Uganda: Former rebel captives struggle

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Women held by rebels for years get little help as they try to rebuild their lives.

By Caroline Ayugi and Patrick Okino in Gulu, northern Uganda (AR No. 192, 3-Nov-08)

Proscovia Acayo, who gave birth to four children during her nine years of captivity with the rebel Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, today lives in a small mud and thatch hut in a village near Gulu.

Abducted in 1995 when LRA rebels attacked her village, Acayo eventually escaped the LRA in 2004, returning to Gulu with her four children from the bush.

Her homecoming was heartbreaking, however, when she learned that her parents had been killed by the LRA and her five younger brothers and sisters were stranded at Lacekocot internal refugee camp in Pader district north of Gulu.

Acayo and her family of nine survive on the two US dollars a day she earns selling charcoal in the neighborhoods of Gulu. But it is far less than she needs to feed, clothe and educate her family.

On the day IWPR spoke with Acayo, no fire burned in her crowded little hut, signaling that her family was going without lunch.

"I am requesting any person, organisation or even the government to help me with these children especially their education, health, feeding and house rent, because the business I am doing gives me very little money," she said.

Acayo is among thousands of men and women who have returned from LRA captivity to communities across northern Uganda, only to find themselves in the midst of crushing poverty and with little hope for the future.

Many of the former abductees, especially women, are demanding help from the government in the form of resettlement packages made available to former rebels through the Uganda Amnesty Commission.

The women complain that they have not received reintegration assistance - meant for both men and women - which includes a foam mattress, plastic containers, cooking pans, a blanket and Ugandan currency worth about 115 US dollars.

Amnesty Commission chairman Justice Peter Onega said the total number of ex-LRA members to be supported through the project could be as high as 29,000, including those still in the ranks of the LRA.

He says 22,000 have already received assistance; 1,800 are waiting for help; and a further 5,000 could be eligible for it when and if the LRA, which is now operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo, demobilises.

"If the comprehensive peace agreement between the LRA and the government of Uganda is signed, we expect the LRA to leave Congo and Sudan and come back to Uganda," said Onega. "We will give them reintegration packages."

But Acayo, who says her suffering continues despite her freedom, says she never received aid from the government.

After she was kidnapped, Acayo says she was handed over to a man named Ayo, a commander under Okot Odhiambo, who among others in the LRA has been indicted by the International Criminal Court, ICC, for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Ayo, only 13 at this time, says she was then handed to another commander, Okwera Aginya, becoming his fourth wife. She had her four children with him.

After Aginya died in 2003 at Owiny-Kibul in South Sudan during a shootout between the LRA and South Sudanese forces, Acayo escaped with her four children, ending up at reintegration centre in Gulu.

Acayo was then given a small amount of money from the Concerned Parents Association, a group of parents whose children have been abducted by the LRA. She used it to start her charcoal business.

Sarah Achora, 18, a former wife of a rebel named Pope Nyeko, who she said was killed in 2004, has also not received commission support.

"I have never got any assistance from the government since I returned in 2005 after nine years in the bush," Achora told IWPR. "I don't expect any miracle to happen. If only they could pay for my two children to go school, I would be grateful."

Achora survives by selling cut and dried cassava. "I have been selling the chips for three years," she said. "[It] is enough for me to get a meal a day and pay my monthly rent."

Sunday Aryemo, 20, another of Odhiambo former wives, told IWPR, "Since I came out from the bush two years ago, the only assistance I got was a mattress, two jerry cans and a saucepan from [independent aid group] World Vision".

Aryemo was abducted from her village east of Gulu, and lived with the rebels for seven years.

"I deal in fresh cassava, so [with] that I raise money to take care of my four children," she told IWPR. "My mother died of tuberculosis, so I am also taking care of my younger [siblings]. I am overwhelmed."

While many former female abductees have not received support from the amnesty commission, some like Proscovia Acayo have been given vocational training.

Acayo attended a clothing design course, but it did little to improve her situation because she lacks the capital to buy materials and chemicals to start a business.

Vincent Ocen, an official at the education department in Gulu, has been critical of vocational training given to the former rebels.

"The duration of the training is as short as three weeks, and doesn't enable them to compete in the job market," he said.

"There should be proper certification and links to job opportunities."

Onega said the reason why so many former LRA returnees have yet to receive resettlement packages is because the commission was only provided funds in 2005, by which time many of the ex-rebels and their captives had settled back in their old villages - some in far flung parts of the north - and were difficult to trace.

But Onega said new funds were now available to provide for those who were overlooked in the first phase of the assistance project, which appears to have focused on demobilised fighters.

Now, he says, special attention will be given to mothers; the disabled; and women and child soldiers. "These are the people we are targeting," he said. "We will be gender sensitive."

Caroline Ayugi and Patrick Okino are IWPR-trained journalists.