Abandoned UPDF soldiers’ ‘wives’ resort to sex trade

Glodina (right) and her family at their home in Small Gate Village adjacent to the UPDF Fourth Division barracks in Gulu City. Seven years into the sex trade, Glodina says she took a tough decision to quit. PHOTO/ TEDDY DOKOTHO

What you need to know:

  • Many of the sex workers in Gulu are Congolese women who followed their UPDF “husbands” back to Uganda after the war but were later abandoned.

Resplendent in an African print dress and red dotted scarf, Mary* emerges from the backyard of her two-roomed house carrying a tray of vegetables.
Mary, a resident of Small Gate Kasubi Village, Bardege-Layibi Division, had been called by her 15-year-old daughter upon the arrival of a guest.
Harvested from a neighbour’s plot, the vegetables she has will be her family’s supper. Leftovers from the previous night’s meal will serve as the light lunch for her seven children when she departs for the streets of Gulu City to sell cosmetic soap.
While welcoming and offering a seat for her guest, the grin she wears masks her immense pressures. Paid a paltry Shs2,000 each day by her boss at the soap business, Mary barely has enough to take care of a household of eight.

Small Gate, the village seated adjacent to the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) Fourth Division barracks, which is home to her abode, is famed for harbouring destitute people and prostitutes. Mary has lived in Small Gate for the past 12 years after leaving an abusive relationship with a UPDF officer—the father of her children.

At first, Mary ventured into prostitution but broke ranks with it after one of her children sought to find out what type of work saw their mother disappear at dusk before returning at the crack of dawn.
“My firstborn was getting older,” she tells Saturday Monitor, adding, “This began to worry me once they kept asking me to explain to them my type of job and I would feel bad since I was setting a bad example for my children until I decided to quit prostitution after six years in the trade.”
None of her seven children—four of them girls—is in school since she is financially handicapped.
While working as a prostitute helped Mary upgrade from a grass-thatched unit to rent a two-room unit in the same village. She, however, says she is now struggling to pay her bills.
“My survival after I quit the life of prostitution has been selling soap belonging to a fellow Congolese man, whose payment is barely enough to do anything,” she reveals, adding, “Sometimes I also move door-to-door doing people’s laundry.”
Mary is one of the hundreds of Congolese women who flooded northern Uganda at the time in the company of their ‘husbands.’
Glodina*, another Congolese woman, also set foot in Uganda in the company of her ‘husband’ (then a UPDF officer) 20 years ago (2002).

“He had another wife back home and he tried his best not to let the family know about me until his other wife discovered and assaulted me relentlessly,” Glodina says, adding, “All my demands to meet his people yielded no fruit; he left me in a rented room with no means of survival.”
The flurry of red flags in the relationship didn’t stop Glodina. It wasn’t until her partner was reassigned out of the region that she gave up.
“I became isolated from him and I have since never heard from him,” she says of the redeployment, adding, “This forced me to resort to trading sex for survival in 2009.” 

Trying to move on 
Prostitution became the enterprise from which she earned resources to support her. But while engaging in it, she bore three children with different fathers. 
“None of the men followed up to care for the children, and I carried my cross,” she says of the men. “I was living in a small hut with the children, renting … I had to feed them, but where was the money?”
Seven years into the trade, Glodina says she took a tough decision to quit the trade. She cites “risking my life doing this business” as a key factor that forced her to leave the trade. 
She now does door-to-door laundry services, as well as hawking soap to survive.
“I very much want to go back to my country, but all this remains shrouded in dreams because I cannot raise the money required,” she says, adding, “I cannot recall my home address and may not be sure if my family is still there due to the war.”

Brig Felix Kulaigye

Esther*, another Congolese woman, says she was meant to marry an army officer, who hailed from Arua District. His family, however, disowned her once they learnt that she hails from the DR Congo. It mattered precious little that she had sired three children with their son. It got even worse when the man passed away. 
“I relocated to Gulu Town at Small Gate in Kasubi Village with only one of my three children,” she tells Saturday Monitor, adding, “I left two behind due to his family demand because my kin were many here and I could not sustain the difficult life in Arua.”
Esther was eventually forced into prostitution. Despite having a son aged 17, she would still bring her clients into her grass-thatched hut.
At Kasumi and the neighbouring villages, hundreds of Congolese women have continued to live a life of impoverishment and prostitution.  Esther has seen many of her countrywomen perish. 

War in DRC
Twenty-four years ago, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF)—led by the late Gen James Kazini—entered the DRC reportedly keen to flush out the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) from the country’s vast jungles. 
The decision to deploy Ugandan troops was taken on September 11, 1998, by the Army High Command. President Museveni, the Commander-in-Chief, argued that the deployment would secure Uganda’s security interests by denying the Sudanese government an opportunity to destabilise Uganda through eastern Congo; denying habitation to Uganda’s dissidents such as the ADF in the DRC and protecting Uganda’s territorial integrity from invasion by Congolese forces.

Among the army officers who played a key role in the DRC deployment were Noble Mayombo, who is also deceased.
Others were Peter Kerim, the deputy commander of the Reserve Forces, who died in 2012; former deputy Inspector General of Police, late Maj Gen Paul Lokech, Gen Salim Saleh, Gen Katumba Wamala, Gen Kahinda Otafiire, and Gen Kale Kayihura.
Mr Francis Odongyoo, the director of Human Rights Focus Gulu, says many of the women who were initially brought into the country by UPDF soldiers failed to return to their home country due to financial hardships and the Lord’s Resistance Army war at the time.
He said: “They started living a solitary kind of life, renting on their own and even some started venturing into small businesses. Those who were well off could also export some kitenge [fabric] from their home country because they were well established.”

He added: “Many of them were not welcomed in the homes by the wives of those soldiers back home and the husbands disowned them with time. Some of them could be renting around the peri-urban centres and others could have tried to go back and many are still out there.”
Mr Odongyoo asked the government to learn from its past mistakes and ensure lightning doesn’t strike twice.
“It was wrong for these soldiers to move back to Uganda with these women, who later became sex slaves,” he concluded.

UPDF response

Brig Felix Kulaigye, the UPDF spokesperson, in a telephone interview with this publication, downplayed human trafficking and sex slavery concerns. He said the affairs between UPDF soldiers and DRC women were normal relationships beyond their control.
“When people interact with each other, relationships develop and we cannot control relationships because you cannot say don’t go to interact with these women,” Brig Kulaigye said.
According to him, the Ituri region, where most activities of the UPDF were carried out, are filled with jungles. He added that the women used boda bodas to look for their soldiers.
“Those women … walked all the way, they used boda bodas to get here,” he said, adding, “What we never do is when we are returning the soldiers officially, we don’t come with women, and the mission will end when we finish ADF.”

*The names of the women interviewed for this story have been changed to protect their identities.


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