Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Northern Uganda: Female Victims Demand Justice

Women who suffered abduction, rape and mutilation at the hands of insurgents say the Ugandan government must charge those responsible.
By Joe Wacha
Female victims of atrocities allegedly committed by rebels in northern Uganda are demanding justice – and also protection from possible retribution if they testify in court.



Women and girls who suffered rape, abduction and genital mutilation - are calling on the Ugandan government to press charges against commanders of the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA.



In 2005, the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague issued arrest warrants for LRA leader Joseph Kony, his deputy Vincent Otti and commanders Okot Odhiambo, Raska Lukwiya, and Dominic Ongwen. Lukwiya was killed in fighting last year. The others still stand accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes in the long-running conflict.



During the conflict, the Acholi people of northern Uganda have been targeted by the LRA in violence that began in 1986 and has cost some 100,000 lives, displaced 1.7 million people, and resulted in countless numbers of people mutilated, raped or enlisted as child soldiers.



Although it was President Yoweri Museveni who in 2003 asked the ICC to come and investigate the situation in northern Uganda, he has subsequently shifted ground and indicated that he would ask the world court to drop charges if the LRA concluded a peace deal in the ongoing negotiations. His government has indicated that justice could be served instead by a combination of prosecutions under the country’s own judicial system and the use of traditional tribal justice mechanisms designed to secure reconciliation.



The views of female victims were gathered at a recent series of consultative meetings held by local members of Uganda’s parliament in the northern districts of Gulu, Lira and Soroti.



Victims told members of the Northern Uganda Women's Parliamentary Association that they were also seeking legal protection should the accused and their allies intimidate them in order to try to stop them testifying and revealing incriminating evidence.



“The women and the girls are scared that some of the accused persons might at a later date follow and want to hurt them for possibly giving evidence that might cause their conviction,” said Betty Aol, member of parliament for Gulu district.



At the same time, most speakers at the meetings said the children forcibly enlisted as rebel combatants should be forgiven for crimes they had committed.



Some of the victims attending the consultative meetings demanded financial compensation for the trauma they have experienced. Others said the government should do more to develop social systems and infrastructure in communities affected by the war.



Aol said there was much to do to help these communities recover. “It will be necessary for the government to promote social development in some areas by building infrastructure, like the school for war-affected children at Laroo division in Gulu municipality."



The Laroo school is home to 700 pupils who were abducted and forced to serve as soldiers in the conflict. Many were as young as eight years old when they were abducted.



Aol admitted that time pressures meant the consultation process by northern members of parliament had not been as wide-ranging or thorough as it might have been.



“When we started the opinion-seeking exercise - targeting the victims, representatives of child and women-friendly organisations, as well as local, religious and traditional leaders - we wanted to finish it in time for the resumption of the talks in Juba,” she said. “As a result, we have not been able to have a more focused consultation with many people at the grassroots level.”



The LRA and the Ugandan government began peace negotiations a year ago in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and declared a ceasefire. The latest round was due to take place on July 30, but the LRA failed to raise enough money to fund the costs of its delegates.



The parliamentarians present at the meetings expressed concern that difficulties in gathering reliable evidence could hinder possible trials of combatants accused of war crimes, either within Uganda’s domestic judicial system or at the ICC.



Betty Amongi, the member of parliament for Apac District and coordinator of the Northern Uganda Women's Parliamentary Association, said that the time that has elapsed since the crimes were committed would make it harder to produce evidence.



“Some of these crimes were committed in the Nineties, and to prove crimes like rape and defilement a doctor would need to medically examine the victim and confirm that there was penetration, as well as determining the age of the victim,” she said.



Amongi said that in some cases, it was unclear whether rebels or government forces were responsible for atrocities.



The victims who attended the meetings said that because of the nature of the crimes involved, they would want female lawyers to handle their cases if LRA leaders ever came to trial.



“These are horrible things you would rather keep to yourself than mention it to a man who could be your son,” said Sylvia Akello, a local councillor in Lira District.

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Many of the women said they would sooner not pursue charges than suffer the humiliation of recounting their ordeals to male lawyers.



Most said they had resigned themselves to their fate and hoped that their distressing memories would eventually fade over time.



“It is more than ten years now since I was abducted and defiled at the age of 11," said one woman, who kept pausing as she spoke as if to summon up the strength to carry on.



"Although I had thought I could never live with the fact for even a day, it's now several years since my release [from LRA captivity] - but every time I think about it, I just keep wishing I could never again have seen the light that day.”



The female parliamentarians hope that a report produced from these discussions will be included in the agenda of the Juba peace talks.



Joe Wacha is an IWPR contributor in Uganda.