war is only half the story

Last month I was approached by Al Jazeera English to write a short piece about my ongoing work with female former child soldiers in Uganda. The resulting piece which also included short photo-essays on six of these women, was published in their digital magazine, is only available for tablets and smartphones – or you can also read it in less fancy form in this PDF. So here’s a taste of what you missed.

Pain at sunrise, regrets at sunset – dawn or dusk, life isn’t fair anymore.

These lines are from a poem written by Betty Ejang, a former child soldier with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Thanks to the infamous KONY 2012 campaign you probably now know that the LRA abducted more than 30,000 children like Betty from their Ugandan homes in a conflict that spanned two decades. You will have heard how these boys and girls – some as young as 6 years old – were beaten, raped and forced to loot and kill. A childhood interrupted; a childhood lost.

But having worked with more than 40 female former child soldiers since 2011, I can tell you that’s not the whole story.

More than a quarter – approximately 8,000 – of these abductees were young girls like Betty. Contrary to the popularized image of the child soldier as a teenage boy gripping a Kalashnikov, female abductees also fought in the conflict, often running into battle with their babies strapped to their backs. These women have been
wrongly portrayed as impotent sex slaves.

But the biggest misconception surrounding child soldiers is that the struggles of war end when these children are lucky enough to escape from the LRA. But though the guns have been silent in Uganda for more than half a decade, these women are still struggling to reintegrate years after returning to their communities. Female abductees cannot support their families, having missed out on an education and having received inadequate job training from NGOs. Many return home HIV-positive or injured, but are too poor to afford treatment. Many have PTSD, mentally scarred by years of conflict, and have no access to professional counseling services. Their communities and their own families also stigmatize these women and their children.

Life is an everlasting nightmare, writes Betty. I have no future to look forward to.

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