UGANDA: Voices of the abducted

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

GULU, 22 November 2011 (IRIN) - At 26, Kilama Otto was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) from his home in northern Uganda’s Nwoya district. After fighting with the insurgency for nine years, he escaped in 2001 and surrendered to the Ugandan army.

He now lives with his wife and four children in a simple hut in Kanyagoga, a suburb of the northern town of Gulu, scraping together a living as a “boda boda” motorbike taxi driver.

“I don’t see any change in me.  It’s a life of misery with nothing to do,” he told IRIN.

“I used to live in my village, Alero, but I had to come back [to Gulu] to find work because of the land conflict and stigma at home, he said.

“My uncle said he couldn’t stay with me in the same home because I am full of blood, that I killed people when I was in the bush,” he added.

Otto said his wife had been taunted by other women in the village and feared for her life.

“It is so painful to hear this from my own people, yet I did not want to be in the LRA,” he said.

“If they capture Kony that will be good but it will not mean the end of the LRA conflict because what about other commanders and fighters?” he wondered, going on to name “very dangerous” LRA leaders he thought might replace Kony: Odhiambo, Ocan Bunia, Dominic Ongwen, Okot, and Ceasor.

“These are people who should be courted patiently and assured that they will be safe once they return home because you can’t just take them lightly like other low-ranking LRA fighters,” he warned.

Aside from any military offensive against the LRA, “there is a need for the government to ensure that the causes and effects of the conflict are addressed so that people can forget the past”, he said.

Only a small proportion of some 13,000 former LRA abductees granted amnesty are being assisted by community-based organizations, who train them in income -generating activities such as bead-making, knitting, tailoring and construction.

Most men make do as boda boda drivers, subsistence farmers or casual labourers, while many of the women brew alcohol or work as barmaids, domestic servants, water carriers or market traders in the streets of Gulu - a situation most of the returnees described as deplorable.

“When I was with the LRA, it was a matter of going for raids and getting what you needed, but here at home there is nothing for free,” said Otto.

Isaak Kilama was abducted from his village in Amilobo in Awer, Amuru district, in 1998 and escaped from the LRA in 2004 after spending six years in captivity. He now makes a living growing and selling tomatoes.

He told IRIN that killing or capturing Kony would not end the problems in northern Uganda or ensure lasting security there. “The only way out is to allow these people, Kony and his fighters, to return home, provided they are ready to take amnesty,” Kilama said.

Under the terms of Uganda's Amnesty act, all members of the LRA are entitled to amnesty if they surrender, but only once. Those who receive amnesty and return to the LRA are not eligible for it again and are liable to be tried in the International Crimes Division of the Ugandan High Court. There is a provision for amnesty to be denied individuals, but this can only be invoked by the minister of internal affairs acting with parliament.

What legal fate awaits Kony should he surrender or be captured alive, remains uncertain.

Mary Auma, 36, a mother of four, was first abducted in 1993. Over the next decade she escaped and was recaptured by the LRA four times.

“I survived all these abductions because I was a wife to one of the senior LRA commanders, Raska Lukwiya.  He was killed in 2006,” Auma said.

Auma and others being helped by the Gulu Women’s Economic Development and Globalisation, a community-based group supported by the ICC’s Trust Fund for Victims, said the capture or death of top LRA leaders could not undo the suffering they had endured nor their current hardships.

“Look, I live my life through brewing and selling alcohol, my children have dropped out of school because I can’t afford to pay for their secondary education,” Auma said.

“Let them arrest Kony and take him wherever they want but what matters for us most is we want meaningful support that can help us regain our dignity,” she said.

“The only hope we had in life was having our children educated but this is fading away,” said Auma, who then became too upset to continue the interview.

“You have to do what you can for yourself. Nobody else cares,” said another former abductee, Michael Dickting, who now repairs bicycles to pay his siblings’ school fees.