graphic memories

The impatient spirits don’t wait till the night to haunt Agnes.

They come for her as she sweeps her compound under a blistering Ugandan sun.

The presence of the spirits – or cen in the Luo dialect – trigger flashbacks to her five years with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

One moment she’s approached by a dreadlocked soldier who handcuffs her with coarse rope; the next she shoots a fleeing man through the chest; the next she caves in the head of a baby.

Her body begins to shake, and her heart goes tum-tum-tum. When she comes to, she crawls into the shade of her tukul, curls into a foetal ball, and prays herself to sleep.

Sadly, Agnes’ story is fairly typical of those abducted by the LRA. She was abducted by the rebel army in 1999 when she was just 18. She witnessed the killing of her father and brother before being forced to march with heavy luggage for miles. Anyone who complained was beaten or killed.

Fifteen years on, she still bears machete scars on her shoulder and abdomen where she was hacked at with a panga for dropping a load she was carrying.

She says she was only forced to be a wife, but after time hints at the people she was forced to kill.

Government forces finally rescued her in 2005 but, even now, she suffers from PTSD.

Echoes of the past reverberate around her, and today she still struggles for closure.

The Acholi believe a cleansing ceremony must be performed when someone is killed. The person’s remains must also be buried on the family compound to ensure they are at peace.

But Agnes says she’s too scared to return to her old homestead where her relatives were killed and given a rushed burial by neighbours. She believes jogi – or evil spirits – still haunt that place.

She’s heard the people living there now have been driven mad by them.

Agnes says she’s considered suicide more than once – it’s just the thought of her two children that stops her.

I met Agnes this week by way of Rosco, her psycho-social counsellor from a local NGO.

He agreed to let her talk with me and Ugandan artist Chris Mugurura about her time with the LRA, and her post-abduction trauma.

For the last year I’ve been toying with the idea of developing an online, interactive photo/graphic novel that will tell the post-war stories of these women as they struggle to reintegrate.

The hope is that such a project would not only engage a wider demographic, but that the end product could be used to educate secondary school students. Better yet, such a product would be an ideal pedagogical tool for any student with learning difficulties.

The interactive element will also allow readers to converse with Agnes through additional pop-up video and photography as she tells her story.

But more importantly, I want others to be able to visualize the cen that haunts Agnes, to better understand the anguish she’s experiencing.

Agnes agrees to talk to us in more detail about her flashbacks, and Kasujja believes confronting these memories, and describing them in detail to an artist, will be cathartic for her.

Mugurura goes from the rough outline of Agnes’ story that I have given him from an earlier interview. Slowly he probes her for details. He speaks to her gently, and waits patiently for her to speak.

What does the LRA soldier look like? Does he have a beard? Any scars? How old is he? Is he fat, or skinny? What is he wearing? Do you know his name?

What type of gun are you holding? How many shots do you fire? Do you know the man? Describe where you are – are there shea nut trees, long grass? Is it day- or night-time?

Mugurura only makes some brief sketches to confirm details with Agnes. Most of the time he just jots down short notes. He doesn’t want to break eye contact, he wants to keep Agnes in the memory.

Over the course of an hour a picture of her terrifying flashbacks – and abductor – slowly emerge onto Mugurura’s sketchpad.

I’m humbled by Agnes’ bravery.