During the conflict in Northern Uganda, more than 60,000 children and youths were abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), and some 8,000 children were born as a consequence of sexual violence and wartime rape. Yet the experiences of these children and their mothers remain unacknowledged and unaddressed, resulting in recurrent episodes of psychological and mental harm characterized by stigmatization, rejection, and ostracism.
A recent documentary by the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) now brings important and much needed attention to the plight of these women and their children, who, in the contemporary post-conflict context, experience various forms of structural gender-based discrimination. I Am Not Who They Think I Am follows the stories of two remarkable women. Their experiences are representative of thousands of young women in Northern Uganda who were abducted by the LRA, coerced into forced marriages with senior commanders, and who gave birth during captivity.
Upon returning to civilian life, these women and children experienced further hardship. Their families and communities often did not want to welcome them back because of their time with the rebels in "the bush." Dealing with the (re)integration of these children constitutes a significant challenge now that relative peace has returned to the region.
In Acholi's patri-lineal and patri-local culture, a child's identity is linked to his or her father's family and clan. Knowing one's paternal home village is a paramount aspect of social belonging and identity formation. Boys, especially, are given access to agricultural land via their paternal lineage, which is crucial for their future economic security, their ability to support themselves, and to start a family. At a workshop co-organized in Gulu in late April 2016 by the Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP) and the Women's Advocacy Network (WAN), these aspects of social belonging and identity as well as access to land through paternal lineages were among the key issues raised by formerly abducted women and children born in captivity. One formerly abducted woman, a forced wife to LRA rebel leader Joseph Kony, reported that "children born of war face many issues of stigma by the community and in schools. They do not have a feeling of identity and belonging in their paternal home, which is where they culturally belong. There is, therefore, a need to re-integrate them into their paternal homes."
Re-establishing a connection between the children and their paternal families, however, poses various challenges. More often than not, the identity of their fathers remains unknown. In captivity, rebels who were abducted as children themselves chose fake names and pseudonyms and provided wrong information about where they came from in order to protect their families and communities from potential retaliations. In cases where the fathers' identities are known and the paternal lineages can be established, the women and their children are stigmatized, called names like “bush-wife,” “rebel,” or “Kony,” and rejected. In the post-conflict period, characterized by land conflicts and other hardships, the families of the fathers often struggle to preserve enough land for themselves, let alone be able to provide anything for their children. Notwithstanding these various challenges, however, the continuous efforts by JRP and WAN have enabled numerous family reunifications over the past years. In the first half of 2016 alone, nine children were reunited with their paternal families, enabling them and their mothers to rebuild their lives.
While highlighting the manifold challenges these women and children are confronted with, the ICTJ documentary also illustrates how peer-support groups and networks allow them to exercise agency and come to terms with their experiences. NGOs like the Refugee Law Project (RLP) or JRP and survivor
s-led organizations such as the WAN or Watye ki Gen (We have Hope) provide important support structures to address the unique challenges faced by formerly abducted women and their children. In these groups, their experiences are recognized and the women are provided with an opportunity to gain new skills, which enable them to generate an income for themselves, their children, and their new families.
Watch the documentary in full courtesy of ICTJ
Philipp Schulz is a PhD candidate at the Transitional Justice Institute (TJI) at Ulster University in Northern Ireland. His research examines the intersections between conflict-related sexual violence against men and transitional justice in Northern Uganda.