“She was scattered beyond recognition. She was never buried,” the tales of a child soldier turned single mother.

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Akot shows scares of the surgury done to remove bomb splinters from her arm in February, 2019. 

Gulu-Uganda: Fifteen years after the end of the Lord’s Resistance Army Insurgency led by war lord Joseph Kony in Northern Uganda, the scares and wounds are still deep in the lives of many returnees, especially the formerly abducted girls. Whereas Parliament of Uganda is working on a Transitional Justice Policy, which surprisingly is being backed by Gen. Kahinda Otafire, the Internal Affairs Minister, the needs of these returnees to live a normal life in the community are individual efforts.

Lalam Stella Layom is the director, War Victims and Child Networking, an NGO that supports returnee mothers in Northern Uganda with over 800 members in Gulu, Lamwo, Nwoya and Amuru districts.

Lalam is a returnee mother who came back home with her two children and another boy who cried after her because his mother had disappeared. Lalam knew his mother and decided to escape with the child that later became her responsibility and integrated him among her children as her own son.

She says there are many issues that the returnees are battling at such a time when the NGOs that mainly handled relief aid during the war have departed from the region. A recent research shows that Gulu municipality has the highest number of mad people due to trauma from the war and children are the most affected.

Lalam explains that the country is sitting on a time bomb if the children of returnee child mothers are not supported to live normal lives. These she says are mothers who have deep wounds, both Physical and psychological.

36 year old Vicky Akot is among the many returnee mothers. Akot was abducted at the age of 12 years. She was in Primary Five at Kitgum Mixed Primary School. Her dream was to become a nun in the Catholic Church that she admired back home then. But on the fateful night of March 19th, 1995, Akot and 200 other children were rounded and abducted from their village in Palabek Kal, Lamwo district.

Akot was trained to fight as a child soldier.

“When you refuse, you are killed. When you try to escape, you are killed. Some of the children I know were killed along the way. They ask you if you want to rest when you say you are tired but instead kill you.”

Akot was trapped.

“My first thinking was, I was going to die. I would not see my parents again. But a second thought came when I saw many children younger than me carrying the gun and fighting.”

The children underwent training for two weeks at Palutaka in South Sudan in August, 1995. With the poor education background, Akot had it rough since she could not understand some of the rules and technicalities in the combat training.

“The drills were from 2:00am till morning. I had a log tied on my back for a gun for one week. The second task was to load the gun, one by one. Each of us had to learn. We were many. If you make a mistake, they spit on you so that you get angry and learn faster. “

Akot adds;

“I would not sleep. I didn’t know how to name the parts of a gun and I would be beaten to force me to learn faster.”

Among the group that Akot trained with, she recalls boys and girls of 9, 10 and 11 years who were younger than her but had to master the art of war to survive.

Akot’s first fight was in Lukung, a few kilometers away from her home village of Palabek. Later, she got used to the art of war and would follow commands just like the rest of the fighters.

“I killed many people, not face to face. But the bullets I shot must have killed people, not by will.”

In war, when people die, it is normal. Battle are won when an enemy is defeated. That is for the brave old men and women commanders but for Akot, everything was out of a dare will to keep aliive. Her night mare came during a fight with the Dinkas of South Sudan, near Corner Aruu Junction in 1996.

Akot was positioned with another colleague, Aol in a small hole that had been hurriedly dug due to the intensity of the battle.

“Aol and I jumped into the hole and took cover. Minutes later, I had an explosion. Little did I know that a bomb had hit Aol. It was thrown and fell directly on her. She was scattered beyond recognition. She was never buried.”

Akot sustained injuries but left the scene, traumatized. Little did she also know that the bomb splinters had entered her body. The splinters were removed from Lacor Hospital on the 7th/2/2019 with support from Refugee Law Project of Makerere University after unbearable pain on her back and left upper arm. She had difficulty in breathing and her left hand became too heavy to lift due to the pain.

But back then, after the battle that nearly took her life, the group that returned alive went to Nisutu, near Juba in South Sudan.

“We could even see the lights in Juba. President Salva Kiir was the one helping us. He would give us guns, food, and even medication because we were also fighting against the Dinka.”  Akot recalls.

In 1999, Akot had settled as a fighter. She was forced sleep with many fighters but had her first born child at the age of 16 with a man she could recognise. She had fought and was given rest due to the pregnancy. Akot says delivery was by the mercy of God. The fighters had mid wives who had skills of Traditional Birth Attendants but lacked kits to deliver mothers. They turned to nature, like grass peels to make sharp razor like blades for cutting the placenta.  The umbilical cords healed naturally and the babies were not immunized.

After giving birth to a second child in 2002, life became difficult for Akot and her two daughters. She could not adequately protect them from attacks and hatched a plan to escape in the night. She was scared but had the will.

“In December, 2002, I escaped and came to Uganda through Lute. My 3 year old child walked from South Sudan to Lacek Ocot Barracks in Pader district. My 6 months old baby was on my back, beddings on my head, one hand held the other girl. I came to the barracks with my children but we were almost killed.”

Akot says the soldiers did not trust that she had completely surrendered. This was the peak of the LRA insurgency and the Uganda People’s Defence Force commanders could have thought she was a spy for the rebels. Akot says she used her intelligence to judge who was genuine in helping and avoided eating whatever she was offered, took no medication and chose to corporate in other ways.

All she wanted was a safe place, a home for her daughters. She does not know where the home of the father to her girls is.

“In the bush, people change their names so it is difficult to even inquire from people if they know someone who was in the bush. Sometimes, the person could have committed so many wrongs during his fighting that the family do not even want to identify with him. So all I wanted was a place to keep my girls.”

Akot represents so many women who fought in the LRA war that lasted more than 25 years and want government support in raising their children to become responsible citizens.

“We ask all people we have wronged to forgive us. We did not intend to kill or hurt anyone. We are back home and want our children to live normal lives. ” A remorseful Akot says as she recollects her past.

Margerate Akello is another child fighter who was abducted at the age of 11 years and returned home with two boys and a pregnancy.

Unlike Akot who cannot trace the origin of her children’s Father, Akello tried and found their home in Kalongo, in Present day Agago District in 2007 but says there was no one to help. In 2010, she heard that the father of her children was killed. She has since decided to raise her boys as a single mother.

Akot decided to remarry in 2015 and had two children in her new home. She gained tailoring skills during her rehabilitation with then GUSCO, an NGO that supported returnees with counselling and skills training at the time.

Unfortunately, Akot’s second marriage was rocks and hills.

“He was a drunkard who never supported me with the children. I don’t drink. I requested that he sleeps on the bed and I sleep on the floor to keep peace between us when he is drunk. But later, his family became abusive on me when he reported that he suspects I can struggle him in the night.”

Akot left the marriage and is now a single mother of four.

For many returnee mothers in Northern Uganda, finding love and acceptance has been a nightmare. Many opt to stay a lone stressful and frustrated life but often find consolation in groups. These groups of former abductees has become a center of solace and a new hope for such mothers.

Akello a star in the 1995 Masaka Athletic competitions for selected Primary Schools from Uganda then, says returnee mothers need the support of Government to fully integrate in the community that they were thrown back into.

“I came back with two children and I was pregnant at the time. Amnesty gave me a certificate in 2004. But the only support I received were a hoe, one saucepan, other small things and 200,000/= to start a new life.”

Akello says it has not been easy.

Stella Lalam Layom emphasizes;

“We were not fully received when we surrendered to come back home. We have stayed for about 15 years without getting any support from government as mothers who returned with children from the bush. These children have no identity because we cannot trace their fathers. We were rejected by our parents,” Layom tells Gulu Municipality Member of Parliament, Lyandro Komakech during a meeting with returnee mothers in Gulu town recently.

Komakech is the Chair Land and Victims Support under the Acholi Parliamentary Group.

However, Komakech says there has been programs by the government of Uganda generally targeting war victims without specification to returnee mothers.

Komakech also says, there is no clear statistics on those to be supported since Uganda lacks a reparation policy to cater for the post conflict recovery process in Northern Uganda.

“We don’t trust the Office of the Prime Minister to manage the reconciliation and recovery fund. They do not have clear statistics on victims, corruption is high and we all know how victims’ funds have been misappropriated.”  

On 13th February, Parliament approved a motion on livelihood support for formerly abducted women and support their specific needs in health, education and buisness.

The Minister for Northern Uganda and the Deputy Speaker of Parliament last month requested MP Lyandro to work with the victims and do a proper profiling and identifying of formerly abducted girls so that they are supported as an emergency program.

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