A large number, especially those based outside of Gulu, were provided with little or no support upon their return from the bush.
By Brigid Inder, OBE
Having worked in northern Uganda since 2004 on conflict-related programmes with local women’s organisations and networks, we have, over the years, developed some understanding of the significant inter-generational impact of armed conflict on families, clans and communities across northern Uganda.
During this time, we have also seen positive changes, including policy and legal developments in response to the LRA-related conflict as well as the Peace, Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP) for the greater north.
There have also been critical changes in the confidence of the populations in the north to return home, resume farming and begin small-scale commercial enterprises, as peace and stability returned.
Although the recovery period for the north is officially over and the focus is now firmly on development, many victims/survivors, particularly young women abducted by the LRA rebels, feel over-looked and left behind. In the last five years, we have spent time consulting, listening to and learning from female LRA returnees to better understand both their reintegration needs and future aspirations.
Many of those consulted with, as well as participants from conflict-affected sub-regions attending the Wamare Institute for young women formerly abducted by the LRA, said that they have not yet benefited from the PRDP or other recovery initiatives. A large number, especially those based outside of Gulu, were provided with little or no support upon their return from the bush. Many, but not all, received initial support at one of the returnee reception centres immediately following their escape from the LRA.
Unfortunately, accessing reception centres was by no means systematic or assured. A significant number did not receive any counseling or therapeutic support as part of their reintegration process.
It is perhaps not surprising that almost all participants indicated in their Wamare application forms that anger, shame, depression and anxiety are feelings they continue to deal with. Those from rural and remote areas of Acholi as well as West Nile and Lango and Teso sub-regions seemed to be particularly affected by the lack of access to services. Many of the available services and programmes for returnees are only (or primarily) offered in Gulu.
Under-resourced yet extraordinary organisations are providing important services and programmes and doing their best to reach as many former abductees as possible.
However, relative to the scale and complexity of the victims reintegration issues, even the perceived high level of services available in Gulu, is grossly insufficient in proportion to the number of returnees and their needs.
The Wamare Institute and its follow-up programme focusing on income generation projects, counselling and peer support for female returnees, is an effort to complement the existing services and to respond to some of the needs of this specific group of victims/survivors, for whom there are few dedicated services.
According to the information provided in the application forms for the Wamare Institute, most of the participants are currently living in impoverished conditions, have limited capacity to generate income, face difficulties accessing food, describe their housing as ‘poor’ to ‘very poor’, and many report that they and their children some times go to bed hungry.
These factors could reflect the reality of many individuals and families living in poverty in Uganda and elsewhere. But added to these day-to-day survival issues, female returnees also deal with deep levels of trauma and face communal hostility and discrimination because of their abduction by the LRA.
Many report being rejected by their families and clans who are ashamed that their daughters were associated with the LRA and many are bitter at the suffering caused during the LRA-related conflict.
Young women who returned from the LRA with children face additional stigma and discrimination due to the visible evidence of the loss of virginity outside marriage, despite this being due to rape and sexual enslavement by the LRA. New partners and husbands do not always accept the children born as a result of the conflict and reject them, thus adding further strain and distress for the young women.
During the consultation process, a significant number of female returnees stated that they had considered returning to the bush or committing suicide because of the unexpected rejection they faced upon their return home. Lack of clan recognition has a significant and negative effect on their psychological recovery and also reduces their support for housing, childcare and their ability to access land to grow crops.
Amongst the hardships they experienced in the bush, one of the challenges most commonly articulated by returnees relates to the heavy loads they were forced to carry for long distances across inhospitable terrain.
Abducted as children, they carried weapons, food, cooking utensils and luggage, amongst other items, when moving from camp to camp. The weight of these items was beyond the ability and strength of a child’s body to carry and yet out of fear of being beaten or killed, they carried these mostly looted goods over mountains, across rivers and between countries, as ordered by their commanders.
Many of the young women returned with neck and back injuries. All those consulted with and attending the Wamare Institute experienced a range of health issues including rape-related injuries, malnutrition and psychological trauma and many continue to experience ongoing chronic illness, disabling injuries and live with prosthetic limbs.
Whilst the establishment of peace in northern Uganda has itself provided relief to the conflict-affected communities, there remain significant unmet recovery and reintegration needs for female returnees.
The writer is the executive director of the Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice