In Limu village, Gulu East Division in Uganda, 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 it was because of my background. He dropped a plan to take me back to school and supporting my siblings. He claimed I had demonic spirits in me and that I could kill at any time,” Ayo narrates.
Ayo now works as a food vendor on the streets of Gulu city.
In 1993, Ayo’s mother, Regina Acayo was abducted from Lawiyadul village in Angagura sub-county of Pader District. She was 14 at the time.
Welcome not encouraging
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 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 tried to trace 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 gave me a false name and a village that does not exist,” she says.
Unable to pay tuition fees
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 for close to two decades.
As Gulu emerges from the ruins 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 and here they get 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.”
Life skills training
Lalam says a handful of returnees who were able to acquire life skills training with different organisations have been able to fend for themselves.
“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, Kony’s former wife 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 attempting 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, Amuru District where hundreds of people were massacred by the rebels.
“They referred to us as murderers and demoniacs who could kill at any moment,” Amony says.
On April 22, 1995, LRA rebels led by Vincent Otti carried out one of worst killing sprees, slaughtering more than 200 people in Atiak who had gathered for the market day.
Amony 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 (bride price) benefits from you and because you also never went to school,” Amony says.
She adds: “In certain situations, they even tell their sons that they don’t want a former captive as their daughter-in-law. They think such a woman has evil spirits and once annoyed can attack and kill people.”
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.
Children born in captivity
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 been unable to re-integrate with their families.
Some of these children and their mothers have post-traumatic stress disorders 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 with 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, and which is normally in the best interest of the child. The process started as a social project considered vital to the well-being of children born as a result of forced marriages in captivity.
No land for them
“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 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 difficulties in paying school dues.
Twenty-seven percent of the 1,609 children were conceived because of an act of sexual violence against the mother.
Resolution yet to be implemented
In 2019, the Ugandan 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, former Speaker Jacob Oulanyah wrote to the Prime Minister seeking the 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 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 there be 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,” 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.