] had many wives who looked after her as a child. And even everywhere they tried to move, they were guarding her, just not to get away from them. She went there as a babysitter first.
Interviewer What is your relationship with people in this camp?
Josephine You see these people, first of all when I came here these people did not like me. Later when they began to settle and began to be given some assistance from NGOs, some began to befriend me. But in the previous years, they were against me. But for me, I’m just worried. I don’t want to move far from here for the reasons I have told you.
Interviewer Are they also pursuing the parents of the other girl who escaped?
Josephine I don’t know. That’s why also, some parents who are, who understand, they say they don’t want to talk anything against me. Some parents, by the way, ‘There are some other children who have escaped from the rebels but you don’t talk anything, why do you disturb this woman? This woman was not the one who told the child to escape from the bush’.
I know very well that in other places like Mucwiny where another child escaped, the rebels killed about seventy-five or more than seventy-five. I know very well that that person, that parent is also disturbed.
Interviewer How is life in the camp? The poverty, and what?
Josephine On the whole it is difficult, it is very difficult, because we are like prisoners now. There is no food, everything is not there. Even we who are government workers, the money now is becoming useless, so we have poverty, we have epidemic diseases like cholera. Many people have died away from this camp, so we have so many problems. Even the thieves now are very many, I don’t know where they come from. People are planning to go back home, but you hear some rumors—I have not seen, but rumors—that those people have enter Uganda, but I don’t know if that’s true.
Interviewer Which people—the rebels?
Josephine Mmm. I even tried to rent a house outside, but people could not even allow. Whenever I asked for a house to rent in previous years, the people said ‘Eh you allow that woman to rent there, the rebels will kill you’. Whenever I ask for a house to rent, they just say like that. But one day, I managed to rent one. There was a neighbor, and this neighbor said ‘OK, if they are looking for this woman to kill let them kill me also’.
Interviewer So you left that house and decided to come here?
Josephine Yes I decided to come to the camp because one day when I was asleep at around 2:00 at night somebody came and knocked at the door. And I did not even know that person. So, I tried to shout and the person ran away. I decided to leave the house and come back to the camp here. When I stayed here for some months, people were advising me to go back to my house, that why should I leave the house and yet I have rented the house. I went back and after three days again, that person came at night. During three o-clock at night. And then I left the house forever. So I don’t know whether he was a thief, or who he was, I don’t know, thieves are many. Some took some small soap here yesterday, but why? They took a new bicycle and some spares. People are not settled, the rebels also are there, I’ve heard rumors, but have not seen. They are there also.
Interviewer So as a teacher, they can post you anywhere?
Josephine For us, as I talk I have been posted but I will not go. Let me say, it has been somehow OK for security, there has been security, people have been teaching in the villages. But when it goes into, from let me say better to worse, people will reject to stay there, unless you were a born person in that area. I am not free. I cannot go deep in the village today, or to look for money.
Interviewer What punishment do you think Kony deserves for the pain that you have gone through?
Josephine It is even useless to punish him because as God says, you don’t punish somebody who has punished you but instead of punishing him or her you just pray for him to change his mind. So I think it is not good to punish Kony but what we should do is to tell them to come back home. They should accept the advice, they should sit down for peace talks so that they rejoice and come back home.
A widow who brews and sells an alcohol brew to put her children through school.
Faith I have been in the business of brewing malwa for so long. I started the business in 1995. I get money for school fees for my children which I have been paying for about six to seven years. My husband died a long time ago in 1994 when my (first) child was in P6. The firstborn is now a laboratory technician. I have three children and I have been keeping them out of my business brewing malwa [local alcoholic brew]. I now have a motorcycle, which I bought out of my business. I also have a little money in the bank.
Interviewer Tell me about doing business during the war, where were you getting your products?
Faith For millet, I go to Pabbo. I bring it here then I use it for selling malwa. During the war, I had to go to town Genako to the store in Gulu and buy millet there at a very high price.
Interviewer So, was doing business during the war profitable? Did you get a lot of money?
Faith Ahh… you don’t get a lot of money. You get very little because the price of millet was so high – 600 shillings per kilo.
Interviewer Weren’t you afraid of doing business during the war?
Faith I was afraid because one day we were looking for somewhere to sleep. We slept in the town by the gates and when we got back home we found out that one person had been killed near our home.
It was very difficult because I have no husband, he is dead already. I am alone to care for the children. It was very difficult to take care of the children in town. One day I was caught by the rebels and when I escaped they came and killed my father. They found us at home in Koro during the night time and they killed our father there and then.
Interviewer [link] The fate that befell her father might have been the same for Faith had it not been for that fact that she recognized one of the rebels as her uncle. Her biggest challenge now is where to pour the residue from her local brew, but I wonder what changes she sees now that the war has ended.
Faith It has made life different because a long time ago, you could go to the village and dig a garden to promote your business, but nowadays, you rely on money only. People are in the camp, you leave your home even when you try to go and dig, nobody can help you with digging.
Interviewer Would you leave this business if you had an option?
Faith I can leave it if I get enough money because it is hard work brewing malwa.
Interviewer But now that you have been in this business for long, don’t you enjoy it?
Faith You can enjoy it but it is very difficult to make it – you do it because of the conditions – if you don’t do it, you don’t get money.
Interviewer Are you in any women’s organizations?
Faith We have a small group – we have a plan for generating money in our group. We were thirty-six in the group, some used to dance… other people used to sing. We go wherever we are invited to perform.
Interviewer What advice do you have for widows?
Faith I tell them that they must keep their business. I advise them not to get other men because it may spoil their business.
Interviewer So men spoil business?
Faith Yes because if you have a man and if you want to go to Pabbo, he may refuse or if you have a drunkard man he may steal your money.