|GLOBAL | spring 2006
Abducted by insurgents, Ugandan women and girls now find safe haven.
Milly Amongy's husband was so strong he was known as Acel Calo Apar, which in her native Acholi language means "one man has the might of 10 soldiers." But his
strength had little bearing when it came to the home: It was
she who had to care for their three children, all under age 6.
Amongy, now 25, escaped from strongman Lt. Col. John
Odour in 2005, nine years after having been abducted and forced to "marry" him. Odour was a commander in Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a group
of insurgents who for 19 years have battled
the Ugandan government in order
to create a society supposedly based on
the Ten Commandments.
The insurgency grew out of the Holy
Spirit Movement of Alice Auma, a medium
who claimed a spirit named Lakwena
had possessed her and told her to mobilize
a force from her poor northern home region of Acholiland against Ugandan
president Yoweri Museveni. The president,
from southwest Uganda, had risen
to power in 1986, using brutal measures
to defend the richer south region of
Uganda, and eventually crushed Auma's
campaign. But Auma's relative, Joseph
Kony, resurrected the remnants of her
group to form the LRA. Kony, professing
the same mystical powers, initially
said he spoke for disenfranchised northerners,
but then began to kill, rape,
abduct and mutilate the population as
punishment for its halfhearted support of
his cause. He has now wreaked greater
violence on his own people than on
Musevini’s more developed south.
The LRA has kidnapped an estimated
20,000 northern youths to form the
backbone of its army, and rears the kidnapped
women's children as the next
generation of rebel fighters (about 1,000
have been born in captivity). The rebels
have forced more than 1.4 million
Ugandans to flee into squalid camps for
the displaced, camps vulnerable to attack
despite military protection. Even
so, a camp is preferable to the bush.
In what has often been described as
this "forgotten" war, girls and young
women have been the greatest victims, because they return from the LRA with
children born of rape, which usually means shame and rejection from their
families. They are forced to rely on non governmental organizations (NGOs) to help restore their lives, but with virtually no prospects of marriage their fate is bleak. In one case that attracted world attention, the LRA offered Angelina
Awino, founder of the Concerned Parents' Association, return of her abducted
daughter Charlotte if Awino would cease agitating against the abductions.
She refused, claiming that she was
after the release of all the children.
Amongy, who found shelter at a World Vision rehabilitation center for
children of war, based in the northern town of Gulu, described through an interpreter
how she "went through a lot of
torture and was beaten." Her husband
had nine wives and many offspring, but
hated her and her children. "Love is in
the heart. If someone doesn’t love you,
you can’t do much and don’t know why,"
said Amongy. Apart from raising future
conscripts, she received military training
in the use of rocket propelled grenades
and antiaircraft guns. Amongy was
forced "to murder many" in order to
save herself: "If you don’t shoot and kill
somebody, they [LRA commanders]
beat you." The girls and women are
trained not to cry as they kill.
Though relieved that her suffering as
an LRA wife has ended, Amongy is anxious
about her future. NGOs worry,
too—about HIV prevalence among
these young women, many of whom
have been in a commander’s harem
(Kony, for one, is said to have 56 wives).
In the past, young women often refused
HIV testing when they escaped
the LRA. But now that former abductees
have become willing to undergo medical exams, more than 30 cases of HIV have been detected at the World Vision Children of War Rehabilitation Project. As part of their rehab, which includes counseling, singing and dancing, young
women are taught about HIV/AIDS, family planning and safe sex.
"The rebels have taught the girls that
sex is a man’s right," says Michael
Oruni, program manager of the aid
agency’s shelter for 38 child mothers. "Subjected to that kind of sexual behavior,
sex becomes part of their lives."
It is not uncommon to see romance
between formerly abducted girls and ex-LRA
soldiers who have since joined government
forces. Oruni thinks "it is easier
to live with a man who understands what
they went through in the bush."
With vocational training (carpentry,
bricklaying, bicycle repairs) or capital
for start-up businesses, NGOs such as
UNICEF and World Vision try to prepare
girls for the day they will leave the
program. For Amongy, a tailoring
course is in the offing. But Pirkko
Heinonen, UNICEF’s Kampala-based
deputy representative, warns that some child mothers turn to prostitution as "survival sex." The tragic reality is that
women like Amongy can earn more by
selling their bodies than by sewing
Still, Amongy has one advantage others
like her often don’t: Although many
of her family members were killed during the war, her mother is still alive and
willing to help raise the grandchildren.
At least this particular child mother has
an adult mother waiting to help her recover
from the horrors of the bush.