The festering wounds of LRA insurgency

Female Lord’s Resistance Army war victims during a meeting at Paboo Sub-county headquarters in Amuru District in August 2021 . PHOTO/TOBBIAS JOLLY OWINY

What you need to know:

  • Women and children who returned from captivity are struggling to re-integrate in society

In Limu Village, Gulu East Division, 21-year-old Josephine Ayo walks out of a rickety hut. With a poignant gaze, she sits on the bench to narrate her story. 
After a brief prayer, she is overcome with emotion and grief. Tears roll down her cheeks. 
Ayo, a single mother of one, lives with four siblings in a shabby slum in Gulu Town along with several other Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) war victims.

She says her in laws and neighbours asked her husband to disown her because she was born in captivity.
“He changed his mind and chased me from his house and said because of my background. He dropped a plan of take me back to school and supporting my siblings. He claimed I had demonic spirits in me and could kill at any time,” Ayo narrates.
Ayo now works as food vendor on the streets of Gulu City. 
In 1993, Ayo’s mother, Regina Acayo was abducted from Lawiyadul Village, Angagura Sub-county in Pader District. She was 14 at the time. 

Acayo says she returned 11 years later in 2004 with two children—Ayo and her elder sister.
“Upon return, the welcome in the village was not encouraging. I later realised that my parents were killed by the rebels. My brothers and uncles asked me to take the children to their father where they belong before I could be embraced into the family,” Acayo told Daily Monitor in an interview.
 She says she decided to return to Gulu Town.

 “Right now I have five children, two from captivity, and three with two different men. One of the men said marrying me a former captive was a bad omen while the other hated my daughters because of their background,” she adds.
Acayo says she is not sure whether the father of her two older children returned from captivity or was killed. 
“I traced the father of my two children in vain. I heard that he was killed in captivity after I returned.  I also heard that he returned home. I failed to trace him because he told me a different name and a village that does not exist,” she says.

Acayo hopes to secure a piece of land so that she can build a home for her family. She is worried that her children will drop out of school because she cannot pay their tuition fees. 
The LRA rebellion started in 1987 under the command of Joseph Kony. The war lasted close to two decades. 
As Gulu emerges from the ruin of the war with a new skyline and sleek roads, this festering wound that left thousands dead, abducted, and hundreds of young girls defiled and raped and millions huddled inside squalid Internally Displaced People’s camps— is yet to heal. 

Betty Lalam, a war victim and the proprietor of the Gulu War Affected Training Centre (GWATC), says the discrimination and the failure of the former returnees to re-integrate into society is worrying. 
“The women may have returned with two, three or four children but here produce three more children with different fathers but the men are not willing to associate with their children when they discover that they were once captives.” 
Lalam says a handful of returnees who were able to acquire life skills training with different organisations have been able to fend for themselves. 

Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony, holds his children at a past peace negotiation. PHOTO/NMG

“They do small businesses to ensure that their children are back in school or are at least eating every day because they have something to do,” Lalam reveals.
Lalam was abducted by the rebels when she was a child 
Evelyn Amony, a former wife of Kony, who returned from captivity with three children, says she decided to settle in Gulu Town because of the rejection and stigma she was subjected to by the community in her ancestral village. 

“I returned in 2005 but I could only reach home in 2008. But I spent only three days at home and returned to Gulu Town. In the three days, I heard a lot of things said by the community against me and my children and it pushed me towards suicide,” Amony says. 
She adds that her decision not to reunite with her family was based on the LRA’s past atrocities in her village in Atiak, in Amuru District where hundreds of people were massacred by the rebels. 

“They referred to us as murderers and demonics who could kill at any moment,” Amony says.
On April 22, 1995, LRA rebels led by Vincent Otti carried out one of ghastliest killing sprees, slaughtering more than 200 in Atiak who had gathered for the market day. 
She says the repugnant Acholi culture, which isolates a woman who gives birth without formal marriage, has created barriers towards integration. 
“If you are in that category of women, especially the returnees who even have children whose fathers are not known, your parents are likely to disown you because they did not reap any benefits [in terms of marriage] from you and because you also never went to school,” Amony says. 

She adds: “In certain situations, they even condition the man that for them they don’t want a former captive as their daughter-in-law. They think such a woman has bad spirits and once annoyed can attack and kill any family member at any moment.”
Amony is the chairperson of the Women Advocacy Network, an association helping 975 former female captives from across Acholi, Lango, Teso and West Nile sub-regions. 
While efforts have been made to reunite children with their families, very few communities have embraced them. It is estimated that thousands of children, who were born in captivity, have failed to re-integrate with their families.

Some of these children and their mothers have post-traumatic stress disorder and experience flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety and depression. 
For more than 15 years after the war subsided, various organisations have tried to trace and link children to their families. Some of the organisations involved include Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP), Caritas, and Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI).
Child tracing is a tedious sensitive and emotionally charged process, which is in the best interest of the child. The process of child tracing emerged as a social project considered vital to the well-being of children born as the result of forced marriages in captivity.  

“Some communities say they don’t have land to accommodate these children, especially because the identities of their fathers are not known. Other women are even conditioned by their families to chase the children away before they can return to the family,” Amony says.  
A 2018 Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP) report indicated that 90 percent of the 447 returnee women interviewed, suffered stigmatisation, rejection, trauma, behavioural challenges, failure to meet basic needs, and failed access to land. 
Of the 1,609 children aged between one and 31 years under the care of the women sampled, at least 80 percent of those aged above five were in school although 90 percent of them faced financial difficulty in paying school dues. 
Twenty-seven percent of the 1,609 children were conceived because of an act of sexual violence against the mother.  
In 2019, Parliament resolved to support all formerly abducted women and children born in captivity during the LRA insurgency. But this is yet to be implemented.  
In August 2021, then Speaker Jacob Oulanyah wrote to the Prime Minister seeking government’s intervention in the matter. 
“War Victims and Children Networking have brought to my attention that the resolution passed by Parliament on February 13, 2019 has never been implemented. I am thus writing to bring to your attention the outstanding resolution for your consideration,” the letter reads in part. 

In the 2019 resolution, Parliament was meant to identify and profile the affected victims and create specific financing for former female LRA abductees and their children born in captivity.
 It was also agreed to embark on sensitisation campaigns to closely have joint programmes with cultural institutions to ensure that these victims of abduction and their children are socially integrated and protected to avoid stigmatisation and discrimination perpetuated against them as well as expedite the adoption of the transitional justice policy. 

Stella Lanam, the director of War Victims and Children Networking, says they have now written more than 30 letters to Parliament and the Office of the Prime Minister to follow up on the matter but have yet to get a response.
“We have sent multiple letters to seek support from the government but to no avail, and now the victims are living in very critical conditions. During the Covid-19 lockdown many of the victims committed suicide because of their hard life including our children,” she says.

Efforts to get a comment from Ms Grace Kwiyucwiny, the State minister for Northern Uganda under the Office of the Prime Minister, were futile as she did not answer our repeated calls.
Lanam says: “From captivity, most of the children changed their names.” 

Ms Simple Anena, who was abducted by the LRA rebels, tends to her garden on March 16 at Abili Trading Centre, Koro Sub-county, Omoro District. 

These victims have also been locked out of government poverty alleviation programmes like the Parish Development Model. 
Lanam opines: “We even encouraged our members to go to sub-counties and register to benefit from government project but in the end, they are left out and excluded. Survival for our members is not easy, our capacity as an organisation is so limited to support the thousands of victims, and we currently sponsor 100 children of victims in school.” 

Mr Fred Ngomokwe, a Human Rights defender with Refugee Law Project, says the commercialisation of land during and after the LRA insurgency bred greed and victims of the insurgency were left out. 
“After after the war boundary issues became a big challenge, location and land sizes including directives for you to know the land is a challenge because the people supposed to guide are either dead in the war or are not interested due to commercialised land selling,” he said. 

“To make it worst, our people who were abducted and returned from captivity, had it rough in terms of the welcoming, very few were welcomed home and their welcome was sustained. Those welcomed were either denied the right to own land,” Mr Ngomokwe says.
Mr Ngomokwe suggests that idle land owned by the government should be converted to settle such a population.
“There are many redundant lands in the region that government owns like in Apaa, or even in Lakang, they could be used to resettle these groups of people, and the modality of allocation is something that needs a roundtable sitting,” he says. 
He also expressed frustration with several interventions of government to extend help to victims. 

“It is high time the government got its pieces together to rethink its modalities with all these interventions of NUSAF, DINU, PDM, etc., something should have been different for victims of war. The interventions should be victim-centred so that they can see the benefits,” he says. 
Billions of shillings have been spent as part of the ‘marshall plan’ to rehabilitate the war-ravaged region. But a large chunk of the funds has allegedly been embezzled by government officials. 
The LRA was responsible for the abduction of up to 60,000 children and youth in the north during the course of the insurgency. 

This war has contributed to the rise in numbers of street children in northern Uganda, especially in Gulu. Many have turned to crime to survive. 
Athur Owor, a policy analyst and researcher, says there is need to offer help to this community. 
Government, which ought to offer support has abdicated its role leaving this to the financially hamstrung humanitarian organisations.
“If you studied the national Transitional Justice Policy very clearly, political will versus political interest, we still don’t have the bill to support that policy, so that bill is hanging somewhere probably with Cabinet and needs to be pushed out,” Owor argues. 
Mr Ambrose Olaa, the Acholi chiefdom premier, says the redefinition of land ownership after the LRA war created barriers for war victims. 
“The war messed up the traditional understanding of the context of land ownership, for whom and how the land was held and got replaced by a reckless interpretation of both the traditional and formal definitions in the constitution regarding land ownership, he said. 
“There was the emergence of the land market policies which changed land from being held for its intrinsic values to being held more for its material and commercial value, hence putting land onto the shelves. The implication was that the more land you could grab, or have,” Olaa argues. 
He adds that After the transformations, people started to grab land presumably from the more vulnerable sections of communities such as the orphans and widows, and former captives.

Denial of such rights has made returnees outcasts, Michael Lakony, the Amuru District chairperson, says. 
“We have got very many cases in regards to that and it is always very difficult to handle because their voices are deliberately not heard, so they remain vulnerable and dependent. Thus, the situation of children born from captivity and whose fathers are not known is too rampant,” Lakony says. 
She adds: “Beyond the war ending as early as 2006, severe issues to do with property rights in the post-conflict situation, there are wrangles over property ownership in communities everywhere meaning they cannot prosper despite all these efforts.” 
She further says: “The government has not been able to anticipate or prepare to face a hostile post-conflict environment, in the pre-conflict and conflict environments others grabbed land and to date, this is one factor that has made it very difficult for peace to prevail because there are a lot of conflicts in the grassroots over land.”
As the clouds drift by in the anticipation of the velvet dark, the crescent moon graces the skies here in Gulu sending a brief comfort to the victims of the LRA insurgency. 
But as the sun rises at the crack of dawn, the pain of these young mothers returns to haunt them in an agonising dream.