Life After War - Former Child Soldiers of the LRA
The Lord's Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, conducted a decades long insurgency against the peoples of Northern Uganda and Sudan, for the stated goal of overthrowing the Ugandan government and creating a state governed by the Ten Commandments. In reality, Kony has made no attempts to establish a new country, instead he has assumed the role of warlord, engaging in warfare, bloodshed and destruction for it's own sake. From 1986 to 2007, Kony's LRA abducted some 70,000 people in Uganda and forced them to fight. More than 40,000 of these were children, some being as young as 6 or 8.
This project is a series of portraits and short interviews with some of those abductees, detailing their abduction and experiences as child soldiers, to their escape and return to society, and plans for the future.
Joseph Kony is still active today, and believed to be operating in the war torn Central African Republic. He and five of his lieutenants are currently wanted by the International Criminal Court for Crimes Against Humanity.
Ataro Nancy, 28
"When the rebels came to our village, I was staying with my uncle. They came at night, and we could not escape. The rebels pushed a rifle into my hands. They beat my uncle to the ground, and forced me to kill him, so that I could never return home. So that I'd never want try to run away"
Nancy was 10 years old.
Abducted by the LRA in 1996, she was held for 6 years until she was rescued by the Ugandan Army in 2002. Like most young girls abducted, she was forced into sex slavery and hard labor, carrying supplies and ammunition through the bush for weeks on end, going days without food. After her rescue, Nancy returned to society.
She is now happily married, though she says her husband's family hates her for her inability to have children. Wounds received during her time with the rebels prevent her from becoming pregnant. She describes herself now as a 'Peasant Farmer,' a Ugandan term for sustenance farmer. She knows the trade of tailoring, and hopes to save enough to purchase a sewing machine.
Okomo Vincent, 19
"I looted villages with the rebels. We'd take their food, their items, their knives, anything we wanted. The rebels forced me to kill a villager who tried to hide his food from them."
Vincent was held by the rebels for just over a year, carrying heavy supplies through the bush during the day and looting villages with the rebels at night. He was able to escape during a firefight between the rebels and the Ugandan Army.
Vincent now works as a motorbike taxi driver, a well-paying job for an uneducated man, and he tends a small farm on his property. He currently rents a motorbike from a wealthy man in his village, but he hopes to save enough to purchase a bike of his own.
Akot Brenda, 22
"Now that I am back, they point their fingers at me, and the people in my village ask me, 'Do you still have the evil spirits in you? Do you want to go back to the bush? To kill?'"
Brenda was held by the rebels for 8 months, and was raped repeatedly, before escaping during a battle between the rebels and the Ugandan Army. Brenda's husband abandoned her after she returned to her village, leaving her with their children.
She currently has no land to farm and no money to start a business. She hopes to find some work, with the goal of buying a sewing machine, so that she can work as a tailor and support her children
Oryema George, 21
"I was only 7 was I taken by the rebels, so they couldn't use me for labor. My job was to kill the others who couldn't satisfy the rebels. Those who were too weak or refused to work, or who had been hurt and could no longer work, I shot."
George was held by the rebels for 6 years and was able to run away with a fellow abductee. Upon returning to his village, he found that his parents had been killed. He tried to return to school, but eventually failed out, as he had no family to support him.
He has a 6th grade education and feels as though he is still heavily stigmatized by his community as a known former rebel. George married 2 months ago, and works as a Peasant Farmer. He plans to return to school and complete his education, once he saves up enough money.
Mwanga Paul, 36
"After some time, they trained me as a soldier. I transported guns from Sudan. Sometimes we fought the Government forces. I was promoted to Sergeant and we raided refugee camps. We stole food and supplies and abducted the refugees to carry what we were stealing. The people who could no longer carry supplies, I killed."
Paul was abducted with his wife, though they were immediately separated. After 7 years, they were reunited. His wife was 2 months pregnant with the child of another rebel. Like so many other women, she has been used as a sex slave. Together with his wife, they escaped from the rebels and returned home. Upon returning, he was immediately recognized as a killer, a leader amongst the rebel soldiers, and many there still hate him. Local community leaders have asked he and his wife to leave, but they have no where to go.
Paul and his wife work as small time farmers, agreeing to work others' land in return for the use of their tools to tend their own fields. They have 3 children together, and are raising the child his wife was pregnant with when they were reunited, as one of their own. Paul hopes to save enough to buy a motorcycle, and get work as a motorbike taxi driver.
Aringo Stella, 26
"I saw many people killed and beaten. They made me pick up a club and beat the others too. They had no reason to hurt them, but they did. We did. It was unnecessary but we did."
Stella was abducted when she was 12 years old. She was told early on that she would only be allowed to eat food that she found or stole during raids, as a way to force participation.
She was able to run away after two years with the rebels. Stella had her first child when she was 15. She is now a single mother raising 4 children, 2 boys and 2 girls. She works in a salon, braiding hair. She is working to save enough capital to open her own salon, but with 4 children, "It takes some time."
Opio Denis, 23
"I would circle behind and stop the villagers as they tried to run away, to see if they had more food or useful items for the rebels. If we captured someone important, it was my job to take them to Joseph Kony."
Denis was abducted in 2003 and held for 2 years. He carried supplies for the rebels through the bush, before being forced to use a gun and raid villages.
In 2005, he escaped with 2 other child soldiers and returned home to find his parents had been killed, and his brother had also been abducted. Denis is now married to one of other child soldiers who escaped with him, together they have 3 children. Denis works as a Peasant Farmer, but has difficulty paying his children's school fees. He was abducted young, and never received an education, so finding good work is a challenge.
Adong Lilly, 29
"War was constant, day and night. The rebels forced me to kill. I had to marry one of the commanders, one of the rebels. I had his child, and when I escaped, I took my child with me."
Lilly was abducted when she was 13, and held for 4 years. She ran away from the rebels in 2000.
Lilly married again, this time by choice, and says she feels very lucky to have a husband who loves her so much. Together they have 5 children, 4 of their own and the child Lilly escaped with. She works as a Peasant Farmer, selling beans and cassava in a local market. It is not enough to pay schooling for her 5 children, so she wants to go to salon school, in hopes of making a better wage.
Lakony Charles, 27
"If the rebels thought someone was going to try to escape, they told me to beat that person. So I would beat them. That was my job."
Charles was held for 1 year, and in that time he was forced to abduct and kill others, as well as violently beat others when told.
He is unsure of the circumstances regarding his escape, but since his return he has often been the target of abusive language and stigmatization, focused on his severe mental handicap and instability. Charles occasionally plays the drum in a traditional Acholi Cultural Group comprised of former child soldiers, but otherwise has no source of income. He would like to learn to drive a car.
Lapica Florence, 28
"They made us do things we didn't want to do. They told us to kill a child of 5 years. They told us if we didn't kill the child, it would be us who would be killed. So we killed the child."
Florence was abducted from her home with her mother and held for 4 years. She and her mother carried heavily supplies through the bush and were used as sex slaves. Her mother was killed by the rebels, but Florence does not know why.
When she escaped, she returned to find her father in hospital. Members of her extended family told the community that she had been a soldier with the rebels, that she had been killing people in the bush. She is currently living with her aunt, tending her aunt's small farm. She has no land of her own. She hopes to buy a small plot of land for herself, where she can tend her own farm and help support her younger brothers and sisters.
Kidega Lee, 36
"When I escaped the bush in 1994 and returned to my home, the people of my village hated me. So I left and joined the army and fought the rebels for 5 years."
During his time with the rebels, Lee was responsible for beating people, and believes he is responsible for the deaths of villagers during looting raids.
After his escape he returned home but he felt heavily stigmatized in his community, so after 2 months he joined the Ugandan Army. Lee is now married, with two children. He works as a Peasant Farmer, and hopes to save enough capital to start his own business.
Akello Grace, 26
"If someone was caught trying to escape, they were dragged in front of their friends and beaten to death, to be an example to everyone else. So that you won't ever try to run away."
Grace did run away, in 2000. When she reached home, she was stigmatized and eventually segregated from her community.
She married and had a child, but her husband claimed that the child was fathered by a soldier in the bush, not him, and abandoned them. Grace says does not want to remarry, she is afraid another man will mistreat her. Grace is a Peasant Farmer, and single mother. She hopes to attend school for either tailoring or salon work, to support her young daughter.
Onen Thomas, 30
"On the day I was abducted, I was beaten to unconsciousness. I refused to go with them so they beat me over and over. I woke up being dragged through the bush. My eyes were damaged in the beating and I no longer see clearly."
During Thomas' 7 year abduction, he was made to carry heavy supplies and forced to execute people who were brought before him. Later, he was involved in the abduction of others.
He parted with the rebels in 2010, they were far from Uganda and one day they simply told him to go away, so he began his long journey home. Thomas works as a Peasant Farmer and is now married. He describes his life as "much better now." He hopes to purchase and ox and plough to help him tend his land.
Piloya Evelyn, 32
"I was raped many times by rebel soldiers. I was pregnant when I escaped and my mother had to hide me. My husband pays school fees for our 5 children, but he won't pay school fees for the child with the rebel father."
Evelyn was abducted by rebels in 1992 and ran away in 1994. She was held as a sex slave for 2 years.
After she had escaped, her mother hid her from the public for some time. There were rumors that the rebels were hunting escapees, but Evelyn was not caught. She is now married and has 5 children with her husband, though he refuses to support the child born of rape. Evelyn tends a small farm to help feed her family, and sings in the local catholic church choir. She would like to attend training to work in a salon, so that she can send her oldest child to school.
Okrat James, 27
"We had no safe drinking water, and soldiers in our group began to get disease. Myself and my friend organized some of the children, some young people, and we took off at night. We were 17 in number when we escaped from the bush."
James was taken by the rebels around age 11, and was held in the bush for 10 years. He was made to carry heavy supplies throughout Uganda and Sudan, with little or no food. When disease struck the group he was with, he and another abductee gathered the children and made their escape.
Returning to his village, he found his parents and extended family had been killed by the LRA, when they massacred the refugee camp his family had been moved to. 2 of his brothers escaped, and now live in the same house as James. James works as a motorbike taxi driver, using a rented motorbike. He would like to earn enough money to buy land and a home for himself.
Adong Stella, 20
"When I was taken, I was made to work as a babysitter for one of the commanders of the LRA. If they came back and found the child had been crying, I would be severely beaten. Then the mother angered him, so he forced me to kill the child. That child was 5 months old."
Stella was abducted with her mother while they were farming, and they were immediately separated. She was made to work as a babysitter for a high ranking member of the LRA. Her job saved her life at least once, the commander citing her ability as a babysitter when he stopped another soldier from killing her. This commander also informed her that he had plans to take her as his wife, though Stella escaped soon after, fleeing during the confusion of a fire fight.
She returned home to find that her mother had also successfully escaped before her. Stella went back to school, though some students harass her, saying that she has plans to kill her fellow students and that she is a murderer. She is currently in grade 9.
Stella's mother died 2 months ago, and her father a short time after that, both from disease.
She hopes that she can finish her schooling, but does not know how she will pay for it.
Ajok Alice, 24
"The group of rebels I was with were ambushed by the UDF (Ugandan Army) when we were approaching a village at night. I ran away, through the bush, for two days. I came across a woman tending her garden. I told her everything that had happened. She dropped her tools and took me to a rehabilitation center for abductees."
Taken from her home when she was 10 years old, Alice was held for 4 years. Given to one of the LRA commanders as a servant, she was made to kill other rebels who had tried to escape, and had been brought before the commander. The rebels told her that if she didn't kill the runaway, she herself would be killed. Alice says that she killed more than 10 people in this way.
Alice escaped during a firefight, and after the going to the abductee rehabilitation center, found her way home. Upon returning home, she joined the Ugandan Army to fight the rebels in the bush, but deserted after 6 months.
She married but soon after becoming pregnant, her husband claimed she had evil spirits within her, and that she might kill him at any moment, so he kicked her out. She is now a single mother to 10 year old boy. Alice is a Peasant Farmer, but does not make enough to support her son's school fees. She hopes to open a small business doing whatever she can.
Ogondra Sam, 21
"My welcome at home was not so fine. I noticed that all the people returning from bush were being considered wrong people. I was being abused and insulted in the community, when it should have been easier."
Sam doesn't know how old he was when he was abducted, only that he was taken for about 5 years. He was forced to kill others, with clubs and axes. He does not know how many he killed, only that they were many. Sam ran away from the rebels in 2004.
When Sam returned home to find his father had died while he was away. He faced hardship is his community, others harassed and ridiculed him for his time in the bush. Sam hopes to earn enough capital to open a shop making chapati and bread.
Anjeka Alice, 23
"I was raped in the bush and I became pregnant. I gave birth to a baby girl. I cared for her and when she not yet one year old, we were attacked by the Ugandan Army and she was killed in their ambush."
Alice was taken from her family's farm and held in the bush for two years. She was forced to fight with a gun and machete, and was raped many times by the other rebels. Alice ran away in 2009 and made her way back to her village.
She found her aunt's home after escaping and tried to return to school but faced abuse and insults by her schoolmates, eventually dropping out. Alice is now married, and is supported by her husband, but she wants to attend a vocational school so that she may contribute to the family's earnings.
Odokonyero Richard, 30
"When I escaped and returned home, I found that my whole family had been killed. Little did I know that what I had been doing to others, others had done to me."
Richard was taken at the age of 11, but he cannot recall how many years he was held. He killed and abducted others civilians for the rebels. He seized an opportunity to escape in the night, and made his way back to his family's home, only to find they had been killed by the rebels.
After going through a rehabilitation center and returning to his family's property, he married a former child soldier, and together they have a pair of 5 year old twin boys. Richard and his wife work as Peasant Farmers to support their two boys, and Richard hopes to purchase an ox and plough to increase his crop yields. He also hopes to find some form of counseling, as he is still troubled by the traumas of war.
Okello Richard, 25
"I had to carry heavy supplies and food, barefoot through the bush for long distances. Rebels caught a boy in my group stealing some small foods from what he was carrying, so they forced me to beat him to death. That event severely traumatizes me to this day."
Richard was taken when he was 15, and less than a year later, he escaped during a firefight between the rebels and the Ugandan Army.
He was stigmatized and harassed when he returned home, to the point where he was afraid to be seen at all within his village. Richard is now the team leader for an Acholi cultural dance group, being paid to perform at large community functions. He works regularly as a motorbike taxi driver. He plans to save enough to buy his own motorbike. Like many, he currently rents a motorbike on a per day basis.