Sitting down with Hellen Auma, I am struck by her strength and powerful memory. She remembers most of her childhood with impressive accuracy like it was yesterday. The former LRA rebel captive is now using her life story to inspire others.
On March 12, 1991, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels, who had been rampaging northern Uganda for years, attacked National Teachers College, Ngetta abducting 24 girls and 11 boys. One of those girls was Auma, now 48. “We had eaten a nice meal and everyone was in a good mood. At around 3am we heard a loud knock on our door. The voice calling us out was strange, rough and commanding. I started praying to God to save us if they were the rebels. Other girls started screaming and whispering. In that confusion, the door opened and the rebels started ordering us out,” Auma recounts.
Speaking in Luo, the rebels ordered the students to pack up their property and follow them. Auma recalls the journey as the worst thing she has ever experienced. They were forced to move at night and rest during the day only to resume the journey upon night fall. The group kept growing in numbers as more people were abducted. Of all the abductees, Auma recalls that two girls managed to escape and two were released by the rebels. “The rebels released one girl whom they claimed was an hermaphrodite and another one they said was demon possessed,” she narrates.
After what seemed like a long time, the new abductees, most of them girls reached the main camp on the bank of River Aswa where LRA leader Joseph Kony lived. “The commanders first briefed us on the dos and don’ts while in front of the rebel leader. We were told to stand up when he arrived, remain silent as he spoke and not to ask him anything for fear of angering him,” recalls Auma.
Auma recalls that it was about 10am and there was some concealed excitement as the rebels prepared for the eminent arrival of their leader. A few minutes, later, Kony emerged with six escorts.
“He wore a t-shirt and jeans and looked younger. He was friendly, gentle and jolly. In a soft voice, he told us that he had been forced to go to the bush because of the bad government currently in power. He also thanked us for being cooperative during the four days of our abduction and ordered our release. He then disappeared in the bush,” Auma recounts.
However, after, Kony’s departure, Auma and four other girls were handpicked and taken to different groups while the 17 were released. She was never to see the four other girls since everyone went with a new group when the rebels separated.
The abductees had to go through an initiation ritual before becoming members of the rebel outfit. At about 3am, Auma and about 200 others were woken up and assembled in what passed for a compound. They were forced to drink a concoction which Auma says smelled like blood and herbs. According to the rebels, the drink was for cleansing and protecting them.
At the camp, Auma was never attached to any particular man which left her vulnerable to rape. “One evening at about 8pm a boy came and called me saying someone wanted to see me. I thought may be a commander needed me. I never thought about rape although other girls we found there had narrated their experiences to us. On the way, two other boys emerged and all three raped me in turns,” relates Auma.
On the 19th day of captivity, with hope of returning home all gone, Auma’s God answered her daily prayers and she was released. “I had just eaten row cassava for my lunch when someone told me that Commander Man wanted to speak to me. He told me that as an only boy (in his family) he regarded me as his sister and was, therefore, releasing me so I could go back to school. He said when I reach home, I should tune to Radio Uganda on a Saturday because they would call in and send me greetings,” she says.
Commander Man then gave her Shs3,000 for transport and advised her to break away from the group that afternoon as they walked towards Kitgum town and find her way out. On reaching a place called Acholi Bur, 15 km to Kitgum town, the rebels abducted a young girl who was moving with two breastfeeding women and they said, “This girl will replace you, so go home”.
Auma then flagged down a truck and convinced the driver travelling to Kitgum with a nun to give her a lift. Reluctantly, the driver agreed and dropped her at an army barracks in Kitgum Town.
She returned to NTC Ngetta where she found other returnees; only four had changed school. After completing her two year course, she briefly taught at Akohoro Secondary School and in 1994, she contested and was elected to the district youth council. In 1996 she met and married Jannan Wilson Akwong with whom they have two children.
Living with HIV
After living together for seven years, the couple decided to formalise their marriage in 2003. As one of their prerequisites before marriage, Watoto Church demanded blood samples for HIV tests. Auma had never tested for HIV before and just went along with it as a formality, little did she know they would come out HIV positive.
“It was a shock to learn of our HIV status. That day we were launching wedding meetings and my husband went alone to pick the results from the hospital. I did not ask him about the results since I had no reason to think I had the virus. But at 1am he woke me up and told me that we had tested positive,” she recounts.
Her fiancé told her there was no need to panic because any misunderstanding would impact on the wedding preparations. “Although no one accused the other, I felt guilty for not telling him about the gang rape during the LRA abduction which I suspect might have been when I contracted the HIV virus,” Auma says.
She is happy that her husband decided to overlook the infection and kept the family united. She kept her status secret from everyone else apart from their children. She says her health has been good except for a skin infection which has since healed.
Auma currently runs a not-for-profit organisation. The Gold Club Initiative’s core activity is mentorship. She goes to schools, companies and churches delivering mentorship sessions on how to manage life, marriages, and careers, among others.
She was inspired by her mentoring workshops to write about her life experiences. The first book titled The Journey of Grace, which captures the 19 days in LRA captivity and the life lessons learnt was published as a way of “giving a message of hope” to other women and men undergoing challenges. The second book published this year under the tittle The Scar, tells her life as a social worker living with HIV.