Agents of Change
Evelyn Amony was held by the LRA for 11 and a half years. Here she tells the story of her captivity and her life afterward.
My name is Evelyn Amony and I was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) when I was 12 years old. I was in captivity for 11 and a half years, and endured many hardships, including being forced to marry the top LRA commander, Joseph Kony. I had four children with Kony, but one went missing during a battle between the LRA and the Ugandan government. On Jan. 22, 2005, the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) captured me during a battle and transferred me to the military barracks in Gulu, a town in northern Uganda.
This two-decade-old war (1987-2006) brought much suffering to those living in northern Uganda: Approximately 60,000 children and youth were abducted, and more than 1.9 million people (approximately 90 per cent of the population) were displaced from their homes during the height of the war. The exact death toll is unknown, but thousands of Ugandan civilians are estimated to have died.
Surviving the LRA
Staying alive while being held captive by the LRA was extremely difficult. We faced violence within and outside the LRA group, and struggled to find enough food, water, and medicine to survive on a daily basis. One of the biggest challenges was trying to avoid attacks by the UPDF soldiers. We were constantly on the move, running and hiding from the UPDF, crossing rivers and walking miles, often with injuries. After giving birth, it became more difficult for me to keep up with my unit while we were on the move. I had to carry one child on my back and other children in my arms, all while carrying luggage on my head. I watched several of my friends die as a result of bombs being dropped during combat by the UPDF soldiers.
Extreme forms of punishment, including death, were unleashed on us captives when we did not follow the rules set by Kony. For example, women had to ensure they did not allow smoke from a cooking pot to seep out in the open air to avoid detection from the UPDF. If anyone made this mistake, that person would be beaten and possibly killed. At times, I prayed that God would also take my life, because the suffering was unbearable.
When Kony first wanted me to become his “wife,” I refused. Shortly after, Kony’s soldiers caned me with 50 strokes for my decision. They asked me to be with Kony a second time and I refused again, so they beat me with 300 strokes. I sought advice from other girls and women in the LRA and they told me that I should marry Kony if I did not want to die.
I became pregnant the first time I slept with Kony. I had many complications from childbirth, since I was young and my body was not mature enough to deliver a child. By this point, Kony had several wives already, but many of them were jealous of new wives, so my co-wives would often beat me and force me to do their house chores, such as their laundry, and care for their children. Even when people mistreated me, I refused to do the same to others.
Although some others within the LRA thought that I lived well since I was married to Kony, I often did not have enough food for my children or myself. To survive, sometimes a few friends and I would steal food from people’s gardens. We would bury the food when we returned to the LRA camp, because if soldiers saw us, they would beat us or take the food for themselves. Other times we would pick wild berries or any other types of food we could find.
Life After the LRA
When the UPDF captured me during a battle, I returned to Gulu, where I was reunited with my family. As with other young girls and women returning from “the bush,” it was very difficult for me to share my experience and explain to people that Kony had forced me to become his wife and that I had returned with his children. Some of my family members initially blamed me for marrying Kony – the man who was most responsible for atrocities in northern Uganda, and who had caused so much suffering for our people. I was also embarrassed that I had not had the opportunity to finish my education. I would feel sad when I met friends who had been able to finish their studies because they had not been abducted.
Shortly after my return from the LRA, I met Erin Baines – a professor and co-founder of the Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP) in northern Uganda. In 2009, Erin began working on “Ododa Wa” – a project where women would share stories about their experiences during the war. I joined the first storytelling group Erin organized and began assisting with the project. Through our storytelling sessions, our group discovered that we had faced many similar challenges, like having to care for children who were born in captivity, facing community stigma, and not having adequate economic support. The LRA had strict rules against talking to others, since they were afraid of secrets being spread, so it had been difficult to forge bonds and learn about the experiences of other captives.
The storytelling group performs an exercise to promote trust and unity.
In May 2011, to raise awareness of our many challenges, we formed the Women’s Advocacy Network (WAN) – a forum where war-affected women could gather to advocate for justice, acknowledgement, and accountability for gender-based violence and human-rights violations inflicted upon us during the war, and to support each other through storytelling sessions. At first it was difficult to create unity among group members – there was much distrust among us all. But we are growing stronger as a group, and can now provide support when someone is in need. We have also grown in size and brought in new members that can benefit from storytelling. The WAN is currently comprised of nine grassroots women’s groups, including more than 200 women in northern Uganda. It is housed at the Justice and Reconciliation Project, which continues to mentor and support our work.
Reintegration: A Long Journey
The WAN’s research found there was unfairness in the ways in which men and women were treated by the government after they returned from captivity. For example, many women did not receive adequate reparations after returning from the war, as the compensation packages were not gender-sensitive and did not take into account specific needs relating to children born in captivity and other forms of gender violence we faced. To address this, the WAN urges the government to assist women in paying for their children’s school fees, to support women returning to school, and to take into account the unique psychological needs of women who have suffered sexual violence.
Women, in particular, have a difficult time adjusting to life after returning from captivity because of the social stigma from their communities and families, which also extends towards their children. Communities will often forget that women were forced to join and marry LRA commanders, and, instead of sympathizing with them, blame them for being abducted or accuse them of committing atrocious acts. Distressingly, some family members reject their children and grandchildren that escape from captivity. Some parents believe if their child killed someone or committed other atrocities in the bush, he or she will be possessed by evil spirits called “cen.” In Acholi culture, the spiritual world is highly revered and communities strive to maintain a sense of spiritual harmony. The LRA purposely forced abducted men and women to carry out atrocities that violated the Acholi beliefs and practices in order to deter them from escaping.
Besides stigma and rejection, former female abductees face tremendous economic challenges. Since many women who were abducted did not have the opportunity to finish school, it is very difficult for them to find a good job. Some women attempt to find work as maids, while others make bags or beaded necklaces to sell. The WAN also forms microcredit savings groups, where we gather our money to save each week. In emergencies, we borrow money from the group and pay back the loan with an interest fee.
The WAN also seeks to address issues concerning our children, such as their food, medical, education, and other basic needs, so they can have a good life. This is a difficult task, as many women return without sufficient skills to provide for their families and rarely receive assistance from the father of their children. We want recognition of the particular harm suffered by forced marriage, and we want our children’s needs to be met through reparations and other compensation.
Some of the fathers of our children have now returned home and completely neglect them. The fathers – all ex-LRA commanders – give little-to-no support for their children’s basic necessities, which creates tremendous difficulties for the mothers who were forced, often at a very young age, to have these children. Part of the WAN’s efforts focus on raising awareness of these issues and demanding that these fathers take responsibility for their actions and for their children.
Furthermore, most LRA commanders never revealed their true name or clan to their wives, partially because they did not want to accept financial responsibility for their actions and because they feared repercussions from the LRA if they ever escaped. Paternal identity is vital to children born in captivity: They need this in order to know their father’s side of the family and for sons to inherit land, allowing them to get married. We want chiefs and clan leaders to help us in tracing paternal identity, so that children are financially supported.
Advocacy and Lobbying
To address these challenges, the WAN participates in a variety of advocacy and lobbying efforts. For instance, for the last five months, we have held weekly radio talk shows to reach out to the wider community. The 30-minute shows address topics like stigma, children born in captivity, reconciliation, and children’s identity.
We also speak to communities, reminding them it was never our will to be abducted and married to LRA commanders. We, too, suffered in the bush, dreaming of our return home. We explain that it was not the woman’s choice to be the wife of a LRA commander or have these children, but that if we are able to accept these children, the community can, too. We are all victims of this war. This work is not easy: Some community members have been devastated by the war – they lost everything, and are angry and do not want to talk to us. However, we have been able to reach new levels of understanding through stories, and are being invited to return to meet some of them again.
WAN members perform a drama at a community outreach session.
We are also advocating for an apology from both the Government of Uganda, which failed to protect us, and the LRA, which violated our rights.
The WAN also participates in exchange visits with other women’s groups across the country. We have begun to learn more about what other women are doing to advocate for their rights, and to share our experiences with them. We have learned that some of the groups advocate for the rights of women and children, focusing on those who were raped by HIV-positive UPDF soldiers. They are spreading their message to other parts of Uganda and seeking justice for the crimes committed against them. These exchanges have been informative, teaching us about other challenges faced by Ugandan women, but they have also helped to deepen our advocacy strategies. We have been able to develop partnerships with other female advocates to see how we can move forward together.
One of the most important lessons I learned during and after captivity with the LRA is to let go of bitter things that happened in my past. As I have become active with the WAN, I have come to realize that I still have a purpose in this world, that it was not my fault that I was abducted, and that I can help other women who went through similar situations. Although the women in the WAN and I continue to face challenges, we feel empowered to promote peace and justice. Although some try to deter us from our work, we know that when we gather together for a cause, we are capable of doing things we could never have imagined doing on our own.
WAN members at a community outreach session.