Flanked by her two sons, Ms Agnes Adok, swings a winnower and sniffles loudly as she rubs her nose the moment she ends a telephone call. The trio is sorting beans to make their only meal.
Ms Adok, a resident of Pece-Cubu in Pece Division, Gulu Municipality, has just received a telephone call from her sister-in-law from Palabek-kal Sub-county in Lamwo District, informing her about one of her sick daughters, who has to be moved to a medical facility for medication.
It is an unlikely, albeit fragile, victory for the 37-year-old single mother of six, who has since 2011 been struggling to find a home for herself and her children upon returning from captivity.
When she was divorced by her husband, Mr Charles Otto in 2016, four (girls) of Ms Adok’s six children were detained by Mr Otto who was forced by his mother to terminate the relationship.
Together with him, they bore all their six children while still in captivity.
“He took away the girls and I remained with the boys that he referred to as liabilities. My mother-in-law abused me and usually referred to me as ‘dyang camp’, (literally meaning, a relief cow) since I was distributed to her son,” she said.
At 12, Ms Adok, together with her two other siblings were abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels in February 1995 from Pagoro Village, Lamogi Sub-county in Amuru District.
Under Stokri brigade, Ms Adok was immediately assigned as a ‘wife’ to Mr Otto, a senior officer, with whom she had all her six children.
“Wherever any of them is sick, my in-laws call me to support the children that they took away from me. I do it although I am not allowed to see them. None of them is studying and they threaten to come and take away the two boys,” she says.
When she completed rehabilitation at Gulu Support the Children Organisation (GUSCO) later in 2011, she says only her aunt turned up to pick her from the centre.
However, in May 2012, she was assaulted by her own brother who demanded that she should get rid of the children in order to be allowed to access any of the family’s assets, including land for cultivation.
“While in the garden, he (her brother) attacked me with a machete and accused me of bringing so many children of unknown origin, saying they will grab the family land in future. We slept in the bush that night and I then relocated to live on the streets in Gulu Town,” she recounts.
“Both in the village and in town, my children lived a sad life, they wouldn’t access the water source easily because they are assaulted and abused by the community members. I started washing clothes for money in the community and sometimes cooked and vended food,” she adds.
When a neighbour learnt of Ms Adok’s plight in 2013, she convinced her to join a local vocational training programme where she learnt to make clothes and paper beads.
“From 2014 when I completed the training, I became self-reliant since I could rent, feed and school the two children using the money I raised from making clothes and beads. I also reconciled with my family,” she says.
However, her independence was short-lived when she lost all the livestock, poultry and assets she bought and took to the village.
“We all seemed okay until the end of 2015 when my brothers sold all the goats and poultry I bought. That frustrated me so much that I abandoned the work and almost committed suicide,” she narrates.
Ms Adok got depressed and lost hope. However, in 2018, she met Ms Jolly Grace Okot, the director of Women Empowerment Network and Design (WEND), who convinced her to join a group of former abductee women at WEND to learn how to make shoes.
“I have never regretted learning to make those sandals because they have greatly supported me. In February 2019, I earned more than Shs290,000 at once for the first time. But most of the money I make is spent on medication and food for the children,” she says.
Ms Adok says she no longer has to beg for food or money to pay her rent. “My major vision is to secure some land somewhere for my sons in the near future so that they can have a home,” she says.
However, Ms Evelyn Amony, the chairperson of Women Advocacy Network (WAN), who is also a former returnee, says: “These ladies are so many out there in the communities, even in Gulu here alone, they are in thousands. The biggest challenge they have is how to deal with the rejection and stigma.”
“Their children are being forced to grow on their own. The streets are shaping them the hard way and in future, they will become a nuisance to us security-wise because they need to survive on the streets,” Ms Amony adds.
For an area that was once ravaged by the insurgents of rebel leader Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the social and economic potentials of such women are yet to be rebuilt, according to her.
“Several organisations are training abductees and ex-rebels, especially women with hand-on-skills but have not addressed their needs for psychological rehabilitate. Others even abandoned or sold off tools they were given after the training because they felt they could not fit in the community,” Ms Amony says.
“There were intensive efforts to reintegrate us, but many have been denied land because they were abducted at childhood and returned as adults who could not define boundaries. Others opt instead to hire land to do the farming,” she adds.
“During the insurgency, family life was raptured so much that some children started raising themselves on their own when they lost their parents to the conflict. Some parents could not protect their children from abduction,” Ms Amony says.
In Gulu District, there are large numbers of single mothers who are battling rejection and beating the odds to survive as well as raise their children.
Ms Margaret Piloya, 41, a resident of Kinene Village, Unyama Sub-county, says she was rebuked by her father for bringing the children she bore in captivity into the family.
Ms Piloya’s family called her children ‘rebels’, saying they could not put up with children whose tribal or clan origin were untraceable.
“Besides the children, my dad said I returned when I was old and disfigured. He uttered very unfortunate statements and threatened to kill us because the land that had remained was not even enough for himself,” Ms Piloya says.
“I was forced to return to the streets to seek survival for my three daughters by vending food to raise the money. In 2008, I worked at a local restaurant and I would feed my children on leftovers,” she adds.
In January 2009, she quit the restaurant job for a business enterprise training with Terra Renaissance, a local non-governmental organisation supporting returnees, and graduated in November 2009.
Ms Piloya has bought land and built a home for herself and her three children.
“From Terra Renaissance, I was given a new sewing machine to start something on my own and now I have five machines and run my own workshop. I also train other vulnerable girls. Providing for my family is now easy and I just finished building my home last year,” she says.
However, she says there is a lot of stigma in society against families of her type. “My children and I now face an identity crisis in the community and it traumatises me so much that I can not even seek a new relationship,” Ms Piloya says.
Another former abductee, Ms Florence Adong, who returned with three children, says she has never stepped foot in her village in Acutomer-gem, Paibona Sub-county since 2006 when she returned.
“While in captivity, the rebels returned and killed a lot of people in the village and when I returned, there were plots to eliminate me since they claimed I caused the killings,” she says.
She was abducted by the rebels in May 1996 and lived in captivity until February 2006 when she escaped with her three children (two girls and a boy).
“I could not risk returning to that village again because my parents had also fled to Bweyale. But when I enrolled to train in tailoring at Terra Renaissance, it became a game changer,” Ms Adong says.
“I got a sewing machine and capital to start the business. Raising my children from that work became easy because I could secure the resources to pay for our rent, food, medication, clothing, and school fees,” she adds.
A research conducted by Terra Renaissance between 2018 and in 2019 on 79 female former abductees who underwent vocational skills training between 2009 and 2019 indicated that their income levels significantly improved and they were able to cater for their families.
“At the time of their intake upon returning from captivity in 2006, they could earn Shs4,397 in a month but in 2009 when they completed the training, they earned Shs145,753 and to date (2019), they are able to get Shs255,135 per month from the work they do,” the report reads in part.
The report also indicated that the beneficiaries earned more income per month than the other residents since they were involved in gainful businesses.
“Ladies who lived with their spouses contributed 23 per cent of the family’s household income whereas, in urban establishments, 47 per cent of the respondents’ household income stood at Shs332,317 compared to Shs168,000 of their average,” the report adds.
Mr Shingo Ogawa, the Terra Renaissance head of operations in Uganda, says of 76 women assessed, 52 per cent lived together with their new spouses happily, 13 per cent were struggling within their new relationships while 35 per cent divorced upon remarrying.
According to him, the percentage of those living with problems in their families and those divorced tells you of the serious stigma against them and how the presence of children born in captivity affects their marriages.
“Surprisingly, upon equipping them with life skills, 64 per cent now own livestock whereas 25 per cent of them have acquired land for themselves. This, therefore, tells you how much it is important to equip these returnees with skills that can support them to be independent,” Mr Ogawa says.
More than 10,000 former captives have undergone life skills and business training at Terra Renaissance since 2009, according to the information.
Prof Ogenga Otunnu of peace, justice and conflict studies department at DePaul University in Chicago, US, says the recovery pace of region is low because the government did not put in place particular coherent plans to address the crisis associated with the protracted conflict.
“Beyond the silent guns lay a crises which has to do with issues of property rights in the post-conflict situation. There are wrangles over property ownership in communities and the question of children born in captivity,” Prof Ogenga says.
“For them (children), survival is a do-or-die affair on a daily basis. They raid places, steal and kill to survive since the community that would help them today does not,” says Mr Christopher Omona, a sociologist in Gulu Town.
To ensure the economic and social recovery of the region, government has since 2003 come up with more than seven different projects in which billions of shillings have been invested, although limited fruits have since yielded.
When guns went silent, approximately 13 years ago, there was involuntary repatriation when the government asked the internally displaced persons to return to their homes since there was no justification to keep people in the camps because the war had ended.
However, it limited its definition of armed conflicts to the physical gun clashes and ignored the traditional non-violent situations where the family life was broken as people were abducted or forced into camps.
Mr Jackson Omona, the chairperson of Kitgum District, who is also the chairperson of Acholi District Leaders’ Forum, says the sub-region is failing to pick up the pieces because both the community and government focused on wrong priorities.
“We are doing badly in recovery. Most people are stuck in a sorry state because they have failed to decide what is best to change their lives while the government dictates projects that do not change livelihood at the end of the day,” Mr Omona says.
“The government should consider resettling these people just as they did to landslide victims in Bududa. Their biggest problem is establishing a place that they call home since they are still facing stigma in society,” he adds.
The LRA war ravaged northern Uganda for two decades. Tens of thousands were killed, women raped, children abducted and people were massively displaced and kept in internally displaced people’s camps. By the time they were told to return home in 2006, their social and economic structures had been broken.
Many families had lost their loved ones. Some found their land taken over by new occupants. In the camps, access to education for children was extremely limited and by the time the war ended, many of those who were born in the camps were also fathers and mothers.
As the region attempts to recover from the impact of the conflict, the scale of the damage leaves no possibility for a quick fix.