In 2006, the government of Uganda and the Lord’s resistance Army (LRA) rebels signed a peace deal in Juba, South Sudan. This followed over two decades of unsuccessful guerrilla warfare by the elusive Joseph Kony to overthrow the government of President Yoweri Museveni.
To beef up there ranks, the protagonists in this civil war resorted to abducting civilians in Northern Uganda.This process of recruitment was riddled with physical, psychological and sexual abuse as well as looting and destruction of both private and public property. Consequently, many people in this region were displaced and forced to live in internally displaced people’s (IDPs) camps from where they could be guarded by the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF).
Fast forward, these same IDPs are now the communities to thousands of refugees fleeing civil war in South Sudan. In total bewilderment, they have observed the striking contrast in the privileges and support that has been extended to the current refugees, which they never received then.
“Our survival was left to the mercy of God.” Says seventy one year old Florence Atto, who lives in a shared homestead with refugees in Kanyagoga, Gulu town. She also is the current LC1 of Kanyagoga-A sub-ward in Bar-dege Layibi division, Gulu town.
At the peak of the civil war, there were a number of safe spots within town where people would go and sleep to avoid being attacked and abducted by the LRA rebels. Some of these places included; Gulu main bus park, Gulu referral hospital, St. Mary’s hospital Lacor and St. Monica girls Tailoring Center as narrated by Florence Atto.
Atto fled from her village in Lukome, Bwonga-tira sub-county in 1987. “The rebels burnt everything that we had and I left our village home to come to town where it was a bit safe. We lived in the IDP camp in Chope for about seven years.” Ms. Atto revealed that the war in Northern Uganda started immediately in 1987 after President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni took over power from Apollo Milton Obote.
Atto says the LRA rebels came to her home in Lukome and burnt everything to ashes. Fortunately for Atto, she managed to escape to Gulu town for refuge with five of her children. She however recalls the sad death of her first born son, of whom she lost to the brutality of the war. The conversation about Atto’s son flooded her eyes with tears in just a moment.
While in Gulu town, rebel activity continued to surge. This was thirteen years after Atto had left the IDP camp and bought a small piece of land in Kanyagoga. ‘’At night, we always left our homes here in Kanyagoga and went to seek shelter at St. Monica girls Tailoring Center ran by the Verona Sisters under the Gulu archdiocese.’’ This was one of the few safe spots in Gulu town. “There was a dungeon where the Catholic priest would hide people, when the rebels came.”
Atto currently resides in an area mostly occupied by former internally displaced people and refugees from South Sudan, who are all living together in shared homesteads within the community. Many of the refugees who came from South Sudan have now been accepted to live with former survivors of the LRA war. Atto says that the support and help being offered to refugees from South Sudan is different from support that survivors of the LRA war received when they were still in the camps
‘’ Our friends who fled the War from South Sudan are being supported and given multiple opportunities, unlike us. Our survival was left to the mercy of God.’’ She painfully recounts.
Statistics from the Office of the Prime Minister shows that Uganda is hosting over 1 million Refugees, the majority of whom are from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Atto says majority of people who fled the LRA war like herself are currently surviving on a hands to mouth basis and facing several challenges including post-traumatic stress disorder, poverty, and suicidal tendencies among others ‘’ We request government of Uganda to support and empower us with resources so that we can be able to pay for our children in school and also construct for us decent housing.’’
Kawunda Patrick Oyet, 35, Atto’s secretary for the office of the LC1, affirms that refugees are favored over the locals. In his view, this differential treatment is what fuels arrogant and violent behavior among them because they know that they are protected by the plethora of refugee agencies. On the other hand, locals with similar challenges resulting from displacement by war are left to fend for themselves with no support or counselling.
There is a general perception in the community that refugees are favored. But maybe it’s because they are organized in designated camps and for us, we were scattered all over the place during the war. So maybe it was hard for the organizations which offer support to reach us.”
In the center of Gulu city, is the old bus park where former internally displaced persons in Northern Uganda used to get sheltered during the heights of the LRA insurgency in Northern Uganda. In an interview with the area LC1 of the bus park B subward, Moses Nyeko, 42, he confirmed that many people, especially young boys and girls used to come and seek refuge at the bus park during the night when the rebels attacked the villages and combed the streets for recruitment of new soldiers into their rebel camps. ‘’At the height of the LRA insurgency war, people use to commute from different parts of the villages and town and come to seek refuge here.’’ Says Nyeko.
Nyeko vividly recalls the nights that he slept at the shelter himself, during his secondary school days as a student. He reports that, ‘both women and men used to come and seek refuge here at the bus park, in the night. Later Amref Health Africa got concerned about the increasing sexual networks built from shared refugee spaces. So they built a girl’s shelter behind the buspark, in order to separate the girls from the boys during the night.’ Currently, part of the shelter constructed by Amref health Africa has been portioned and given to a Local church and a local restaurant
Current state of the brick wall structure (on the right) constructed by AMREF during the height of the LRA war against the government in Northern Uganda.
Nyeko, who lost his father during the war says that many survivors of that war are still battling both physical, psychological and socioeconomic challenges. For Example; up-to-date, Nyeko still has to battle painful regrets of having dropped out of school after his Father was killed by the LRA. He can not help but wonder if his chances in life would have been different, with the opportunity of an education. “I had the brains for academics you know, maybe I would be one of the biggest academicians in this country.”
Moses Nyeko, 42, pauses for a photograph in Gulu bus park B subward, where he once sought refuge from LRA rebels as a student, and now volunteers as the LC1 chairperson of the same bus park area. Nyeko’s father served as a police officer in Obote’s government in 1971. When the NRA took over power in 1986, they came after the lives of Acholi men in vengeance. His father was arrested in 1987 and that was the last he heard of him. “I didn’t even get to see his dead body. I don’t know how he died.” Later in 1996, his two brothers were abducted by the LRA and like his father, he has no idea how they died, he just never saw them again.
Nyeko added that the government of Uganda and other Non-governmental agencies should reconsider their support towards survivors of the LRA war in Northern Uganda. ‘’We need affordable Education for our Children. We lost that opportunity because of the war, our children should at least be given the chance to study in compensation. I don’t receive a salary or make enough to give my children a good education. My options were limited by the insurgency, but I believe the government can help us on the education issue for our children.’’
Government of Uganda has since 2007 launched different initiatives like, Peace Recovery and development plan[PRDP], Northern Uganda Social Action Fund[NUSAF] among other which were being partly funded by government and donors
It is estimated that over 3 trillion shillings has been sunk in such programs to help the survivors of the War but reports on ground show that most of this money does not reach the targeted beneficiaries. It is lost to corruption.
Formerly abducted women who served as wives to rebels face even greater challenges in their recovery journey. Forty three year old Florence Modo Arukude, from Amuria district narrates that when the LRA attacked and abducted people in Teso sub-region in 1987, she fled to Mbale district leaving her family behind in Ajelek village, Amuria district. According to Modo, the LRA needed as much manpower as they could get their hands on. That demand consequently forced them to go further East in the districts of Amuria and Soroti, abducting both women, men and children to join the rebel ranks.
Florence Modo, 43, displaced from Ajelek village in Amuria subcounty, forced to serve as a wife to one of the LRA rebel group leaders. Modo lost four of her eleven children to the war. She is currently living as a single mother, practising and teaching tailoring to other formerly abducted women just like her self in Gulu town, under the Women Advocacy Network which was founded by Evelyn Amony; one of Joseph Kony’s former wives.
Fire ceased in 1988, however, by 1989, her entire village had been burnt down by the LRA rebels and looted by the Karimojong cattle raiders. This forced the locals in her village to flee and they ended up in Onyutung village, located six miles from Ajelek; her home village. The natives of Onyuntung had also earlier been forced to leave to another unknown village. Here, Modo and her family depended on raw cassava from abandoned gardens in the village. In 1999, the soldiers seemed to have withdrawn from the East. So Modo and her family settled back home in Ajelek village, Amuria district. The moment was short lived as the LRA rebels returned in 2003 for more abductions, killings and forced recruitment of innocent civilians into their camps.
‘’In 2004, I fled to Mbale district and stayed with Comboni Sisters, where I met Evelyn Amony, a former abductee and wife to LRA leader; Joseph Kony.’’ Modo is currently a tailoring trainer under Women Advocacy Network[WAN] an organisation of formerly abducted Women and girls, founded by Evelyn Amony. She has since given up on the idea of marriage, having observed the challenges that former wives of rebels and their children have to face in contemporary society. ‘You deal with poverty and trauma, and still have to suffer stigmatization. Your children are not fully accepted because they remind people of the rebels.’ Says Florence Modo as she struggles to hold back her tears.
Modo adds that she lost four out of her eleven children to the war and she was forced to be a wife to one of the LRA rebel leaders in the bush. Like other Victims and survivors of the war, Modo insists that their biggest need is to go back to school and study. Modo believes that with a good education, they will be in a better position to support their communities, especially their children.
During an interview, Stella Lanam, 38, another survivor of the LRA war and former wife to one of the rebel group leaders confirmed that most of the formerly abducted and displaced women and girls who came back from captivity struggle with stigmatization.
‘’Living within the Community is not easy because of stigma, they have rejected the children we came back with from the bush and many of my colleagues are living in a sorry state in the slums of this Gulu city.’’
While still in captivity in 2004, Lanam recalls being threatened with death for herself and the children if she dared to escape. The mother of eight now invests her life in creating safe spaces and helping formerly abducted girls and women in Gulu to move on and rebuild their lives. Lanam has little to no help with her organisation; War victims and children networking.
The idea to start War victims and children networking was inspired by the emptiness that resulted from the exploitation by numerous NGOs that sprung up in Gulu in the mid 2000s, in the name of helping war victims.
‘’Many whites came and took our stories and different NGOs used our stories to get funding but they never came back to say thank you or to even support us.’’ says Lanam
Lanam was therefore forced to learn as much as possible through volunteering for those NGOs. It is the same knowledge she later used to start War Victims and Children Networking in order to speak for the women with stories like her own. Her organisation has unsuccessfully petitioned Parliament on several occasions about the same issue of supporting former internally displaced people in Northern Uganda. She adds that it would be helpful if the government through the office of the President came to the rescue of the formerly abducted and displaced Women and girls in Northern Uganda.
In Lanam’s words; “We don’t want much, we want justice, and we want the truth telling. When they were taking our children, we had the same President, they have come back under the same President. We want our government to hear the suffering of the people in Northern Uganda. We have gone to the Resident District Commissioners office and written letters as instructed, trying to get a meeting with the President, but we have failed, up to today. We wanted to meet the President and present our issues, because we are not sure he knows our problems yet. People go to him and get money in the name of helping war victims in Northern Uganda, but that support does not get to us, the people on ground.”
Stella Lanam, 38, founder of War Victims and Children Networking and former wife to one of the LRA rebel group leaders. Now working to help other women and children who were also formerly abducted and used during the war, by the LRA rebels.
Lanaam also wishes that the government would also pass into Law, the Transitional Justice Policy so that former victims of human injustices by the LRA rebels can be supported to get justice for crimes committed against them by the LRA rebels during the war. ‘People are committing suicide and dying because of frustration.’ Lanam elaborates.
On 6 May 2021, International Criminal Court Trial Chamber IX, sentenced Dominic Ongwen to 25 years of imprisonment for 61 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes allegedly committed after 1 July 2002 in northern Uganda. While this rings a bell of justice from many former victims of the same war in Northern Uganda, it also causes pain to Ongwen’s family which has to mourn the loss of a child, abducted against his will and forcefully turned into a child soldier who was mandated to commit crime, without choice.
It is such ironies that make the case in Northern Uganda one of much urgency in regard to psychological, emotional and mental health support among other crucial needs, especially if the community up North is expected to host the increasing number of refugees in Uganda.
While the United Nations and World Food Program have made some strides in incorporating the welfare of host communities in most of their refugee outreach programs, there is still a huge gap to be bridged.
It remains unclear when and how the government of Uganda will comprehensively address the issues of former victims of the LRA war in Northern Uganda. However, the current and growing number of refugees in Uganda is estimated to be over 1.8 million, according to a 2018 report by the United Nations for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. It should be noted that the LRA war in Northern Uganda Conflict that lasted for about 25 years killed over 500,000 people and displaced over 1 million of them, majority of whom are now forming host communities for refugees in Northern Uganda.
While the former internally displaced people in Northern Uganda continue to help the government of Uganda in taking care of refugees, the question is, who is taking care of them? Who is listening and telling their stories? Who is attending to their call? Who is caring for the carer?