Notorious warlord and leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony, is on the run. But the thousands of people he tormented and tortured in Uganda, especially the young boys and girls he abducted and used as child soldiers, still have to live with the scars of the brutality he imposed on them. A Ugandan nun, Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, Director of St. Monica’s Girls Tailoring Centre, in Gulu, has risen as the voice of hope for the young girls who survived this enslavement under the rebels. She is helping them heal and piece their lives back together.
Sister Rosemary has worked with more than 2,000 girls who have fled captivity, and she described their state as “doubly traumatized.” Girls are “more valuable because besides being trained as fighters, they are also made into sex slaves,” she explained, while outlining that young girls are given to commanders and rebels under the false pretense that they will be protected by them as father figures. She elaborated that many of these girls come back with the children of their captors and it’s harder for them to readjust to society because they are anxious about where the child will fit in. “There is always a sense of who’s clan will my child belong to,” said Sister Rosemary, which leaves the girls feeling doubly rejected and insecure.
Based on this, Sister Rosemary ensures that her safehaven feels more like a home filled with family than an institution. In order to get the young girls comfortable enough to come to her, she explained, she made announcements on radio. “ I said that I would like you to come here in the situation you are. If you are a mother, come with your child. If you are pregnant come as you are and even if you are raped, come as you are,” she said. This sentiment reassured the girls that they would be embraced and accepted in any condition, helping to restore some element of their lost childhood.
Sister Rosemary acknowledged that at first it was challenging simply because she was not expecting so many girls to reach out to her, but she took it in stride. “I am a dreamer and having a dream is sometimes challenging, but I never look at a situation as too difficult,” she said. She set up a child day care under the trees in her school with the help of experienced mothers. By example, she reasoned, the girls could learn to love themselves and also their children.
“The reason the girls turn violent towards their children is because they don’t know where to start from, they are confused and only have painful images of their captors,” she explained, while stressing that only love and compassion hold the power to change mindsets. If the girls are shown empathy and introduced to different activities, Sister Rosemary hopes, they will choose to take their destiny into their own hands. “The girls and the children are the future of the nation and children are a blessing, whatever way they are conceived,” she said.
The girls are trained in crafts like sewing and dressmaking, skills that can be seen as a way of mending their almost-broken spirits. “I always have an image of a needle, because it is the most significant as it puts pieces together,” she said referring to the symbolism inherent in the work the girls are doing. She added that the image of a sewing machine is important too. “We are not using machine guns to destroy lives, but we are using machines to sew up lives.”
Sister Rosemary has many other plans, including her goal of providing long-term education for the girls. “I would like an accelerated learning program . . .so the girls could come and speak on a platform like this themselves after a 4-year learning process,” she explained. Especially motivated by how leaders in Paris came together during the Charlie Hebdo attack and addressed the crisis in solidarity, she asked: “Why can’t you do that for Africa? Where are the leaders and why did this happen for 30 years in Uganda?”
She specifically outlined the example of one of the girls in her shelter, Susan, whose life changed after she chose the path of education. Susan was treated especially appallingly during captivity–forced to kill her own sister. Sister Rosemary urged her to go back to formal education, as it would give her a voice and set her free. “I convinced her and now she is in school, she communicates with me in English and she even writes me emails,” she said. “For me she represents the journey of pain, trauma, and triumph at [the] same time. When I see her walking in dignity, that makes me happy. I feel like now my work is done.”
Sister Rosemary recently started a center in Ataik, a town 70 kms from Gulu, and one in South Sudan. “We have to come together as community,” she stressed. Both areas are beset by rebel activity and a lot of women remain there with little hope. But Sister Rosemary may just remedy that: “I went there and was dumbfounded at the numbers so I thought to myself that I am not taking anyone back to Gulu, but told them wait, I am coming there!”