Life was supposed to get easier for Grace Achara after being abducted, raped, and forced to kill – but war is only half the story.
Having spent over half her life in the Ugandan bush with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the former child soldier is now battling poverty and stigmatisation since her return home last year.
“I was just 16 when I killed for the first time,” says Grace.
The man had been sentenced to death for trying to escape the rebel group, and she was named his executioner.
“I covered his eyes first with a dirty rag,” she says. “I used a wooden club to do the job.”
“It only took a minute.”
Being intimately familiar with the penalty for escaping, there are now moments, Grace admits, if the risk was worth it.
Thanks to the infamous KONY 2012 campaign you probably now know that Joseph Kony’s rebel army abducted more than 30,000 children – a quarter of them girls – to fuel a two decade-long fight against President Yoweri Museveni’s government.
You will have heard how these boys and girls – some as young as six – were beaten, raped and forced to loot and kill.
A childhood interrupted, a childhood lost.
But having interviewed over 50 female ex-combatants since 2011, I can tell you that’s not the whole story.
The single biggest misconception surrounding Ugandan child soldiers is that their struggles end following their escape from the LRA.
Although I have reported previously about the post-war plight of female child soldiers, I wanted to find an innovative format to tell their stories for what is increasingly becoming a tablet-savvy public, hungry for interactivity and multimedia content.
Long associated with superheroes and the make-believe, over the last decade journalists have increasingly turned to the medium of the graphic novel to tell traumatic stories from the real world.
Events such as the Holocaust and Bosnian genocide have already been captured within the handdrawn panels of Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde.
But the project developed by myself and Ugandan artist Christian Mafigiri is a 2.0 version of this traditional comicbook format.
Funded by the European Journalism Centre, this online graphic novel depicts the stories of four female returnees – two of whom returned to their pre-war communities as recently as September 2014.
But these stories go far beyond the static image and engage the reader, using scroll-triggered animation and pop-up video, in a virtual conversation with each woman.
Far from a gimmick, comicbook reportage cannot only be used to simplify often complex subject matter, but I also hope the glossy format can be utilised as a pedagogical tool to educate high school students and adults about the challenges faced by a post-war community.
Grace was just 14 when she was torn away from her family in 1999.
“I awoke to find a torch pointing in my face,” she says. “The dreadlocked soldiers cocked their guns and told us to get out of bed.”
“They asked me where my parents were – but I found out later they had already fled.”
A heavy burlap sack of grain was tied to her back, and for days she was force-marched until they reached Sudan where they rendezvoused with other LRA battalions.
The first few days were the hardest, she says.
Grace missed her home, her family, her school friends.
She was given as a wife to a one-legged commander and, along with the other new recruits, was given a crash course in military tactics.
Miserable, she considered trying to escape, and even suicide.
“But then I found Simon – I think it was God who brought us together,” Grace says.
A commander of a different platoon, Simon met Grace shortly after her first husband was killed in a skirmish with the Ugandan army.
“He told me he would take care of me until the end,” she says. “And we’ve been together for 10 years now.”
“For the first time in years, I was truly happy.”
But then things fell apart last year in Central African Republic.
Simon was accused of helping another LRA soldier plot their escape, and told he would have to stand trial.
“I knew what that meant, and I didn’t want him to be beaten to death,” Grace says.
Inside their small, cramped tent, Grace recalls how their knees touched as she whispered conspiratorially of her own escape plan.
She had already stockpiled enough cassava to feed them, and their four children, for a few days.
Due to the LRA’s curfew it was too dark to read his face, and she was unsure of how he would react.
They left early the next morning when the majority of LRA soldiers had gone out on patrol and, by dusk, the family were intercepted by a group of the Séléka militia.
A call was made to the US military and within a few weeks Grace returned to her homeland for the first time in 16 years.
Separated from her husband, she and her children were dropped at the red cast-iron gates of the Gulu Support the Children Organisation (GUSCO).
Established in 1994, the local non-governmental organisation (NGO) created a reception centre to offer healthcare, family tracing, trauma counselling, and extensive vocational skills training programs to aid not only the returnee’s rehabilitation, but their reintegration into their old communities.
Thousands of women and children have since passed through these doors.
But today the centre is quiet and empty; classrooms sit idle, the swing sets rust, and the merry-go-round has become enwrapped in weeds.
Tragically Grace – unlike the thousands of ex-combatants who returned before her – is doubly disadvantaged, not only a victim of an enforced abduction, but also a victim of unfortunate timing.
Since the LRA was chased out of northern Uganda in 2006, and the initial flood of returnees has now reduced to a trickle, governmental and humanitarian funding has dried up.
As the dollars have been cut back, so have been the much-needed services that returnees so desperately need.
Past interviews with women who returned either during the war, or in the immediate aftermath, speak of receiving up to six months of hands-on, dedicated psycho-social support and were also taught a trade having missed out on a proper education.
Grace was at GUSCO for one week before being asked to leave.
Most also received an amnesty package consisting of approximately $100 and household supplies.
Grace received only a mattress, blanket and a mosquito net.
But Lucy Lapoti, a senior resettlement officer with the Ugandan government’s Amnesty Commission, says that Grace was lucky to even get a week at GUSCO.
The commission implements the country’s 2000 Amnesty Act which aids the demobilisation and reintegration of returnees.
“I know some people only stayed for three days because now the centre has financial constraints,” she says.
Lapoti – who personally reviewed Grace’s case when she returned in September last year – says she should have stayed at GUSCO for at least three months.
“I’ve assessed her and she’s not very good,” she says. “She is not very strong and she still has a bush mind.”
“But she came at a time when there’s no funding – if she had come 10 years ago I think she would have been very OK.”
However James Ocitti, a social worker at GUSCO, says the geographic shift in the conflict, not funding, is the reason why ex-combatants now stay at the reception centre for shorter periods than they used to.
He says: “The war with the LRA is now a little bit far from Uganda [in Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo], and we have partners there on the ground.”
“So the rehabilitation progress starts immediately…so that by the time they come to the reception centre it’s not like we are starting from the beginning.”
Ocitti says that in their initial assessments they often find that returnees have already taken three to four months to get to GUSCO – meaning there is no longer the need to have them stay at the centre for so long.
“For the last two years we have also been providing income generating activity training for women,” he says. “We go to their community, train them in how to run a business, and then we give them some start-up capital.”
Ocitti says 50 female returnees are coming to visit GUSCO just next week for such a month-long training session.
Perhaps Grace is one of them, he offers optimistically.
But Grace says, while GUSCO staff certainly promised to follow up with her about organising training, that was over a year ago – and she’s still waiting.
And she’s not alone.
A number of other recent returnees I spoke with had either not been called for training, or in one case where they had been, the program was cut short due to limited funding and the approaching Christmas holidays.
“I didn’t feel so good because many other people have benefited from their help – so why didn’t I?” Grace asks.
“I also passed through the same conditions as earlier returnees,” she says. “So it was GUSCO’s responsibility to ensure that my kids and I were supported in the same way.”
“Because it is not easy to start a life without anything.”
While she and Simon were warmly received by his parents in Kitgum, Grace was unprepared for the stigmatisation by many in her community.
Icako en kiti ni, her neighbours would mutter to her at the borehole.
Icako en kiti ni, the women would whisper to her at the market.
You still have the character of a violent rebel.
And soon even her children became victims of hereditary stigmatisation.
“One day I heard children in the next compound screaming and crying,” Grace says.
Her eldest son had got into a fight with a neighbour’s child.
“Your kids are of the bush,” the other mother said. “They will try and kill my children.”
Words quickly turned into actions and, when neighbours started to kill their chickens, Grace and Simon knew it was time to move on.
Grace says that only the day she left GUSCO was she casually told she may experience some ill-feeling from a community terrorised by the LRA during the war.
“I felt so sad because I didn’t go to the bush voluntarily,” Grace says. “Their words hurt me but I just try and ignore it because that is how the world is.”
“Maybe that is what God has planned for me – simple as that.”
Simon and Grace moved south to Nwoya district where no one knows their past.
They now at least live in peace, but surviving is still hard.
“I told GUSCO, ‘what will I do without your help? How will I support my children?’” says Grace.
Her husband inherited some land but it’s only enough for subsistence farming, and after years of physical abuse in the bush, Grace often has to take breaks from digging in the garden.
Ironically, in the absence of help from GUSCO and an education, it is a skill that Grace learned in the bush that now supports her family.
When she can afford the ingredients, she makes waragi – a potent Ugandan home brew made from yeast, sugar, water, groundnut paste and tea leaves.
Fermented overnight, she sells the bubbling tea-coloured concoction at the local trading centre.
In a month, if she’s lucky, she can make a profit of 50,000 Ugandan shillings – about $19.
“But now it’s the rainy season and not so many people come to the market to buy from me,” Grace says. “I don’t know what will happen to us.”
Grace has been supported by a new NGO called Pathways To Peace.
The founder David Ocitti, a former child soldier himself, says he does not want others to go through the trauma he endured when he came back from the bush.
“When I first came out in 2002, like Grace, I didn’t go through any rehabilitation centre,” he says.
Ocitti says he just wanted to resume a normal life, to go back to school.
“But when I went back my classmates left the front desk for me because I was ‘from the jungle’,” he recalls. “They thought I was a killer, they thought I was violent, but that’s not who I am.”
And Ocitti is critical of how many NGOs have withdrawn, and how much humanitarian funding has been cut.
“The guns have been silent in northern Uganda for many years but the war is still going on,” says Ocitti.
“Kony is still abducting people in Central African Republic, in Democratic Republic of Congo, in South Sudan, and there is still a need for a continued presence of NGOs on the ground.”
And the figures appear to back up Ocitti’s claims.
More than 80 people returned home in just one month last year to a system that appears ill-funded to help them even have a slim chance at a successful reintegration.
Despite the viral success of the KONY 2012 campaign, which arguably prompted further military assistance from the US government to bring the LRA leader to heel, abductions continue unabated.
According to the LRA Crisis Tracker the rebel group has already abducted over 300 civilians in 2015.
And rather than declining, the number of returnees remains consistent.
The 348 returnees who returned in the first half of 2015, is already set to eclipse the 599 who returned in the whole of 2014.
And so Ocitti wants Pathways To Peace not only to ensure there are services available to those that will return in future months, but to also focus on what they want to do with their new lives.
This is a veiled criticism of many reception centres and NGOs who taught tailoring as the de facto trade for female returnees.
And it’s true – throw a ball of yarn in a northern Ugandan market place and you’ll hit a returnee.
“No attention was given actually to what each individual wanted to do with their life,” says Ocitti. “Before their abduction they had a dream and we shouldn’t impose our ideas for their lives on them.”
And he says in the case of Grace’s burgeoning waragi business, a positive skill has come out of her suffering.
“Maybe even those who are still in the jungle will say I can make waragi better than her,” Ocitti says. “It shows them they have a purpose to go home, they have a means of life, they are not wasted.”
When the guns fall silent, and the media spotlight shifts to the next war, the next natural disaster, it’s easy to forget, easy to cease caring.
And in war’s aftermath – be it God’s plan or not – ex-combatants like Grace struggle to learn to live again.
This research was conducted with the support of the “Innovation in Development Reporting Grant” program of the European Journalism Centre, financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.