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Milly’s story: A new life after a childhood caught in war

UNICEF Image: Uganda ceasefire
© UNICEF Uganda/2006/Hyun
Milly Auma with her eight-year-old daughter Nancy and baby Peace, who was born earlier this year. Ms. Auma was abducted and forced into service for a decade by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda.

By Chulho Hyun

UNICEF is welcoming a ceasefire in Uganda that could pave the way for thousands of children to be reunited with their families after being forced to join armed forces during the country’s civil war. Milly Auma was 12 when she was captured. Now she tells her story.

GULU, Uganda, 30 August 2006 – Milly Auma was taken from her community by the Lord’s Resistance Army when she was still in primary school. It was 10 years before she was able to escape – and by that time she had two children of her own. But instead of being welcomed when she returned home to Gulu, many in her village rejected her.

“People said I had joined the LRA willingly,” says Ms. Auma, now 26. “They would say, ‘Why do you taint us with your evil spirit?’”

Many other children who were abducted report similar stigma and discrimination on returning to their communities. Life became so difficult for Auma that she even considered going back to the LRA if she couldn’t find acceptance for herself and her children, then aged two and four.

“Tensions exist between young people formerly with the LRA and the communities in which they now live,” says UNICEF’s head of operations in Uganda, Martin Mogwanja. “Such differences must be addressed consistently and in a way that promotes the development of the entire community if there is to be a durable peace in northern Uganda.”

Determination to survive

Since the start of the country’s 20-year civil conflict, the LRA has abducted an estimated 25,000 children, including some 7,500 girls. Many, like Ms. Auma, were forced into relationships and conceived children.

In the end, it was the determination that had helped her survive captivity that enabled Ms. Auma to adapt to her new adult life. She was helped by the Youth Social Work Association (YSA), a community-based organization supported by UNICEF and its partners.

The YSA works to reintegrate formerly abducted children and other vulnerable adolescents into mainstream society. Projects include income-generation activities and peer-to-peer counselling, as well as training sessions in leadership and entrepreneurial skills.

‘People see me as being successful’

The programme conducted by YSA is known as ‘Twiga,’ the Swahili word for giraffe – an animal revered for its ability to see far and wide.

In 2005, using her new skills, Ms. Auma started a business transporting freshwater fish from the Nile River in Jinja and selling them in the local markets of Gulu. She made an initial profit of approximately $50, and a second trip doubled her income. Now she is planning to lease a plot of land to grow vegetables for sale.

“I now have a business and people see me as being successful,” says Ms. Auma, who is also training as a counsellor for vulnerable adolescents. “I should not be portrayed as being useless. If anyone says something negative about me, I now ignore it.”

Jane O’Brien contributed to this story from New York.



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