Moving Forward

Woman explains how she was able to forgive Kony henchman who kidnapped and raped her

Polline Akello knows all too well the suffering wrought on women and girls in Uganda by Joseph Kony’s LRA

Since the 1980s, the Lord’s Resistance Army — a notoriously brutal rebel group led by Joseph Kony — has carried out a reign of terror against the innocent civilians of northern Uganda. The group is now losing power, but it has left a toxic imprint on its many victims. At the Women in the World Summit on Friday, three advocates spoke with the BBC’s Lucy Hockings about the possibility of finding hope in the wake of LRA devastation: former child soldier Polline Akello; Agnes Igoye, Deputy National Coordinator of the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons in Uganda; and Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, who runs a vocational training center for female victims of violence.

The LRA all too often targets young girls, who are “doubly disadvantaged,” as Sister Rosemary put it during the panel. Female victims of the LRA are often forced to commit unspeakable acts of violence, and then coerced into sexual slavery to satisfy the needs of male fighters. Polline Akello is achingly familiar with the horrors that the LRA wreaks upon its captives. After being forcibly abducted from her home in 2002, Akello spent seven years in the bush. She was given as a “wife” to an older male soldier, and witnessed many young women murdered — including her best friend. She told Hockings that the impact of LRA’s sexual violence was particularly haunting.

“I have seen young children giving birth and dying at the point of giving birth, together with their children,” Akello said. After she was injured and permitted to go to a hospital, Akello was able to escape Kony’s clutches. And when she returned home, she began a process of healing that involved both religious introspection and sheer determination. “All the years that I was spending in the bush, God was working with me,” Akello said. “Life continues. The past is the past. So my focus is, I have to make sure that life continues, that I continue moving with life.”

At one point after her return, Akello crossed paths with the man who had abducted her. She told Hockings that she felt no animosity towards him. “I decided in my heart of forgive him and take him as my own brother,” she said. “Because I believe that he was forced into abducting me.”

“Agnes, do you see this all the time?” Hockings asked Igoye, who has interacted with many female victims of the LRA in her work with Prevention of Trafficking in Persons. “How does it change women’s life when they can forgive?”

“It frees you,” Igoye replied, and noted that many LRA soldiers are indeed coerced into committing unspeakable acts of violence. “Why can’t you forgive someone [who] did something they didn’t want to do?” she asked.

But though they may carry forgiveness in their hearts, many female victims of the LRA are met with extreme hostility by their communities when they return from the bush. Sometimes, they are feared as violent and volatile. Often, the girls come home with children — the product of rape and violence — and are thus stigmatized as unwed mothers.

To help women who have been shunned by their communities, Igoye founded a program called Huts for Peace, which helps female survivors of the LRA build homes that will serve as the foundation of their new lives. “It’s not just about building houses,” Igoye said. “It’s about spreading a message of peace and forgiveness.”

Building something after spending years immersed in a culture of destruction and violence can also be tremendously empowering, Igoye noted. “[The women] have to be part of the process,” she said. “They collect the water, they collect the grass, and they do it with joy.”

Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe is also a firm believer in the healing power of work. She is the director of the St. Monica’s Girls Tailoring Centre in Uganda, which runs vocational training programs for girls who have had their lives ripped apart by conflict. Since 2002, Sister Rosemary has taken in over 1, 400 girls, many of them victims of the LRA. When they come to the training center, female pupils learn how to make purses out of a rather unusual material: recycled bottles and cans.

“My whole emphasis is on putting trash to treasure,” Sister Rosemary said. “This is very significant for me. These girls were once considered as trash … but you can see how beautiful they are now.”

By providing both work and accommodations to female victims of the LRA, the St. Monica’s Girls Tailoring Centre sends out a message of acceptance. “[We offer] our arms saying, ‘Come as you are in this center, and we will make you get healed,’” Sister Rosemary explained. “It’s not easy to love children got from sexual violence. But we help these girls love their children.”

Above all, Sister Rosemary emphasized how important it is for her pupils to maintain optimism as they sew their way into a new future. “Let us not dwell on the past,” she said, to enthusiastic applause. “There is a future. We can work in hope.”

Related:

Sister Rosemary reveals the 3 words she’d say if she came face to face with evil warlord Joseph Kony

Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe: “These girls are still fighting, they’re still hearing gunshots in their hearts”

“I am a dreamer,” says the Ugandan nun saving scores of girls kidnapped by warlord Joseph Kony

 

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