Former child soldier makes peace with self and family
Richard Odongo is a 24 year old born and raised in a family of eight in Lalwa B village in Pajule sub county, Pader district. At first sight, Richard, a tall young man, looks like any other youth from the village; however, his behavior is a little different from that of most of his colleagues. He is described as anti-social, aggressive and is not integrated into the community or his family.
In a particular instance, Richard stole his sibling’s academic document because he felt belittled by his family for not having gone to school. When asked about its whereabouts on suspicion of his involvement, he hurled insults at his family and as the tension grew, he disappeared from home for two months leaving his mother helplessly worried.
Richard, however, is not like any other normal troublesome kid; his behavior goes back 16 years when he had an experience that changed his life completely.
“One evening when my parents were out in the gardens, the rebels attacked our village and took me and my uncle away,” he narrates. Only eight years old at the time, Richard was taken to the bush and had to spend four years living with the LRA rebels as a child soldier.
Richard is one of the tens of thousands who were abducted by the LRA rebels in northern Uganda and continue to suffer the consequences. Though the guns have gone silent, trauma, aggression, suicidal tendencies and stigmatization are daily occurrences for these individuals and their communities.
With support from USAID SAFE, AYINET’s Trauma Healing for Post Conflict Peace and Reconciliation project reaches out to people such as Richard with a focus on addressing issues of post-conflict trauma and the need for psychosocial support, as well as post-conflict reconciliation.
Richard was identified and approached by the AYINET counselors who engaged and helped him heal from his traumatic experiences through series of counseling sessions.
During a recent visit to his home, Richard welcomed us with a big smile and sitting relaxed under a huge tree, he narrates his experience,
“Before I met the counselors, I had differences with my parents, they would say I have a mental problem, but now they talk to me as their own child and a normal person.”
His mother, who used to worry a lot about her son’s wellbeing, agrees that the counseling changed the situation positively,
“As a mother, I feel that the counseling from AYINET staff has brought peace at home and in Richard.”
Since the beginning of the counseling, Richard has demonstrated attempts to reconcile with himself, his family and his community. He has returned the documents he once stole, joined a community football team and enjoys a much better relationship with his parents and siblings.
Child abductee overcomes haunting past
Betty (not real names) is a mother of six, 35 years and a resident of Paluti Parish in Agago district. At 16 years of age she was abducted and later after escaping to live in a camp, she was still shot by the same LRA rebels that attacked that IDP camp leaving her with a bullet in her back that was so complex for the doctors at the time to remove. This forced her to live with it for 11 years till weeks of medical surgery and counselling to restore her back to a normal way of life.
It was in March 1999, ten years into the LRA rebellion in northern Uganda that was marked by gross human rights abuses in the northern part of the country, when Betty was abducted by the rebels in the middle of the night in their home in Odek subcounty along with 10 others who were siblings and relatives. She was then trained as a child soldier enduring torture and manual labor carrying sacks of food supplies that were usually looted from homesteads they attacked.
Betty narrates one of her most memorable experiences in captivity…
“I recall when I killed a certain lady to grab a sack of white beans. The next morning when I passed the place I shot the girl, I found body had changed like the beans I had gotten from her; it was white even to the clothes. This made me so afraid and terrified, I shivered with fear, I thought the lady was a ghost… Whenever I see white beans, I begin to fear and usually think the girl is close to me, sometimes I see her in my bed then I pray a lot to send her away from my house.”
This experience kept recurring regularly even after she escaped from the rebel fraternity with one child. On her return she was taken to Odek Internal Displaced Persons’ camp. Instead of recovering, it would only to get worse. In August 2000, the camp was invaded. Even though she survived abduction this time around, she was shot from behind and retained a bullet in the back. Hopes of seeking treatment were shattered when Doctors at the referral hospital in Gulu told her the bullet was hidden and could not be removed. She lived with it for the next 11 years in pain.
In subsequent years with this pain, Betty could not bend; carry water or even a child. It gave her a very difficult time during the weeding and harvesting seasons even though she had to fend and provide for her family of six children.
Through AYINET’s community mobilization efforts in implementing the Medical and Psychosocial Rehabilitation Program supported by the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF), Betty was identified and supported through Medical surgery; removing the bullet in her back and counseling to help restore hope and dignity in her life.
Judith Amongi, AYINET counselor recalls;
“when I started out with Betty, it seemed very difficult because she was not sure of her safety and of coming out of this difficult situation she was undergoing. I helped her talk about the past and bring them to present that will make her realize that she was no longer in the same situation and that she was safe from any danger. Betty talking about her own story ultimately gave me courage and was very happy with how she could now interact with the community freely and talk about her situation at any time.”
Even though it was initially difficult for Betty to accept and open up about her ordeals from captivity to life with a bullet in her body, upon full recovery from the surgery and counselling sessions, the fearful memories of dead white bodies and physical pains are no more.
“Would I even believe that I would be helped after I was told the bullet is located somewhere that it cannot be operated. I thank the almighty father for having used AYINET to help me with both my pains. I can now support my family fully without any pain of the mind or body glory be to God for having helped me”. Betty shares with gratitude.
Young war victim trades wounds and scars for hope and inspiration
Ogwal Isaac, 12 from Agago District is wounded at a tender age. But throughout the course of his life, he is to undergo a lot of stigma and torture owing to his maimed nature. Isaac, like many of his friends, relatives and village mates are victims to the two decade conflict of the LRA rebellion in Uganda, in which period, the greater north of the country suffered atrocities and gross human rights offenses. A medical rehabilitation program implemented by AYINET, a war-victims centered human rights organization, offered Isaac an opportunity that inspired him to make helping others, like himself, a lifetime ambition.
In 2003 in a village known as Odokoker in Agago district, Isaac is only One and a half years old safely tucked away, breastfeeding in their home; a grass thatched hut in a triad of other similar huts, when the LRA rebels attacked.
“They (the rebels) ordered them to catch the pigs that where roaming around and killed them, extracted only the fat, threw on the grass thatched house and forced all women captured into the hut in which Isaac and his mum were in, after which they lit the house.” narrates Nyanga Denis, Isaac’s caretaker who luckily survived on that fateful day by hiding in a nearby bush.
The pigs thrown on the huts were to be forcefully served to the civilian captives they were taking. After a while of battering these captives with some of the women in the burning hut already dead, bullets are fired at men trying to escape and were killed. It is after that gun shot that the UPDF (Uganda Peoples' Defence Forces) come to their rescue. For Isaac, even though he is still alive from the flames of the burning hut, his face is burnt with hot ash falling from the roof and hands severely burnt from crawling and holding onto burning wood.
The injuries he suffers at infancy leave him with a disfigured face, burnt eyelids with puss oozing out the right eye continually. His right hand with non-functional fingers while his left hand with a contracture on the fingers. Isolation, stigma and consistent pain the eyes becomes a part of his life,
“When at school my class mates always called me names like 'wangi obedo agwacha,' (a lango phrase translated as, your eyes look like pasted greens in peanut butter) yet they used to pain a lot. With a lot of tears and anger, I could look for a stone to throw at those who called me bad names.” Isaac narrates.
In October 2015, Isaac Ogwal was identified and selected by AYINET (African Youth Initiative Network) to be a repair surgery recipient in a Medical and Psychosocial rehabilitation program funded by the DGF (The Democratic Governance Facility). The program seeks to provide physical and psychosocial healing to victims of war as a core need in achieving and promoting justice, lasting peace and reconciliation in the post conflict communities of the great northern Uganda.
After successful facial and hand surgeries, Isaac is now recovered. He is able to see well and play with all his friends without worrying about being called bad names, he says,
“I want to thank God and the People who helped me because now my friends do not call me bad names any more, I can hold a stick and a cup very well. I am even going to study well to become a doctor to help other children like me.”
Twenty-six year old Okeng Martin, a resident of Ngetta Subcounty, Lira District, dropped out of school in lower primary due to the the LRA insurgencies. He feared being killed like his parents or abducted like his relatives. As the eldest in his family, at 13 years, he took up the responsibilities of taking care of his younger brother and three sisters. He explains, “I hustled to make ends meet. I would walk to and from town a distance of about 10kms hawking roasted g-nuts and managed to see my siblings through till they all joined vocational school.
It was through this ordeal that he realized he had inborn leadership and problem-solving skills. He always took time off to attend community meetings, dialogues, and mediations, but he couldn’t find a way to become more involved: “I always wanted to participate but I didn’t have the confidence.”In 2014, he joined an AYINET-trained youth group in his community.
“I was amazed at the way the youth conducted their activities, mediated conflict, had the confidence to speak in a public forum, and also trained other youth. From then I felt a sense of belonging in that youth group and with my already inborn skills of leadership and problem-solving, I felt I was in the right place and doing the right thing.” he said.
In April 2015, there was a land wrangle in Okeng’s neighborhood that had taken years. Though the local council land committee, religious leaders, and clan chief attempted to intervene through community dialogues, Okeng explains that they “always ended violently with drunkard youth from both sides holding stones, pangas, and sticks in their hands and using obscene languages, therefore disorganizing the mediation process. To them, confrontation and use of force was the only solution to the problem.”Witnessing the confrontation, he became interested in ending this chaos and reconciling the two parties with his newly acquired skills in conflict mitigation.
Okeng endeavored to be inclusive and listen to both parties. As he explains, “I realized the problem was complex, as both parties were to blame, the mediators had taken sides, the youth were bribed with alcohol to cause violence, the environment was not friendly enough for problem solving, and the boundary demarcation that caused conflict was not clear.” He therefore arranged a private meeting for the two conflicting persons together with few witnesses like the LCI, community and religious leaders. Okeng took lead in the mediation process using dialogue and negotiation that he had learned from his time with the youth group, and he solved the problem. The conflict ended with acknowledgment of the original boundary, reconciliation, and planting of trees locally known as “omara omara” to demarcate the boundaries.
After successfully resolving the land conflict, he thought of taking part in more leadership opportunities. He registered in one of the political parties for the post of LC1 of his village. As he says, “The people in my community had their trust in me, and they supported me. I almost got through in Primary elections but lost by three votes. This encouraged me to move on and aim higher in my leadership career despite my poor education background.” Okeng received tremendous support, even though he had no experience in being a political leader. he won the trust of his community through his leadership , problem-solving skills and qualities. “I’m grateful to AYINET for empowering me and paving way for my new beginning.”
Through AYINET’s youth program funded by USAID’s SAFE program, (Supporting Access to Justice, Fostering Equality and Peace). AYINET conducts community and school outreaches, radio talk shows, youth leadership and peace building trainings, established youth groups, supports community conflict mitigatiors. These activities drive towards engaging and empowering youth as responsible and peaceful leaders within their communities as this shows youth involvement in leadership, reconciling conflicting communities, crime reduction and above all youth participation in peaceful electoral process within their communities.
My Life given back
Mary Agenorwot 24 her arm that still has a bullet stuck in and left are Jewelry made by Mary for sell.
Mary Agenorwot (not her real name) is a member in one of the groups in Gulu supported by AYINET; she now lives life normally and socializes easily without worries “because I have my life given back”
Mary Agenorwot now 24 was abducted in 1999 and returned in 2005. “While in captivity I suffered sexual violence, beatings and I was subjected to carrying heavy loads. I was starved and forced to take my urine whenever I was thirsty. At 8years of age I was made a wife to one of the generals who passed away six month later due to HIV/AIDS. I was then recruited and trained into the LRA army. The worst was when I saw a recruit who attempted to escape being killed before my own eyes at a tender age, It was a very painful experience to see a person’s neck being chopped and slaughtered like a chicken, from that day every time I saw a chicken being slaughtered I remember the boy who was killed even when I returned the boys voice still echoed in my Ears saying please don’t kill me have mercy.”
Agenorwot managed to escape with her 5 year old son born in captivity in an ambush when the Army attacked the LRA south Sudan base in 2005. Amidst heavy gun shots she successfully made it, though with a bullet stack in her arm.
When she returned home, her trials were far from over as her family was no more “my mother and two of my siblings were killed while one went missing upto date just after my abduction, I was all alone with my son who was born in captivity. Life became a nightmare as I had nothing to survive on. I couldn’t get a casual job because potential employees thought I was possessed with evil spirits and besides the bullet in my arm couldn’t allow me do any manual work, i was stereo typed and nick named “ADUI “ meaning rebel by the people I usually begged from”
I am grateful that AYINET has promised me medical support in their next Rehabilitation project that will help me have the bullet removed from my arm after staying with it in my arm for years since I returned from captivity.
Mary was trained by AYINET to become a peace builder and conflict mitigator,
“AYINET trained me with peace building and conflict mitigation skills, together with other livelihood skills , am now able to earn a living through making jewelry and i have forgiven all my past though I’ve failed to forget”
Thank you AYINET for empowering me and giving me a new journey in Life. I will always be peaceful and look forward to working for peace, I no longer look at the past but am making a good from my past.
“I saw person’s neck being chopped and slaughtered like a chicken. Every time I see a chicken being slaughtered I remember the boy who was killed even when I returned the boys voice still echoed in my Ears”
My Life Awaken
Apiyo sarah (not her real names) was abducted in 1997 and returned in 2005, a few month after her abduction , Apiyo’s elder sister and step brother fell in a trap of the rebels while they found their way to town, Apiyo’s sister was sexually abused , beaten and left for dead while her step brother was abducted . “I was saddened to see my half-brother in the LRA camp; with tears in his eyes he broke the news about my elder sister’s death. I clinged and cuddled him like a baby as the guards beat us so hard trying to separate me from my half -brother. My brother was recruited into the LRA army as a “kadogo” after 4 years in captivity my half-brother died in an ambush in one of the raids. I managed to get the news about his death but there was no way I could pass the message to the home people. After years I managed to escape from the LRA base in south Sudan. I was rescued by the army taken to a reception center and later returned home. I was very surprised to meet my elder sister whom I thought was dead. At home there was already tension between my mother and my step mother as they accused my sister for laying a trap for me to kidnap my brother, when I broke the news of my half-brothers death the tension increased my step mother didn’t have kind words for me and my family . Saying I would have been the dead one, Why was I left while my brother was killed?”
The hatred and desire for revenge increased, as they often referred to me as “Anek” meaning killer. As custom demands that anyone involved in murder should pay money and cows as means of compensationcommonly known as “Culu Kwor” in Acholi. “I was so helpless and felt so guilty for my brother’s kidnap and death . In the whole village my step mother influenced people’s attitude and perception towards me inciting hate. Many judged me, pointed fingers and mocked me. The hatred had penetrated deeper that the clan elders and religious leaders attempt to reconcile us was futile.”
I decided to leave home as the situation intensified and besides I couldn’t afford to pay for compensation.
“ It was an intervention by youth trained by AYINET who came up and helped us reconciled when I shared my story with them, they took me through the healing and reconciliation process , they arranged meetings for me, my family, clan and church leaders in July 2014. It was in March 2015 when the storm finally came to an end, with tears rolling out of her eyes, my step mother and brother fully embraced, forgave and asked me to come back home. I was free from the pain and hatred at last. After the reconciliation and reunion, a cleansing ritual traditionally known as “Kiir” was carried out by my clan leader to mark peace between me and my step family.
Am now able to live happily with my steps mother and brethren’s, since am no longer being accused as it was in the past and life is more bearable and I see a lot of possibilities.”
AYINET’s support is strengthening the adoption of transitional justice mechanisms as it also clearly shows the roles of youth participation in peace building.
Remedies and Redress to Victims of Sexual Violence
Janet (name changed for confidentiality) was 17 years when she was abducted by the rebels of the Lord Resistance Army in northern Uganda. “I went toward my house, and as soon as I got closer to the door I saw rebels who had encircled my home and guarding their commander who was sleeping inside my house all coming towards me. They said if I try to run they would shot me. I sat down in the mad, crying loud and raising alarm. Two of the rebels stepped on me; other took guards as their commander came from inside my house. He carried with him the padlock which I always use for locking my house. They hit my knee so that I couldn’t run away.
I was sexually abused and severely tortured.
AYINET has provided Janet medical assistance and she has received reconstructive plastic surgery of the mouth. But she is still left with need for multiple surgeries of injuries resulting from sexual abuse. There are many women whom we have identified and profiled already, so many keeps coming and we need funds to treat them.
Thanks to United Nations for supporting her rehabilitation
Sophie A. – Reconstructive Surgery Gives Mutilated War Victim a New Start
One morning in August 2003, Sophie A, along with her husband and 10 other people, left her refugee camp in Lira in search of food. LRA rebels discovered the group and killed all of the members, including her husband.
Sophie survived the initial attack, but LRA rebels chopped off her lips and sent her to the Ugandan Army as a message.
Sophie’s injuries caused her excruciating pain and, as the wound healed, led to complications that made daily life difficult. “My mouth began to swell shut. It became very hard and painful for me to eat, and I couldn’t open my mouth to speak”, she recalled. “Many people who met me said they would have preferred to be killed.”
Sophie sought medical treatment, but the basic health clinics available were unable to provide her with much help.
As a widow supporting four children, she was unable to afford better treatment. “I received referrals to other hospitals, but it required finances which I didn’t have at all.” She suffered another terrible blow in 2007, when two of her children were abducted and killed by the LRA.
AYINET’s medical team, supported by the ICC Trust Fund for Victims (TVF), found Sophie later that year. They arranged another surgery for Sophie, this one more successful. “I used to be operated on after every few months and with recurring swelling and endless pain, but when AYINET and TFV took me to the hospital for my eighth operation in 2007 the surgery relieved the swelling and pain. My life has improved since then, with no recurring swelling and reduced pain”
Sophie returned to her late husband’s land after her surgery and began rebuilding their home. She resides there with her remaining children, who she hopes will finish school.
She credits the medical assistance she received from AYINET and for helping her recover.
“I know your help can never undo the injustice done to me, but it has relieved me from struggling with my acceptance in society,” she told AYINET. “As much as the LRA rebels caused unforgettable harms to me, you have given unforgettable assistance to me and other victims from Northern Uganda”.
Jacob O – Left For Dead, Widower’s Reconstructive Surgery Changes His Life
After Jacob O's wife and only daughter were abducted and killed by the LRA in 2002, Jacob was left alone to care for his two sons. A year later, Jacob left his refugee camp in search of food and was captured by the LRA and integrated into the LRA army.
After two years in captivity, Jacob tried to escape and return to his sons. On his way home, he was tracked down by LRA soldiers, who tortured him and shot him in the mouth. Left for dead, Jacob was discovered by soldiers in the Ugandan Army and taken to a hospital in Lira.
Jacob was finally reunited with his sons, but suffered terrible complications from his wounds.
“I was so weak and suffered serious head pains,” he said. “My mouth wouldn’t open anymore,
I used to push food into my mouth, which caused a lot of pain.” Unable to work, Jacob’s situation became worse. “I couldn’t work and we had no food, I needed regular medical treatment but couldn’t pay my medical bills, I couldn’t help my children even though they need my support.
I needed a woman to help me, but no woman would accept to marry me.”
When AYINET’s medical teams found Jacob, he was preparing to sell his land to pay for more surgery. “When I was taken to receive reconstructive surgery, they repaired my mouth, and I have a very strong hope that if I go through multiple surgeries I will be completely cured, and even married again.
Jacob credited AYINET and the donor for helping turn his life around. “I can’t thank AYINET, and their partners enough. All I can say is that the people they are helping are the people who have suffered too much in life. In most cases they feel very few people care for them and will even take advantage of their fate. I am so happy, their unexpected medical assistance to me was very timely and I have since realized that God sees and hears our cries.”
Lillian A – Seven Years Later, Surgery Helps Woman Support her Family
After surviving an LRA attack in 2005, Lillian Apio faced a harrowing struggle to rebuild her life.
Shortly after Apio and her family returned to their village from an IDP camp, they were attacked in the middle of the night by LRA soldiers, who locked them inside their thatch house and set it on fire.
“I was burnt in the house with my husband and two small children”, she described in a testimony about the attack. “I realized there was some smoke in the house and found out that we were burning. I woke my husband and children from sleep and we tried to break down the door. My clothes had caught fire and one child was injured in the arm and leg.”
Apio and her family were eventually freed by others in the village, but Apio suffered serious burns on her left arm. Apio did not receive medical treatment at the time, and as a result her arm eventually contracted and she became unable to use her arm.
Apio’s injury became a debilitating burden on her ability to do domestic work and to provide for her family, which has since grown by two more children. “I am a peasant farmer and I stopped my education in primary school”, she said. “I depend on digging for part of my income.”
After being examined in 2011 by an AYINET medical team, Apio finally received medical treatment for her arm. After her operation, Apio’s ability to move her arm and hand greatly improved. “My hand used to not hold the hoe very well when I was in the garden, but [now] I can dig well and do other domestic work.” Apio is also receiving psychosocial counselling from AYINET, which helps victims cope with mental and emotional stress resulting from their experiences during the conflict.
Maurice O – Medical Treatment Relieves Suffering of Elderly LRA Victim
In 2000, Maurice O and his family fled their village and settled in a refugee camp in the sub-county of Adilang, seeking safety from LRA fighters.
A few years later, then 61 years old, returned to his village to tend to the trees he had planted before he left. “I was going to weed the trees to protect them from fire”, he told AYINET counselors. “I had reached the garden and as I was digging, the LRA caught me and I was beaten seriously and tortured.”
Nearly a decade after the attack, still suffers from the injuries he received from LRA fighters that day. Before receiving medical treatment through AYINET in 2012, suffered from severe chronic pain throughout his body and could not bend from the waist, leaving him unable to walk or work.
Medical treatment through AYINET’s medical rehabilitation program has helped cope with his injuries and recover some of his lost mobility. “After the operation I feel better because I was given some medicine to relieve the pain that used to torture me so much”, he told AYINET counselors. “I am feeling better with all the support given to me which I never expected. I am happy I can walk well now and am feeling much better.”
Susan A – Surgery Gives Victim a Second Chance at School
Eight-year old Susan Akello was living with her family in the refugee camp of Lapono when it was attacked by the LRA in 2005.
“The Lord Resistance Army came into the camp, abducted some people, and burned the houses”, Susan testified to AYINET counselors. “One night, I was with my mother and father in the house. My mother was abducted and the LRA burned the house [me and my father] were in.”
Although Susan and her father escaped, Susan suffered a severe burn on her hand. Because the hand was not properly treated, it contracted and eventually Susan was unable to use it. “This affected my studies”, Susan told AYINET. Now fifteen, Susan is far behind peers her age in school. Susan has also suffered teasing and harassment from some classmates. “I feel bad in class and this makes me not concentrate”, she said.
After receiving medical treatment from AYINET on her hand in 2012, doctors were able to restore much of the movement in Susan’s hand. “After the operation I feel better and that I will be liked by my fellow pupils who used to call me names”, she said. “I’m happy about the assistance given to me because I never expected it to happen; I thought I would be that ugly girl in the eyes of other people.”
Since the operation, Susan has returned to school and continues to receive psychosocial counseling from AYINET. Although Susan is happier about her hand after the surgery, she told AYINET that she still hopes that one day her mother, still in LRA captivity, will come home. “My father is here, but my mother is still missing”.
Names and minor details were changed in some of these stories to protect patient confidentiality