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

Uganda: Female Ex-Rebels Shunned by Their Tribes

Former female LRA fighters often cold-shouldered by members of their tribes, despite undergoing reconciliation rituals.
By Katy Glassborow
Beatrice Ocwee is a softly spoken 20-year-old mother of three children whose eyes dart around the room as she tells her story, pressing a piece of cloth to her eyes to catch her silent tears.

She is one of the hundreds of thousands of children who were abducted from their homes and forced to serve in a rebel militia movement as soldiers and sex slaves.

Nine years ago, when Beatrice was 11 years old, she was snatched in the middle of the night by rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, from Labora, a village in northern Uganda.

The men kicked down the door of her home at 1 am, drowned one of her sisters in a tub of water and shot dead the other two as they tried to flee.

During her years in captivity, the LRA justified their abduction of Beatrice by telling her that the government of Uganda has a policy of mistreating the Acholi clan of the north. As an Acholi himself, Joseph Kony, the LRA leader, wants to rescue his people from the clutches of the southern-dominated Ugandan government, she was told.

Beatrice told IWPR that Kony mistreated his own Acholi people when they chose not to side with him in his conflict with the army, the Ugandan People’s Defence Forces.

If Kony suspected members of the Acholi community of disloyalty, he would order his guerrilla fighters to mutilate them, she said.

After her capture, Beatrice was taken across the border from northern Uganda to south Sudan , where the LRA had bases, and made to sit with other young girls as commanders chose which of them they wanted to take as "wives".

The commander who chose Beatrice already had five wives, all of whom stayed together in a hut until their "husband" decided whose turn it was to spend a night with him.

On the first occasion he summoned her, Beatrice refused to have sex with him, until he pulled out his gun and gave her an ultimatum – obey, or die.

Seeing so much death around her, she had no choice.

When there was a famine in Sudan, Kony ordered troops to raid villages in northern Uganda for food, and Beatrice was chosen to participate in one of the missions.

She already had two children who stayed back at the camp, but was still breastfeeding her youngest. She strapped the infant to her chest, slung a gun over her back and marched off with the other rebels.

On this occasion, Ugandan military aircraft spotted their column and launched an attack. Beatrice recalls how the woman directly in front of her was blown to pieces.

In the ensuing carnage, Beatrice managed to escape as the rest of the rebel unit fled into thick forest to shelter from the aircraft.

"A thought came into my mind that I could escape," Beatrice told IWPR. "So I started walking in the opposite direction to the rest of the rebels and finally found a home with a woman.

"The woman was scared seeing me in uniform with a gun, but I explained that I wanted refuge and didn't want to harm her. She took me into the bush to hide, but began to tremble as she was so scared and the grass we were hiding in moved with her shaking, and I was worried the rebels would be able to find us."

At daybreak, she made her way to the Child Protection Unit in Gulu - a place of refuge and safety for demobilised child soldiers in the region's main town - where she handed over her gun and was reunited with her two other children, who were brought there by friends.

At the centre, Beatrice refused to eat the food offered to her because she had been told by the LRA never to eat civilian food, as they claimed was poisoned by the government.

Requesting to cook for herself, Beatrice stayed at the centre for a month with her three infants. She desperately wanted to go back home to Labora to see her family - but, as with many ex-rebels, would first have to seek forgiveness from her community for her past involvement with the LRA.

While the ICC is pursuing indictments against Kony and three other LRA leaders, many former rank-and-file rebels who have left or escaped the movement undergo local justice and reconciliation rituals aimed at reintegrating them into their tribes.

But for the Acholi, the ethnic group to which Beatrice belongs, the "Mato Oput" ceremony for men – which means "to drink a bitter potion from the leaves of the oput tree" – is more effective than the corresponding one for women, known as "Opobo", a reference to bamboo stick which features in the ritual.

Under Mato Oput, the perpetrator of a crime has to accept responsibility for his or her actions and pay compensation - in the form of a goat or cow - to those they have wronged. After consultation with village elders, and an elaborate reconciliation ceremony ending with both the victims and the accused drinking a brew of the bitter leaves, the former rebel is welcomed back into his community.

When Beatrice returned to her home community, the village elders hosted an Opobo ceremony for her.

"The elders got a stick and an egg and placed them at the entrance to my village, and I had to jump over the stick and then step on the egg in order to be allowed back into the community," she said. "If girls know the family of the person she killed, they come to the Opobo ceremony too, and they sit with the elders, who put their heads against the girl's head, [a gesture] meaning that the past is forgotten."

However, many women, Beatrice included, have no idea how many people they were forced to kill, so they have to undergo another ceremony. "The elders washed my hands and this water was then sprinkled on me to set me free from what I did," she said.

Beatrice's father poured scorn on the ceremony and said she was no longer his child.

"My father did not want me to come back because he said I brought trouble, and that I had a demonic mind. It caused problems with my mother, who welcomed me back," said Beatrice.

"He said that the rituals are a waste of time, and will never allow me back."

Girls who take part in Opobo may be pardoned by village elders, but the prejudices that local people feel towards them remain and leave them struggling to rebuild their lives.

They are looked down upon because they return with the offspring of rebel soldiers and are suspected of having contracted HIV/AIDS; and because they are invariably the victims of rape, they are unable to find husbands.

Beatrice is being supported by the Mother Daughter Project, a Gulu-based non-government organisation funded by Defence for Children International and World Vision, which has 950 child mothers on its books, the majority of whom are former abducted girl soldiers.

Janet Lapat, from the Mother Daughter Project, tells IWPR that girls under the age of ten are often abducted, and return from the rebel militia at 20 or 21 when they already have two or three children. There is great need for counselling and access to job training. But mostly the Mother Daughter Project strives to teach them what they could not learn while fighting in the bush with their children - how to be mothers.

Beatrice says her main problem is an inability to feel at peace with her surroundings, "My neighbours tell stories about me to other people and do not like my children playing with theirs, because mine are from the bush and might be dirty."

She also feels she has little chance of getting married, because "the [local] men are poisoned with the idea that if I was with a rebel in the bush, he will come and kill [my] new husband in the night. Also [another] man will not be interested in my three children".

Katy Glassborow is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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