The spirit comes to my room every night and tries to strangle me

Eight years after escaping from the LRA, Janet still awakes screaming most nights fighting off the hands at her throat. She says she can no longer sleep in a room alone.

Janet is describing what the Acholi refer to as cen. The northern tribe believes that cen is the angry spirit of someone who was murdered. Whether you killed that person, witnessed the murder or simply passed by the body – it doesn’t matter. The Acholi believe that this spirit can plague or possess you.

It’s a common symptom of those who return from the bush. Academics have suggested it’s PTSD.

She wants to visit an ajwaka to cleanse her (a traditional healer) but cannot afford the goat or chicken that is needed.

Sleepless nights are but one result of the year that Janet spent in the bush with the LRA.

She is slightly built and softly spoken. She doesn’t make eye contact with me for the entire interview.

She breastfeeds her child as she tells me about her abduction.

The LRA soldiers came at night and abducted her and four other girls. They were forced to march all night with the goods that the soldiers looted from their town. The girls could stop for occasional water breaks, drinking from dirty puddles. They were caned if they dropped their loads under fire from the UPDF (Ugandan military).

Her main role was as a porter. She was also taught how to kill.

But she says that she was lucky. She says the older children in the group were forced to kill. If they refused, they had to drink the victim’s blood to make them more “strong-hearted.”

During the year Janet was with the LRA, she suffered from chronic blisters on her legs and her vision became affected. She says that the ladit (commander) was just about to kill her and the other weak soldiers when the UPDF ambushed them.

Janet was taken to army barracks near Anaka, where she lived for 2 months before word reached her mother that she had escaped.

Nobody told her about the reception centres that had been set up by varying aid organisations. That meant no counselling, no financial support, no vocational training. The UPDF simply packed her on her way.

When Janet returned to her old community she learnt that her father had been killed.

Parents in her community wouldn’t let their children play with her for fear of being “tainted.”

Upon her return, Janet had to work to support her disabled mother and younger brother. She dug for cassava, which she then used to make alcohol.

She made $3 a week doing this.

In the last year she has managed to get work as a cook at a local NGO in Gulu. Although it pays better than brewing alcohol it is barely enough to take care of her mother, two brothers, sister and her two children.

She is just nineteen.

Her eldest child is four. She cannot afford to send him to school.

The youngest, Sharita, is seven months old. She feeds hungrily from her mother’s breast.

Janet says she still has chest and back pains from being forced to carry heavy loads in the bush. She cannot afford the medical attention she needs. Instead she chooses to support her family.

She wants access to some sort of vocational training.

But she says that will mean she will become a child again in her household without an income, something she cannot afford to do for her family’s sake.

She says someone should be taking care of her.

She is angry at the government for not giving her a financial package like other formerly abducted children who went through the official amnesty process.

For now, Janet says that she has enough money to pay for the necessities in life. And she has become less prone to depression.

Janet ties Sharita to her back with a sheet in the African fashion. She lightly shakes my hand before walking back to town and thanks me.

I don’t know what to say. Thanks for what? Making people recall these painful memories is sadly the bread and butter of being a journalist.

Let’s hope it does some good for Janet.