By Joyce Nyakato
Despite being a former LRA rebel abductee and an HIV-positive mother of three, 30-year-old Beatrice Ajok has trudged on.
She volunteers as an HIV/AIDS counsellor at the Gulu regional referral hospital.
What sets her apart from the everyday counsellor is that she has targeted a vulnerable group – the HIV positive people with disabilities. She recently completed a sign-language course to be able to communicate with them better.
People with disabilities are one group of people that have often felt marginalized when it comes to seeking adolescent and sexual reproduction and HIV/AIDS services.
“Not many people have the strength to move on when faced with HIV/AIDS,” she says when asked why she chose that path. Despite having limited education, she still has found a way of being useful to the community by testimony.
She has also spearheaded the formation “Lugoro twero” [disability is not inability] movement which helps young positives. Due to limited funding, it is limited to an advocacy role.
Her vision to help the positives with disabilities has also been hampered by lack of money.
Despite the challenge, the group has a co-operative union which collects money in a lump and distributes the collection to members in turns to help them. “I want this group to take care of children without care takers,” is a vision she has.
16 years ago . . .
Her painful experience started in 1996, when rebels knocked on their school dormitory door issuing threats. She, along with 26 other girls decided to open because the rebels were determined to break in anyway.
At 14 then, she was bundled and whisked away with the other girls into captivity.
It was a double tragedy for her 50-year-old single mother, Margaret Auma, who distilled alcohol to be able to send Ajok with her seven siblings to school.
“I cried but there was nothing I could do more,” she recalls. “Whenever it rained at night, I imagined it raining on my daughter and how she was surviving the cold. I always failed to sleep at night.”
Ajok is the eldest of Auma’s children.
Months later, the abduction of her other 11-year-old daughter, in Primary Six then, dealt a cruel blow against her. She trekked a long journey in reckless pursuit of the rebels but failed.
Fortunately, after two years, her second daughter returned but Ajok remained in captivity.
Somehow, Auma’s first born – Ajok – conceived and gave birth to a baby boy in the bush.
After four years of enduring the teasing, the looting and the never-ending treks punctuated with cold nights in the bushes, Ajok carefully hatched an escape plan. “It was risky because if you were caught, you had to be killed,” she recalls with a visage of grief.
With her five-month baby tied to her back, she veered off the walking path and her detour led her into a tall bush. There she hid until she could no longer hear the receding footsteps. Fortunately, the baby on her back never cried, and neither did her friends give her away.
Paths in the bush were like mazes, most ways led her to the very place she had been from. “If you asked people around for the directions back home, you risked being caught,” hinting that some people were rebel allies.
After spending a night on a branch of a tree, she made it back to Gulu town with the help of the military.
Back home to harsh reception
When she came back in 2000 with a baby, she didn’t feel worthy of a community that she had been a part of. Four years seemed like forever. Life was never going to be the same. Everyone was going to refer to her as the “abducted girl” from then on.
“When everyone around you is crying, you feel worse,” she narrates what she felt then. This feel of emptiness and despair is the reason a handful made their way back to the bush.
Upon a successful return, her uncle was called on to receive her. However, he declined to take her back in, after seeing her with a child.
He was the one who had been contributing to her fees by the time she was abducted. “I think he was disappointed,” she says. She stayed in isolation under the close watch of a team of counsellors to prepare her for any psychological shocks and changes in the society.
The mother too had to be psychologically prepared by counsellors for the imminent reunion.
Counsellors advised Auma to refrain from asking her daughter any question of what might have happened to her in the bush. That included the paternity of her five-month child.
“To this day, I have never asked her who the father of her child is,” Auma admits.
Hope, reunion and acceptance
The mother-daughter reunion gave Ajok a pillar of hope that she desperately was searching for. They went back home to live together as they did before.
Despite the warm welcomes, feelings of despair still lurked on like a shadow. “A whole four years had been pulled out of my life,” she said, trying to subdue a grimace. She wanted to go back to school.
Since the uncle wasn’t interested in supporting her anymore, Ajok had to seek alternative means. Selling charcoal and sugarcane to keep in school didn’t raise enough money. And neither did a gig in the Gulu district local government offices as an office attendant.
Captured again . . . only just!
Months later, she survived recapture by the rebels when they came back to the village on her pursuit. While in the bush, she had taken a picture with the rebels from which they were able to recognize her absence among the crop of girls. Like footprints, pictures left trails.
After lying about her identity, claiming she was a widow, they let her off the hook. The rebels often abducted young unmarried girls because they had the perception that they were HIV-free.
A new chapter, moving on
After the prospect of going back to school hit a dead-end, she decided to marry. But later into the marriage, she became very sick, fell unconscious and was taken to hospital. Tests were done and she was HIV positive.
The news of her status hit her with a jolt of surprise. “If people don’t accept my HIV status, I will return to the bush.” She internally resolved after receiving the results.
Fortunately, family members supported her.
She separated with her husband and moved back in with the mother. She enlisted at TASO Gulu for ARV treatment and took part in their outreach programmes. She continued taking the drugs until her CD4 count rose.
The former abductee spent some time at church to draw some spiritual strength.
While at TASO, she was elevated to the position of secretary for the clients which entailed doing a lot of coordination and raising money for others to buy drugs since we were getting them for free.
She also encouraged many to join TASO for treatment.
In 2010, TASO trained her as a counsellor for six months. During her practical training, she started working at Gulu regional referral hospital as a volunteer.
“In my line of work, I met many people with disabilities.
“They had lost hope because they knew they were not being helped,” she remembers. She enlisted for a sign language course.
And since then, she has not looked back at her past.
Her story has inspired many young women around her, especially young women living with HIV/AIDS. Through her project, she wants members of her group to build their own houses out of money that they are trying to fundraise.