Author: George Kitsaras
Editor-in-chief / Psychologist / Doctoral Researcher
Three stories from women who now work for WEND Africa are presented below. All three stories have a common thread: the abrupt end to difficult yet peaceful and joyful lives, many years in captivity and finally, redemption through liberation and new opportunities.
Lucy was a typical young girl attending her primary school classes in the morning and playing with other children in the evenings. All of that was about to change when late at night on the 12.09.1993 rebels of the LRA attacked her village in search of young girls and boys. Lucy and her sister were taken away. On the way to the rebel’s base, Lucy’s younger sister managed to escape, Lucy was not that lucky. In total, Lucy spent 7 years in captivity. She became pregnant 2 times both of them as a result of sexual violence and rape. During both of her pregnancies there was limited food, water and only basic healthcare. One of her babies died soon after birth, the other survived. Since she was pregnant and later a mother Lucy was settled in one of the rebel’s bases in today’s South Sudan rather than being moved around. Lucy formally “belonged” to one of the rebel’s commanders. She was living alongside his other 34 “wives” 5 of who had given birth to his children. Even though Lucy knew many of the other women, they were not allowed to speak to each other in fear of plotting against the rebels. A few years into her captivity, Lucy’s rebel “husband” was infected with HIV from a HIV-positive woman. Sending HIV-positive women to have repeated, unprotected sex with rebels of rival groups was a common tactic during the years-long unrest. In early 1990s in the North of Uganda an HIV diagnosis guaranteed a short and painful life given the lack of medication and healthcare. With that tactic rival rebel groups attempted to establish their dominance by weakening their opponents. Short after being infected, the rebel commander, father of Lucy’s child, died. Around that time Lucy learnt that she was also HIV-positive after being forced to continue to have sex with him. From his 34 women, those with children were moved to another base while those without children were released back to their villages. After 3 more painful years Lucy with a group of women and their children managed to escape and made their way to Juba in South Sudan. There, no one wanted to help them and everyone refused to transfer them to a nearby UN base. Despite the initial denial, a nun rushed to their assistance and soon after Lucy reached the UN base before being flown to Kenya. From there she made her way back to Uganda and her village in the outskirts of Gulu town.
Once she reached her village she immediately visited her family. Seven years in captivity, scars of abuse and with a child in her arms Lucy was a different person from the one that was taken away back in 1993. Upon seeing her, Lucy’s mother was so fundamentally shocked that ended up in denial. After a few attempts Lucy’s mother started talking to her. Other family members also made their way to Lucy’s family’s hut to see her and celebrate with them. There was only one person missing: Lucy’s younger brother. He was in Gulu town unaware of Lucy’s return. While catching up, celebrating her return and waiting for her brother to come back home bad news reached the village; there has been an attack in Gulu town with multiple casualties. One of them was Lucy’s younger brother. Moments away from an unexpected family reunion and without any clue of his sister’s return after 7 years of captivity Lucy’s younger brother’s life was cut short by the same rebels who have caused so much pain to her and her family. Unfortunately, tragic events continued to dominate Lucy’s life. Soon after her return and the death of her brother, Lucy’s HIV-positive diagnosis progressed to AIDS. Initially she tried to hide her symptoms. One night and while her mother was helping to bathe since she was too weak to bathe herself, she confessed the truth about her disease. With Lucy physically and emotionally exposed and weak her mother reached out, hugged her and said: “everything will be okay… even if it comes to this and you die, at least now you will die in my arms.” With her mother’s support and with proper medication and healthcare Lucy started to show signs of improvement. She was remarried and had 2 more children but left her husband due to his aggressive and violent behaviour. Fortunately, she was able to find another man who was supportive and by her side resulting in much needed stability. Today Lucy is a living example of persistence in the face of adversity. She is an integral part of WEND Africa where she has been working from the beginning of the organisation. Despite her long, brutal and undeserving past Lucy has many dreams for her and her family’s future.
Vicky was living with her parents and two siblings in a village in Northern Uganda. Life was tough but good. An early morning, out of the blue Vicky was abducted by LRA rebels and moved to one of their South Sudanese bases. Over the next 8 years Vicky remained in captivity, away from her family and with her young innocence torn to pieces. While in captivity, life became unbearable. Vicky, and the other captive women, had to wake up every night at 2 am. Despite not being able to see due to the darkness they had to work in the fields until 7pm, more than 15 hours with no breaks. If by 7pm they did not manage to produce enough food from the fields, then they were forced to attack nearby Sudanese villages and remove goods and food by force. Even though life was extremely hard with systematic abuse and long working hours in the fields Vicky never thought of escaping. After all many of her close friends have died in front of her eyes during their attempt to escape from the rebels. Suddenly one day the Ugandan army invaded the rebel’s base releasing many of their captives including Vicky. Despite being liberated by the Ugandan forces Vicky quickly tried and succeed to move away from them, escaping in a nearby village. That was a common practice amongst freshly liberated captives since the Ugandan army subsequently arrested many of them. During her stay in that village, Vicky was confronted many times by the locals who were suspicious of her. Many of the locals, due to the years-long unrest in the area, had grown extremely wary of any newcomer especially ones who used to be systematically brainwashed by the rebels. After a few difficult and uncertain months, Vicky finally moved on. After moving back to the wider Gulu town area, Vicky became aware of WEND Africa. Today she is working for WEND Africa being responsible for some of WEND’s best-known bags. Life now is significantly better but not without its difficulties. Vicky still suffers from PTSD symptoms especially night terrors and flashbacks in the presence of loud, unexpected noises that remind her of the explosions and gunfire she was accustomed to during her captivity. Nevertheless, Vicky is aware of how lucky she has been and how different things might have ended up for her. She’s now looking at the future with a renewed and positive outlook. One of her long-term goals is to write a book where she will be able to tell her story with more details.
Grace was a happy child who was concentrated to her school classes while also having fun playing with her sister. At age 13, LRA rebels attacked her village late one night taking Grace away. After a long walk in the middle of the night Grace reached one of the rebel’s base near the border with today’s South Sudan. She remained in captivity for a total of 3 years. At age 14, she was forced to “marry” one of the rebels and start giving birth to his children. As Grace puts it: “I became his slave, just to satisfy his desires.” Grace gave birth to one child while in captivity. Her captive years were tremendously difficult with continuous abuse. To make matters worse, the rebel’s base where Grace was held was often attacked, mainly by air, by Ugandan forces. In one of those attacks and while carrying another abductee’s child on her back, a bomb dropped from a helicopter hit Grace. Due to the way the bomb was dropped it first hit the child and then Grace. The child immediately died, being cut in half by the bomb, while Grace was severely injured. Surprisingly Grace made a full recovery from her physical injuries. A few months later Grace and her daughter, who she named Apwoyo Rwot (Acholi for “Thank God”), managed to escape from the rebels. Today, Grace is married with 2 more children. She’s also part of WEND Africa assisting in production and training of newly arrived women. Despite her body still aching from the injuries she sustained during her captivity and her psychological state still unstable Grace is determined to move towards a better future.