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GLOBAL | spring 2006

Return of the Stolen Girls
Abducted by insurgents, Ugandan women and girls now find safe haven.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni announced Tuesday that if peace talks are successful, he will grant amnesty to Joseph Kony, head of Ugandan terrorist organization, despite the atrocities Kony has committed over the past 19 years.

Milly Amongy's husband was so strong he was known as Acel Calo Apar, which in her native Acholi language means "one man has the might of 10 soldiers." But his strength had little bearing when it came to the home: It was she who had to care for their three children, all under age 6.

Amongy, now 25, escaped from strongman Lt. Col. John Odour in 2005, nine years after having been abducted and forced to "marry" him. Odour was a commander in Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a group of insurgents who for 19 years have battled the Ugandan government in order to create a society supposedly based on the Ten Commandments.

The insurgency grew out of the Holy Spirit Movement of Alice Auma, a medium who claimed a spirit named Lakwena had possessed her and told her to mobilize a force from her poor northern home region of Acholiland against Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni. The president, from southwest Uganda, had risen to power in 1986, using brutal measures to defend the richer south region of Uganda, and eventually crushed Auma's campaign. But Auma's relative, Joseph Kony, resurrected the remnants of her group to form the LRA. Kony, professing the same mystical powers, initially said he spoke for disenfranchised northerners, but then began to kill, rape, abduct and mutilate the population as punishment for its halfhearted support of his cause. He has now wreaked greater violence on his own people than on Musevini’s more developed south.

The LRA has kidnapped an estimated 20,000 northern youths to form the backbone of its army, and rears the kidnapped women's children as the next generation of rebel fighters (about 1,000 have been born in captivity). The rebels have forced more than 1.4 million Ugandans to flee into squalid camps for the displaced, camps vulnerable to attack despite military protection. Even so, a camp is preferable to the bush.

In what has often been described as this "forgotten" war, girls and young women have been the greatest victims, because they return from the LRA with children born of rape, which usually means shame and rejection from their families. They are forced to rely on non governmental organizations (NGOs) to help restore their lives, but with virtually no prospects of marriage their fate is bleak. In one case that attracted world attention, the LRA offered Angelina Awino, founder of the Concerned Parents' Association, return of her abducted daughter Charlotte if Awino would cease agitating against the abductions. She refused, claiming that she was after the release of all the children.

Amongy, who found shelter at a World Vision rehabilitation center for children of war, based in the northern town of Gulu, described through an interpreter how she "went through a lot of torture and was beaten." Her husband had nine wives and many offspring, but hated her and her children. "Love is in the heart. If someone doesn’t love you, you can’t do much and don’t know why," said Amongy. Apart from raising future conscripts, she received military training in the use of rocket propelled grenades and antiaircraft guns. Amongy was forced "to murder many" in order to save herself: "If you don’t shoot and kill somebody, they [LRA commanders] beat you." The girls and women are trained not to cry as they kill.

Though relieved that her suffering as an LRA wife has ended, Amongy is anxious about her future. NGOs worry, too—about HIV prevalence among these young women, many of whom have been in a commander’s harem (Kony, for one, is said to have 56 wives).

In the past, young women often refused HIV testing when they escaped the LRA. But now that former abductees have become willing to undergo medical exams, more than 30 cases of HIV have been detected at the World Vision Children of War Rehabilitation Project. As part of their rehab, which includes counseling, singing and dancing, young women are taught about HIV/AIDS, family planning and safe sex.

"The rebels have taught the girls that sex is a man’s right," says Michael Oruni, program manager of the aid agency’s shelter for 38 child mothers. "Subjected to that kind of sexual behavior, sex becomes part of their lives."

It is not uncommon to see romance between formerly abducted girls and ex-LRA soldiers who have since joined government forces. Oruni thinks "it is easier to live with a man who understands what they went through in the bush."

With vocational training (carpentry, bricklaying, bicycle repairs) or capital for start-up businesses, NGOs such as UNICEF and World Vision try to prepare girls for the day they will leave the program. For Amongy, a tailoring course is in the offing. But Pirkko Heinonen, UNICEF’s Kampala-based deputy representative, warns that some child mothers turn to prostitution as "survival sex." The tragic reality is that women like Amongy can earn more by selling their bodies than by sewing clothes.

Still, Amongy has one advantage others like her often don’t: Although many of her family members were killed during the war, her mother is still alive and willing to help raise the grandchildren. At least this particular child mother has an adult mother waiting to help her recover from the horrors of the bush.