For all her life, 23-year-old Josephine Atimotek has either been on the run from bullets or struggling to survive tough challenges.
Atimotek was born in a Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) camp either in northern Uganda or South Sudan, she is not sure. Her mother was abducted as a young girl from Kitgum district by the rebels and forced into marriage with a teenage rebel. Atimotek learnt how to survive on one meal a day, running barefoot for long distances, sleeping in the cold and shooting a gun.
Atimotek was lucky enough to come out of the bush and meet her mother, unlike many of her peers. She has a vague memory of her father, whom they left in the bush, but she doesn’t know his name and is not sure whether he is still alive.
Life only got worse for Atimotek because as soon as they left the bush, her mother died, leaving her with her three siblings to face the world alone. She has had to do casual work in a salon, earning Ush2,000 ($0.5) per head or washing clothes for people and weeding their gardens. She has looked for food, education opportunities with different organisations all while fighting stigma from a society that regards them as “children of the rebels.”
Many people have very bad memories: They saw people get hacked, chopped and some put in pots and cooked by the rebels. The people are angry against the rebels who wreaked havoc on the land for more than two decades.
“I am now like the mother of the family. If I give up now, my siblings will suffer the way I suffered and if I am to break this cycle, I have to work extra hard. I also don’t want to be dependent benµcause people look at us orphans as a burden,” she said.
Atimotek got some education with the help of an NGO in her area, Children of the World Foundation, and just a year ago she completed her Senior Six. She got good grades, but the NGO could not get her into university. With her little savings she has started her own salon in a small shop in Kitgum town. She earns an average of Ush300,000 ($84.4), barely enough to pay her rent and the household needs.
The Lord’s Resistance Army, led by warlord Joseph Kony, launched attacks mainly in the northern and eastern regions of Uganda between 1988 and 2006, until they were forced into the Garamba forest in DR Congo.
The rebel outfit was notorious for killing civilians, razing villages, abducting women and children and using child soldiers. The International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants in 2005 for its top commanders Joseph Kony, his deputy Vincent Otti, Okot Odhiambo, and Dominic Ongwen on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including murder, rape, and sexual slavery. Ongwen was the only one of the four charged with recruiting child soldiers and was convicted this year.
The LRA, which spread its operations from Uganda to Central African Republic, South Sudan and DR Congo, was earlier listed as a terrorist group by the United States, but it has since been removed from the list.
It is estimated that the LRA abducted up to 75,000 people, including more than 30,000 children, into their ranks between 1988 and 2006. A large number were never seen by their families again, but more than 20,000 returned through aid-financed reception centres.
Initially, the return of children from the LRA was managed by the army, which read the names of those who returned on the radio or sometimes paraded them in towns where relatives were asked to collect them, but they often failed to come forward.
Peter Ogenga, executive director of Children of the World Foundation, who was once abducted by the rebels, said the boys were trained as fighters while the teenage girls were given to rebel leaders as wives. The girls gave birth to several children while in the bush who then had to return to communities they had never been to before, many without their parents.
“There was no clear research and documentation done about these children when they were being received back. Proper documentation would make it easier for the government and civil society to come in and help,” Mr Ogenga said.
According to Ugandan law, birth registrations take place within 90 days from the date of birth, but most of these children returned from the bush aged about two years, on average, and therefore can’t be registered.
James Okidi Okello, the Kitgum district community development officer, said these children, if not registered, risk missing out on government programmes and not owning property.
“The situation for these children is not clear. Organisations have tried to help but they can only do so much,” he said.
Go look for your people
In this part of the country, if a woman comes home with a child whose father is unknown, her brother takes up the child as his own, but it seems different with children born in captivity. They are rejected by the mother’s family.
Mr Okello said that many especially in villages are now involved in land conflicts with their maternal side from where they grew up.
“Normally, you inherit your father’s property but for these children, their paternity is not known so they have no right to inheritance,” he said.
According to Mr Ogenga, this is a generation of the forgotten. They were born in a harsh environment and they have grown up in the same way. Some, especially those in families that were helping are being asked to leave, to seek their own families lest they lay claim inheritances they have no right to. Many are already having children of their own.
“Some are lucky to find their fathers’ relatives, but many don’t know where to start from,” Mr Ogenga said.
But some like Atimotek have already moved on with life, all she knows are a few maternal relatives and no one on her father’s side.
Others like 22-year-old Monica Lanyero say that while they were lucky to have a place to live, they don’t have what it takes to find their real family.
Lanyero, just like Atimotek came from the bush with her mother who was abducted as a child. Her mother remarried but the new husband didn’t want to have her around.
According to Frank Mugabi, spokesperson in the ministry of Gender labour and social development under whose docket such children would fall, the government doesn’t have any specific intervention for this category of children, many of whom have grown past the legal age of being called children. In Uganda, anybody above 18 years of age is no longer a child.
“As a ministry, ours is a general programming for all children. If it is education for example, we expect that these children benefited from the Universal Primary Education provided by the government. You expect that in a way, those children would have benefited from the economic empowerment programmes like the youth livelihood programme that the government set up to empower the youths around the country,” Mr Mugabi said.
The Youth Livelihood Programme is a government financed programme designed as an intervention in response to the high unemployment rate and poverty among the youth in the country whereby groups with a business idea in any sector are given cash hand-outs to operationalise it.
The programme, however, has been riddled with gross extortion, corruption and in most cases money has not reached the intended beneficiaries. In Kitgum, for example, some of the children reported being asked for some money before they could be registered for the programme.