Girl Soldiers -- The Cost of Survival in Northern Uganda

UGANDA -- It had been 11 years since my feet had touched the dusty rust-colored soil of Uganda. My first visit had been particularly remarkable as it had been the first time the long, black barrel of a gun had been pointed within centimeters of my face.

In a national effort to expel a swelling and beleaguered Sudanese refugee population from the country, an eager soldier of some sort had stopped our matatu (mini-van) in the middle of the night. He awoke me -- at gunpoint -- demanded my passport, and told me to get out of the vehicle. Within a few minutes, about 10 or so of us re-boarded with two less people -- a Sudanese woman and her daughter.

On that night, little did I know that somewhere, kilometers away, an 11-year-old Lucy Aol was sleeping in the thick Northern Ugandan bush hoping that she wouldn’t be awoken in the same fashion. With one thin mattress below her, and one covering her, her dark chocolate skin was swallowed by the night as she hid from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group that was not only largely supported by the Sudanese government but was enthusiastically amassing an army of children to torture, kill and steal from the area’s Acholi people.

Her luck would last two more years. At 13, this Acholi girl would be abducted and issued a gun so that she could protect herself while she pillaged homes for food and clothing at the behest of the LRA. Within days of her abduction, she would be made a “wife”, a position she would keep until, at the age of 16, she would understand that death was a small consequence if she were caught escaping.

“I’m not going to risk much,” she negotiated with herself. “I have to escape.”

She would walk cautiously and quietly for more than 24 hours, without rest, through bush so dense a cat would find it difficult to claw its way through. When she would finally reach Gulu, the second largest populated town in the country and home to a military base against the LRA, she would immediately enter a rehabilitation center, where she would be told the unimaginable: She was pregnant. A teenager so traumatized, Lucy had never even had her first period.

The Lucy Aol who I didn’t know existed 11 years ago, I return to meet in 2008. Now 22 years old, Lucy delivers a handshake so cotton-ball soft that even a ballerina would feel brutish in her company. Her voice is quiet, her smile gummy, and her laugh affable. What you don’t see, however, is the gallery of torture on her body -- a shrapnel scar on the heel of her foot, the panga (type of a machete) and stick scars on her buttocks from being repeatedly beaten by soldiers in the bush.

But there is a reality that neither a smile nor clothing can mask: When you meet Lucy, what you see is a girl -- wanting to be a woman -- and desperately trying to extricate herself from her experience as a child soldier of yesterday, while anxiously trying to safeguard her child from the stigma of being tomorrow’s rebel soldier.

Lucy is among more than 60,000 Northern Ugandan children abducted by the LRA during its 21-year-long civil war against the Ugandan government. Organized by former Catholic altar boy Joseph Kony, theoretically, the LRA was founded to protect Northern Ugandans from the National Resistance Army, which had staged a military coup in 1986, and was exacting revenge in the north, the home of many of the soldiers that tried to resist the coup. It didn’t take long before Kony began attacking, rather than protecting, the Acholi people -- which, ironically, was his own tribe. As they began to fear him, he accused the Acholi of betraying him and he wanted them dead, all the while bolstered by the messages he claimed he received from the “holy spirit.”

“A person who believes in God cannot kill, cannot rape people, cannot burn their house … cutting their ears, cutting their necks,” Lucy says. Kony “is a devil, not God.”

“When you first arrive [after being abducted by the rebels], they put all the girls together. Then they call the officers so they can pick who they want for a wife. Even if you are very young. I was given to a very big man. He was blind on one side. So maybe he didn’t see that I was very young.”

- from a Ugandan girl soldier, exhibition of drawings and quotes for Nobel Peace Centre via CAP International – Children/Youth as Peace Builders 2006

Most abductions occurred during the’90s. Like Lucy, thousands of the girls who were abducted were forced into “marriages” with soldiers. Almost 40 percent of the girls who were forcibly married had at least one child in the bush, according to reports.

Within days of her arrival in southern Sudan, where the LRA’s headquarters were based, Lucy was lined up with other girls and assigned to her “husband.” The more successful the soldier, the more wives he was awarded -- Kony allegedly had over 40 forced wives.

Lucy would become the fourth wife of a 24-year-old captain. “He was so big,” she recalled. “He was so old.” Devastated, Lucy burst into tears and refused the man.

HDPT CAR - Humanitarian and Development Partnership Team - Central African Republic

Image: HDPT CAR - Humanitarian and Development Partnership Team - Central African Republic

“They told me to lie down, and they said, ‘You pick: Do you want life or death?,’” she recounts. “Then they brought a boy near me and killed him using a panga. They cut him here (her finger slices her neck), here (waist), here (legs) … Then they told me, ‘Have you seen what has happened with that boy?’ I started crying. ‘You are crying!’ Then, they started beating me.”

She chose “life,” which meant that for 2.5 years she was forced to have sex with her husband twice a week, each time crying and each time being beat for her tears. She would sometimes be denied food for up to five days and almost just as long without water -- when deprived water, soldiers would make her drink someone else’s urine. She was only required to fight in the field once, but was forced several times a week to pillage villages to gather food and clothing.
Kony was set to sign a peace agreement in April of this year, officially putting an end to a war that left nearly 2 million people homeless, 80 percent of who were women and children. But he never showed. The LRA still managed to stay in the headlines, however, when they orchestrated over 300 abductions in Congo, Sudan and Central African Republic.

“For us, we are just waiting,” Lucy says. “Will he come back to kill you? Will he come back to arrest you? Will he come back to abduct you?”

“I was scared. There were many bullets fired. I dropped down for safety, but could see the tree leaves falling from the bullets… I didn’t shoot, but six rebel soldiers and man abducted children were killed. Over twenty children died. I was running for safety and had to jump over many of the bodies. The youngest was about twelve.”

- Grace T., age 16, abducted July 2002, VOHU – Village of Hope – Uganda

Back in Gulu, Lucy is at ease on her home turf, her black flipflops dusted with red dirt as she calmly walks around the city. The expense of the bus ticket prohibits her from visiting her mother and her daughter, Winnie, often -- she only manages the 7-hour journey about once a semester.

Winnie “likes my mother more than me,” she says matter of factly. “I don’t feel good [about that]. I want my kid. Just because I’m away from her, she’s not like me. So when I finish my course, I will come back, and she will know me better.”

Motorbikes buzz past her on the street, carrying women with children, and men clutching nearly empty briefcases, while people bustle about with an effort of feigning life in a city. The market buzzes with excitement, and the smell of dead fish wafts over women walking around with straw-weaved doormats on their heads. Lucy is stopped by a friend, who instantly grabs Lucy’s arm and slowly walks with her down the street, asking question after question: How much is your tuition? When does the next semester begin? How do you like the program?

“It’s normal,” Lucy says. “People used to stop me all the time. They want to know everything.”

Lucy is studying environmental health, with the hope that she will work as an environmental health assistant with the Ministry of Health in her region of the country, working to improve sanitation in the community, educating people on disease outbreaks, like cholera and tuberculosis, and providing HIV counseling and testing.

Her friend’s interest is genuine. One would be hard pressed to find another country where education is so prized, but so unattainable for many, as exorbitant school fees depress any kind of academic aspirations. Around 41 percent of former abductees returned to school, 28 percent of whom were long-term abductees. According to a recent study, however, girls, like Lucy, returning from the bush with a child had nearly a zero percent chance of returning to school.

But despite her success as a student and her sacrifice as a mother, there is no guarantee that she will land a job -- the reality in Uganda is that just as tribal nepotism and politics worked against her during the civil war, they could also work against her when trying to work for the government.

“It is different for boys and girls when they are coming back. The boys come back without children. But us, we all have children from our time with the rebels. They are our children, you cannot leave this child, she is yours. But if you want to make a new life, start a new life with a man, you will always suffer because of this child. And the child will suffer too, because of you, because of your past in the bush.

It is harder for girls. And it is hard. Because people will say things to you and that thing will live with you. It stays in your heart. And when you are suffering, when you are depressed, you will always think about those things. A boy just forgets but a girl is not made that way. And people do not let a girl forget. It is impossible for a girl to brush that thing off.” 

– Interview with girl child soldier Uganda, CAP- Children/Youth as Peacebuilders 2003

A few hours before Winnie comes home from school, Lucy finally arrives in her mother’s village, a mud-hut suburb of sorts two kilometers outside Gulu. Lucy walks around for a few minutes before a friend spots her, the two simultaneously laughing at the sight of each other.

“This is my friend, Grace” Lucy says. “We met in the bush.”

The two met when Lucy had been deprived of water for three days. Lucy begged Grace for a drink, and Grace acquiesced, even though she would have been killed had she been caught.

Now when Lucy and Grace see each other it is instant relief, mostly because they know they will be able to discuss their problems, their traumas, their fears. Since they understand each other’s pasts so well, they can offer each other therapy that they can rarely find anywhere else. Lucy does not even talk about her days in the bush to her mother -- it is a taboo topic.

But Grace and Lucy have more in common than just their harrowing past: Neither of them plan to tell their children any time soon of how, and to whom, they were born. Children are already beginning to taunt their children at school, calling them “bush children”, creating rounds of questions for both the mothers. Both Lucy and Grace, who had two children in the bush, avoid the discussion, by offering terse explanations.

Grace tried to marry, which would have assuaged the situation, but the man divorced her when his family found out she was one of “Kony’s children.” This sort of rejection is sadly typical for former female soldiers with children.

“I tell [Winnie] that she wasn’t born in the bush; she was born in Gulu,” Lucy says, which is the absolute truth -- Winnie was conceived in the bush, but she wasn’t born there.

To mitigate such harassment, Lucy enrolled Winnie in a private school, where she has a more intimate learning environment. There are no educational standards in public schools, Lucy says, so the family sacrifices everything to provide this for Winnie. Lucy’s mother takes food rations from the displacement camp to sell for Winnie’s school fees. But she broke her arm recently when taking cassava to sell in the West Nile; now, Winnie must carry out the chores for the house.

In June, rising food prices provoked a 5,000 shilling (CZK 50, $3.20) boost in school fees -- school fees that Lucy’s mother hadn’t managed to gather yet, bringing the total to 50,000 shillings (CZK 500, $32).

“I’m not happy at all because they ruined me. I had to cut short my studies. I have no hope that I will one day be somebody. I gave birth to two children and was not prepared. I have two children and no means of survival. I worry about what will happen next.”

- Christine A., age 20, abducted in 1996, VOHU – Village of Hope - Uganda

Emotionally spent, Lucy and her mother sit inside the dark mud hut and discuss the option of selling charcoal over the next few weeks. Lucy also suggests asking the school to allow for an extension in payment. However, the two women conclude that they aren’t going to be able to keep up the momentum -- the women might need to return to their family in the displacement camp, and Winnie might have no choice but to be in a poor school system with provocative children.

“She should not be hearing such kind of language as she’s growing,” Lucy says. “It will be dangerous for her to hear that she was born in the bush and that her father is from the bush killing people … She will not be fine in the future.”

But Lucy maintains her hope that at some point she will find, or create, some kind of job, and that she will be able to purchase land for her parents, five brothers, their wives and children, so that the family can leave the displacement camps, where over 1 million northern Ugandans still live despite the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement that was signed in August 2006 between the LRA and the Ugandan government. And then, and only then, will she be able to build a fence around the family compound “to protect” Winnie.

“Maybe I can get a job, and in the future my child will be okay,” she says. “If you have nothing to do, then you suffer.”

A day into her trip and a day away from returning to school in Kampala -- where she will study for upcoming exams, sleep in a room with 19 other people, and subsist on a diet of beans -- Lucy’s visit home quickly turns sour. While standing with Winnie, the two posing for a photograph, the landlord -- and friend of the family -- stares at 6-year-old Winnie.

“That child has the eyes of a rebel soldier,” she says to her.

And as much as Winnie doesn’t know about her life, she understands that the words are vitriolic. Winnie sobs. And Lucy consoles her, careful not to tell her the truth.

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.