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UNICEF Helps Reconstruct Lost Hope and Future for Child Mothers and Children Born in Captivity

By Marianna Garofalo and Peter Simon Aturia

It’s a beautiful sunny day in Acholi land in Northern Uganda. As we drive to Akuna village, Pawidi Parish, Lagoro Sub County in Kitgum district, I am staring through the window at the beautiful land scape, and I struggle to imagine that this peaceful and lovely place in Northern Uganda was – less than 10 years ago- the centre of a horrible civil war led by the rebels of the Lord Resistance Army (LRA). When I reach the village, a group of elders are sitting under a big tree, and it looks like that they are preparing for something important. Indeed, a cleansing ceremony is about to happen.

I sit under the tree, next to the elders, and I wait with them. After some minutes, a young woman of about 25 years comes along with her two children of 7 and 1 year respectively. Her name is Grace (not real names). She walks towards the tree, she greets and, with a soft voice, starts telling her story: she was not even 13 years old when -in 2002- she was abducted by the LRA rebels. It was late in the night, when the rebels came to her house and took her abruptly away from her home, from her family. And from her future. She walked in the dark for many miles, together with other girls of her same age, until she lost track of where she was going to. She ended up in the rebels’ refuge, probably in Sudan.

Grace lived in captivity for over 9 years, constantly moving from one place to another between Uganda and Sudan (now South Sudan). She soon became the wife of one of the LRA commanders, who repeatedly raped and beat her. Occasionally she was also taken to the battle field to help the rebels carry their guns and fight on, all you can imagine happens in the battle front.

She conceived and was weak to sustain activity at the battle front, she was sent to “BAY”, which is a place where pregnant and wounded people stayed in the bush. During a clash between the LRA and the Uganda military forces in 2011, she managed to escape and eventually come back to Akuna. Nothing was the same as she remembered it to be: her house had been burnt and her parents had been killed by the rebels. She never found out what happened to her siblings. She was alone and pregnant with her first child. She had no hopes in the future and the community looked at her as if she was a rebel.

The uncertain paternity of the child she was expecting exposed her to more discriminations and stigma. Through the District Probation Officer, she eventually got in touch with a local NGO, which in partnership with UNICEF works to reintegrate children and women formerly associated with armed groups. They support the victims with psychosocial support, life skills training, livelihood support, medical and also work on changing communities’ attitude towards women and children associated with the LRA, encouraging their acceptance and reintegration. The work with the communities is lengthy and challenging, and requires a lot of interaction and dialogues. At the end of this process, the community decides on the best way to reintegrate the women and the children, which could be a traditional ceremony or a religious ritual with the best interest of the child at heart on what she/he is comfortable with.

A few months ago, Grace was filled with joy! The community in Akena Village accepted to reintegrate her and her children. This was during a cleansing ceremony held to officially welcome her back in the village, cleanse her of the past misfortune, reconcile her with the communities and bless her family. A lot of festivities are done after the main cleansing ceremonies by cultural leaders.

Grace steps forward to tell her story briefly without indulging into sensitive details, for her own peace and sensitivity of the details. After telling her story, Grace steps on one egg as a sign of breaking  the burden of her past; she cuts a leaf of the puboo  eli tree, which in the culture of the region, brings blessing. The elders therefore kill a cow and pour the blood on Grace’s head, as a sign of cleansing. After that, the goat is cooked and the community celebrates the new life of Grace and her children.  “I still suffer because of my past,” Grace says. “I have fears and anxiety, and nightmares, but I thank my village for helping me and my children.”  I can’t stop looking at Grace’s big and dark eyes as she speaks, and all I wish is that her nightmares can turn into dreams.

A follow up visit after the cleansing ceremony is a reflection of peace at heart for Grace and community acceptancy. As much as the nightmares still come, they have reduced, Grace is calm, less aggressive to her children and currently enrolled as a beneficiary of one of the government programs on wealth creation at household level through training and provision of hybrid seeds.  Grace was linked to the project by the support of UNICEF’s advocacy with the local leaders and many more children like Grace have been reached and touched by the support from UNICEF, Government of Uganda and partners to rebuild their lives.

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