No-one To Stand By Us

Here’s a shortened version of my report on the reintegration challenges of formerly abducted child mothers:

No-one To Stand by Us

I’ve removed recommendations… Tell me what you think of it – I want your candor.

The project started in affiliation with the Refugee Law Project and Christian Counseling Fellowship (CCF). CCF asked for the work of Pader Girls Academy, in educating vulnerable girls and formerly abducted child-mothers in Pader, northern Uganda to be documented to commemorate the five year anniversary of the school and ten year anniversary of CCF. RLP has been responsible for producing a video documentary. I undertook the written report.

I based myself in Pader, where Pader Girls Academy is situated, for approximately three months. An initial focus group was organized with a group of formerly abducted child-mothers who consented to talk to external researchers about their experiences. Subsequently seven formerly abducted child-mothers agreed to take part in in-depth iterative one-to-one interviews. Supporting actors were identified in the initial interviews, and follow-up interviews included peers at the school, staff at the school, other formerly abducted child-mothers in the community, their families, community leaders, local government officials, NGO actors, and state actors; those actors who had had a part in the reintegration of these girls and young women.

Three primary pieces have come from my research; a report on the school itself, a collection of six formerly abducted child-mothers’ stories, and this report on the challenges facing the formerly abducted child-mothers in their attempts to reintegrate into communities in northern Uganda. The report aims to take a comprehensive look at the key issues currently facing formerly abducted child mothers, many of whom have been returned back to civilian communities for a number of years. This research aims to build on the body of research that has been undertaken around the experiences of formerly abducted child-mothers, in a bid to inform social protection and social development assistance for formerly abducted child-mothers in northern Uganda. Moving beyond immediate reintegration needs to the medium and long term challenges and looking at a range of perspectives including the community and service providers.

The interviews and the report are the author’s own work. CCF provided logistical and translation support. RLP has provided insightful research advice.

Amnesty – theory into practice?

There has been a lot of hoo-hah over the recent changes to the Amnesty Act. The 2012 decision to allow part 2 to lapse means that amnesty is no longer granted to new returnees. This decision makes new returnees liable to prosecution by Ugandan courts of law. Opinions are polarized around this issue; some believe this paves the way for accountability and reconciliation for Uganda. Some believe this flies in the face of what leaders in the North wanted when they pushed for the Amnesty Act in the first place. Amnesty as a peacemaker, amnesty in Demobilization Disarmament and Reintegration (DDR), Amnesty in reconciliation.

Honorable James Baba released a statement explaining the decision to remove Part 2 of the Amnesty Law, stating justification based on provision in the Agreement on Accountability and Reconciliation in terms of affording victims rights to accountability, as well as stating that ‘It was informed by a Justice Law and Order Sector review of the Amnesty law which revealed that the grant of unconditional amnesty was generally seen as problematic since it did not take into account the need for accountability for serious crimes committed during armed conflict or rebellion.’ I am intrigued by the ‘generally seen’. Whose perspective if this? I understand there is a push for accountability, one that though provided for before, was not being implemented. Is it a case of enough of helping the returnees and time to start helping the victims? Or is it a push to comply with international demands for ‘justice’.

For DDR, despite potentially scaring away new returnees, the changes in the Amnesty Act in theory means that every ex-combatant is entitled to reintegration support irrespective of whether they are registered with the Amnesty Commission or not. This is a positive step for returnees not liable to prosecution. However, how is this decided? Can you be guilty and receive reintegration support? I am wondering how prosecution and reintegration support will play out. How does being an abductee feature in these decisions?

Then there is the issue of reintegration support in theory versus what the reality is on the ground in terms of actual reintegration support. The review of the Amnesty Act comes at a good time a cynic might say. There is no money left to provide reintegration support, arguably the primary function of the Amnesty Commission (aside from providing a certificate exonerating returnees). The former is generally preferred by returnees. Looking at the Demobilization and Resettlement Team for the Amnesty Commission in Kitgum, which covers nine districts of northern Uganda, it has increasingly struggled to provide reintegration support. The DRT has 7,000 reporters on its books, and so far has managed to provide a reintegration packet, consisting of a cash allowance, home items including a mattress, blanket and basin, and garden items including hoes and seeds, to 1,000 reporters.

The track record shows a dismal story, reintegration assistance in the form of reinsertion packets has fizzled since 2011 when the Multi-Demobilization and Reintegration Program was completed. Arguable focus has changed from reception and reinsertion support to in-community development support. For financial year 2011 – 2012 the DRT for Kitgum provided three community-training sessions to 60 people, of which 40 were ‘formerly abducted’ and 20 were ‘from the community’. If you are looking just at reintegration support that means 120 returnees received some form of support for that financial year for northern Uganda. For the financial year 2012 – 2013 one dialog and sensitivity meeting has been held for 30 people. Eight months into this financial year, 30 returnees, assuming they are all returnees, have been talked to by Amnesty in northern Uganda. And how did the DRT change its expertise from a primarily administrative, information collection office to one that provides in-community livelihood training?

Formerly abducted people are still returning, by 31 so far in 2012, 16 in 2011, and 35 in 2010. These numbers are much smaller than numbers recorded by official reception services. GUSCO is recorded 94 female returnees in 2010, and 14 in 2011. (These numbers begin to show you how haphazard recording of returnees has been.) When added to the 20,178 returnees who have not yet received reintegration support from Amnesty, not to mention the returnees who did not report in to Amnesty Commission, you have a lot of returnees who have received nothing despite commitments by the Government of Uganda.

So what happened to Uganda’s pledge to help them, as evidenced by the Agreement on Accountability and Reconciliation as well as the Agreement on Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration? The PRDP has a line for Peacebuilding and Recovery, the budget allocated was 2.7% and fell as the years progressed, and now with the current OPM controversy, money is not coming. How will the unfulfilled reintegration commitments play out in this new climate of accountability and reconciliation?

Patricia’s Story – A Formerly Abducted Child-Mother in Northern Uganda

Mother and child

‘My wishes when I was in captivity was to come back and stay with my parents and family. Leaving the burden of always fighting where the UPDF and other soldiers could run after us all the time.’

Patricia is twenty years old and a mother of two. Patricia’s mother says that when she first returned from the captivity, she had a tendency to hide inside the house, retreating from the people around her. She is becoming more comfortable in public now but still does not respond to raised voices. Patricia is however determined to be heard, waiting for two hours to tell me of her problems and show me her amnesty certificate. She spoke quietly but determinedly about the lack of support, lack of family and lack of money she faces. About the struggle she has to feed and clothe her children.

Abduction & Return

Patricia was abducted in 2002 when she was about nine years old and returned to her home aged eighteen, last year after nine years in the bush. She was a baby sitter for her LRA unit before she got married off to one of the commanders. She does not remember how old she was when she first gave birth in the bush, but thinks she was around fourteen years old.

She had to fight for her release from captivity, insisting to the commander of her unit and father of her children. She has the panga (machete) scars that were delivered as a result of her insistence. Those in charge did not want to release her, but in the end the commander relented. She would have preferred to escape from the bush with him as her bush husband, but he stayed behind, Patricia does not know whether he is alive or dead.

After three days of walking along the border of Congo and the Central African Republic, she arrived with her two children at a camp in the Congo. Soldiers took them to their headquarters in the Congo [this is unknown] where they were treated well and given food, soap and clothes. From there they were taken to the Demobilisation Disarmament Repatriation Rehabilitation Reintegration (DDRRR) unit in the Congo for a week.


Patricia was flown into Uganda by the Ugandan military (UPDF), where she arrived with nothing except the clothes on her back and her children. She spent a week at the reception centre, Gulu Support the Children Organisation (GUSCO). From GUSCO Patricia was referred to Christian Counseling Fellowship (CCF) who reunited her with her family. No counselling was given to this formerly abducted child-mother despite just returning from nine years in captivity.

Patricia’s family has changed in the nine years she has been away, her father is absent, having divorced from her mother, her mother is disabled as a result of a motorbike accident. Her sister also returned home recently as a child-mother herself, having previously run away from home because her mother could not afford her school fees. Their mother cannot dig, the primary income-generating activity in this part of the world, and is helpless; there is no money-earner in the family. Patricia has been accepted home but feels that she has only brought burden to her struggling family.

The family is living on borrowed land with a house that was built by an NGO. Their neighbours are in similar positions; this land has been given to destitute families with nothing and can be taken back at any time. The little money her father left has been spent on food, and her family has started selling their possessions in order to survive. Patricia has nothing except for the hand-outs she received from the reception centers; three bars of soap, one plastic basin, two skirts, and two blouses. Since her return from captivity, Patricia is most grateful to these people.

When she is home, Patricia makes some money from digging in other people’s gardens, and now it is mango season, she and her family can live off of mangoes. Staying at school at least provides regular meals. But she is unable to meet all of the school requirements and does not have a school uniform or the correct shoes. She is not alone in not having these items but it marks her out as lacking.

The School

Patricia says that she is happy to be at a school which caters especially for vulnerable girls and child-mothers, providing full board and child-care so that the child-mothers can attend class. She is happy to learn so that she can make money. Having returned from the bush five months ago, she finds fitting into her new surroundings difficult. ‘Wherever you go, when you first reach you will not find an easy life because you do not know the people.’

When asked what her troubles were, she identifies basic necessities and the ill-health of her children. Her youngest child has been sick with repeated bouts of diarrhoea and the school nurse has been unable to provide medication to help him. When asked, the nurse says that diarrhoea is rampant because of the close living conditions and poor sanitation due to dysfunctional flush latrines. The school nurse referred the child to health services outside of the school but they did not stock the medication and in turn told her to buy medication from a shop, but she does not have the money to buy it. Her child was referred to Kalong hospital but she did not go there because she does not have the money to travel there or pay the medical expenses.

Patricia has the remnants of bullet splinters in her thigh and ankle, which can cause swelling and stop her from walking. She reported it to GUSCO who told her to report it to the NGO which runs the school she attends. But when she called no action was taken. NGOs are reliant on donor funding, and currently there is no budget for paying individual ad hoc costs, such as healthcare. If she has problems, she keeps them to herself.

Patricia does not find school easy. Lessons, particularly theory, are taught in English; she cannot speak or write English. This is a serious obstacle to understanding classes and performing in exams, as exam questions are written in English. She got 40% in her practical catering examination and did not take the theory exams. Patricia is unsure of what course she is on, she does not know how long the catering course will last for, whether it is six months or a year. If it is six months, she worries it will be too little time to learn any useful skills.

When asked to give a message to the person in charge, Patricia asked for three things; soap, a stock of medication or money for medication for her children, and extending support to her children.

‘I would ask for soap, also I would ask for enough stock of drugs or for some money just in case of medical problems. When my child is sick, I would use it to go to the hospital. Finally I would ask if the Director [of the NGO which supports the school] could extend her support to me, to help my children who I have come back with. Support for many things including dressing, feeding, and building a house to keep my children in.’


Patricia has been given little information about her course at the school; she is unsure if she will get a start-up in terms of money or tools for her trade including cooking utensils and plastic chairs and tables. Patricia has modest ambitions, she wishes to set up a small restaurant but she is aware that there are already many hotels (restaurants) that she will have to contend with, and she is unsure if a start-up will be enough to set-up a small restaurant.

Patricia is happy to work as an apprentice in an existing hotel, or to work with a group of graduates to start a new hotel. If she does not get a job, she will return to her village living on the uncertainty of a loaned plot of land with her disabled mother and sister, where she will dig on other people’s land for 2,500 shillings a day, barely enough to feed her family on.

When asked what the most difficult thing she has ever had to do, Patricia pauses before responding, ‘I have to do only what I can to see that life goes on.’

Josline’s story – a formerly abducted child-mother in Northern Uganda

Bath time

Josline can recall in detail how she was abducted in 2002 by rebels from the Lords Resistance Army at the age of 12, and how she has spent the last nine years in constant motion across northern Uganda, Southern Sudan, the Congo and Central African Republic, moving to avoid detection by government troops.

She talks quietly but decisively, peppering awkward conversations with nervous laughter. At 14, Josline was given to a Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander in a forced marriage and had two children by him. Somehow she survived.
‘It was a burden to me because I thought I would not be able to move and the only solution would be death. When you fail to move fast enough, the LRA kill you, or else the Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF) would kill you when you fail to run fast enough. The whole thing was about death to me.’

Josline is one of the fortunate abductees who survived and returned to her community. She was released with some other mothers who were slowing the militia unit down. Her children are the only good thing that has come of her abduction. ‘These [my children] are my profits that I came back from captivity with.’

Flown back by the Ugandan army into Kampala, she was given a letter with her photo and a stamp and told, ‘The world has forgiven you because it was not your way and you are free to move.’ But Josline returned to her community with nothing, and did not meet forgiveness. The problem I have is that of my brother’s wives. The wives always abuse me and talk bad about me, saying that I have come with evil spirits from the bush.’

She was sent on to the Gulu Support the Children Organisation (GUSCO) reception centre which caters specifically for formerly abducted girls and unaccompanied children, where she spent two and a half weeks in rehabilitation after almost a decade in captivity. She was given one petticoat and two plastic basins with which to start her life back in the community. Functioning back in civilian life did not come easily for her.
‘Before I came here [PGS] I used to not like people shouting and making a lot of noise at home, especially there was a small kiosk where they sold local brew, and many people could be there and make a lot of noise so I was not used to those kind of noises, that is why I went and stayed indoors.’

And when she was reunited with her family she had no parents, no land and a harsh reception from her kin

Josline was forced into marriage where her bush husband only stopped beating her when she became pregnant. Having children born of rape, Josline and her two daughter’s face discrimination. Many people in her community believe that not only is she wasted because she has fatherless children but that she is dangerous because of her time with the LRA. The head teacher of Pader Girls School, Ms. Atim Beatrice explains:
‘To make matters worse, with our African traditional culture, when a girl produces before marriage that girl is looked at as an outcast. And nobody comes clearly to support this girl here. The fact that these girls produced in captivity, nobody will go into reasoning to that level, so they still put them under that social group…the challenge which these girls get when they came back is finding another partner to get married to. Because everybody fears them; they are from a rebellious faction and therefore probably they will also be very rebellious in their homes.’

Josline chose to study tailoring because she wanted income generating skills that will last her a lifetime. ‘Even when I become old I will still be able to be under a tree and sew some clothes.’ Formal, academic education is not a possibility as Josline does not have the necessary certification; she did not complete primary school. In class her biggest challenge is understanding English. Despite her four languages, she never had the opportunity to learn English.

If not for intervention in the form of School in northern Uganda especially for formerly abducted child-mothers, there would be no way for Josline to receive this training. She has no money and no one to look after her children. Her fees are covered by donors. The school is unique in providing full-board to both the mothers and their children, including healthcare and education to both mother and children. She has very few possessions, she has sewn clothes for her children while at PGS and finds consolation in sharing with other formerly abducted child-mothers and vulnerable girls, as they all lack the basic necessities together and share what they do have.

At the school Josline has been able to associate with other formerly abducted child-mothers and acclimatise back to some kind of civilian life. ‘What I liked most was that the students were associating with me. I was not being stigmatised.’

The matron plays the role of mother and peace-keeper, called in for duty if fighting between the girls gets bad. The school is caring for over 450 girls, all of whom have painful histories. The Head Mistress says,
‘Some of them become violent just in handling petty, petty issues just because there the whole lifestyle is violence. So they also come here when they are violent. So it is through counselling and constant talking to this person in time.’

Josline will return to her brother’s village when she leaves the school because she has nowhere else to go. ‘My father has a large portion of land but I do not know whether they will give me any.’ Her hopes rely on a start-up from the school in the form of a sewing machine but last year there was not enough money from the donors to cover all of the tailoring students. If Josline does not get this start-up she will dig, leaving behind her newly learned skills.
‘When I am finished with my studies and supported with a start-up kit like a tailoring machine then I will sit, maybe even at home if I cannot afford a stall, I will start sewing. There is nowhere else I can go and stay. I will go back and persevere.’

Josline does not know what her future entails. There are some boys who say that they love her and have offered her affairs, but she is reluctant. Josline has had four HIV/Aids tests, three as part of her re-entry process and she asked for a fourth when she got home. She does not know if the men have HIV/Aids, ‘these days, everyone is infected with HIV/Aids.’

Josline worries that nobody will stand for her children and she is unsure if she will find a man who will accept to keep her and her children from the bush.

‘Since I came back from captivity. If I do not struggle to look for the way there is no one who will look out for us. I do not have the father of the children. Now caring for them becomes difficult.’