By Susan Kendi
A hush has fallen
on the International Criminal Court as judges deliberate on the fate the Lord’s
Resistance Army commander who was charged with crimes against humanity, but a deeper
silence persists on the true scale of injury suffered by women forced into
marriage during the 30-year insurgency in northern Uganda.
As the world
awaits the decision on the Dominic Ongwen trial, former female abductees of the
LRA war still bear numerous physical and psychological scars more than 15 years
since they returned to their villages. Ongwen’s
trial was meant to serve as a truth-seeking journey and a search for accountability
for the violations committed against women and children born in captivity.
However, it is unlikely address the irreversible social effects the war has had
on them or resolve their immediate economic and livelihood challenges. Women
who returned to civilian life through the Amnesty Commission established under
Uganda’s Amnesty Act of 2000, received resettlement assistance of a blanket,
mattress, saucepan, a hoe and UGX235,000 ($62) as startup capital — similar to
what LRA male returnees got. After running for four years, between 2005 and
2009, the re-integration package was suspended due to financial constraints.
Non-Governmental Organisations that offered humanitarian assistance to the
returnees also folded up and closed shop at the end of war in 2006.
A cloud of stigma and
suspicion hangs over the heads of women forced into marriages with rebels and
bore them children. Most of the children born of these forced unions are out of
school because their mothers cannot afford the fees. Those who can attend school
are stigmatized with the label of ‘rebel children’. Uganda’s patrilineal culture
frowns on women giving birth to children out of wedlock and excludes such
offspring from the inheritance of land and home.
bullet wounds and other injuries from the bush are unable to receive medical
care for lack of money. The women who have attempted to make a fresh start by
remarrying after leaving the rebel life in the bush struggle to cope with
schisms in their families. Their husbands refuse to care for the children of
captivity the women came into the marriage with, and some women have had to
leave such children with their own ageing parents.
Most of the children
born in captivity have no birth certificate, a document that proves their
Ugandan nationality and would open the door to rights, legal protection and
services due to citizens. The combination of a lack of identity, financial
means and rejection has forced some of the children to join the Uganda People’s
Defence Forces, but many are driven to a precarious life on the streets or to
In, Gulu, a town
in northern Uganda, birth certificates are now being issued without question
after the government promised in 2019 to allocate money to the National
Identification and Registration Authority to launch a special registration
programme for some 6,000 children born during the war.
“If Kony can still
come hack, I will go back to the bush,” says Grace Akello, a mother of children
born in captivity. “There, everything is free. But here, I cannot even provide
for my children. I only sell charcoal to get money for renting the house,
provide food for children and I cannot pay them at school. If I am sick, there
is nothing to do but keep on sleeping on an empty stomach if somebody has not
helped us with his or her sympathy. I live with my children at home because I
cannot afford … their school fees. I have no land to live on with them but
every month I have to rent this small house. My children have grown up and we
all share the same room. There is no privacy in my house. We are living a
difficult life really,” she says in a story posted on the website of the community
based organization, War Victims and Children
Most girls were abducted
when they were between the ages of eight to 14 years on their way to school or
home. Others were captured from their homes, barely literate and prepubescent, robbed
of the protection of their families and communities, and carted off into the bush
where they were labeled as “ting tings,” and distributed to the various households
as baby sitters and domestic workers before being forced into marriage.
government has never acknowledged its failure to protect women from the crimes
committed by both rebels and the Uganda People’s Defence Forces during the
watched their children being thrown into the bush whenever they cried or slowed
the rebels down. Others were locked in houses and burnt, while others watched their
children put in polythene bags and beaten to death.
prosecution witness in the Ongwen trial, P-187, told ICC judges on March 22,
2018 the harrowing details of how some mothers watched LRA fighters put their
children in polythene bags and beat them to death, threw others who were months
old in the bush, and locked some in houses before setting them on fire. She
revealed that one of the mothers later found her child known as ‘Chana’ but he
has a mental problem and learning difficulties due to the head injury he suffered
at the time.
The LRA collapsed the social structure,
subverting traditional, cultural or religious rites of courtship and marriage,
thus denying the mothers and children born in captivity the social benefits
accruing from the union. Women were no longer viewed as individuals but as
property and rewards. No girl was allowed to decide on the partner she wanted
to marry and neither was she consulted on whether she was ready to start a
family. They were distributed
and dished out as awards for the top performing LRA fighters who repeatedly raped them.
Forced marriage irrevocably changed the status of
the women to wives, which significantly contributed to the social stigma they
and their children continue to suffer.
autonomy, most girls and women were forced to get pregnant and confined until
they gave birth. Additionally, they were punished for failing in their domestic
duties, if they refused to have sex with their ‘husbands’ and killed if they
tried to escape.
Those who escaped
and returned home had to apply for amnesty. This imposed an additional burden of
stigma or being labeled as perpetrators or rebel collaborators on the returnees,
according to a 48-page
report by International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), ‘From
Rejection to Redress’.
process was more of the victims accepting wrongdoing even though their
abduction was not by choice but a violation of their rights.
amnesty to girls and women who were abducted and victims of sexual violence,
the government is putting the blame on those it failed to protect and in a way
further distancing itself from accepting responsibility for failing to protect
them from violations,” the report stated.
government’s legal response has been one-sided with only two former LRA
commanders put on trial; Ongwen in The Hague, Netherlands, and Thomas Kwoyelo at the International Crimes Division in Uganda.
Efforts to bring
to justice members of the Uganda People’s Defence Force and Local Defence Units
has also proved difficult and has been resisted by the government, which claims
that the liable UPDF soldiers have been investigated and punished for their crimes.
The state alleges that a small group of troops committed wrongful acts without
their superiors’ knowledge or support.
There has never
been a public record of proceedings or evidence showing that the crimes committed
by the UPDF soldiers have been investigated or those implicated held to account.
Additionally, there is no public information on the outcome of the ICC
prosecutor’s intention to investigate crimes committed by the state actors.
A former junior LRA commander and father from
Gulu mentioned in the ICTJ’s report said, “There is no justice in Uganda … In
the war, there were some UPDF who raped our women in front of their men, but up
to now no one has held them accountable. All you hear is about are LRA
Ongwen was charged with 70 counts of war crimes
and crimes against humanity committed in northern Uganda between 2002 and 2005.The
crimes include rape, murder, torture, forced marriage, sexual slavery,
enslavement, conscription and use of children under the age of 15 years during attacks
on Pajule, Odek and Abok camps for internally displaced persons, which led to
the displacement of thousands.
Kwoyelo is facing 93 charges of war crimes and
crimes against humanity after he was captured in 2009 by UPDF troops in the
Democratic Republic of Congo. He is the first rebel commander to be tried
before the ICD over the conflict between the LRA and the UPDF in northern