Ododo Wa: Our Stories

By Nancy Apiyo

 JRP’s Gender Justice department uses the unique mechanism of storytelling to help women talk about the crimes violated against them during and after war. Storytelling  is a culturally familiar tool which gives women the space to talk and to express themselves freely. Nancy Apiyo relates the special perspective women have on reparations garnered from such sessions.

Sitting around a fireplace is a culturally familiar method of storytelling in Acholi culture.

 It was common in the past to find families around the wang-oo (fireplace) telling stories, discussing family issues or teaching children. So this is not new to the women, the only difference being that we do it during day. Women have been silent because it is hard to talk about sexual violence and also fear. That is why we had to find a method that can encourage them to speak.

Reparations were the topic of discussion during the last story telling session with the women. The concept of gender mainstreaming has to be considered in discussions about the concept, design and implementation of reparations. Clearly everyone suffers during conflict, but specific violence happens to people because of their gender. Even when women are subjected to the same violence as men, the pre-existing social, economic and cultural meaning of a person being a man or woman means that harms to women and men does not have the same effect.

It is therefore important to give women a platform to talk so that their voice is included throughout the process of attaining reparations. This is why we designed this storytelling session around reparations.

The majority of the women who took part in the discussions were abducted and stayed for long periods of time with the rebel groups.  We had to fully explain what reparation is to the women, the various kinds of reparations and the fact that it is their right to have reparation before giving them the chance to talk.  We asked them questions like: What do you understand by the term reparation? What kind of reparation is relevant to you?  What should government do to restore your lives? Is reparation important? If so, why? 

One of the women defined reparations as “acknowledging that something wrong has been done to somebody and [that] the perpetrator is ready and willing to pay it back in order to please the offended party and restore relations.”

It is also common for women to ask for basic needs as a form of reparation or ask for reparation for those close to her and not herself. That can be because they do not know that it is their right to have reparations or because they feel marginalised in society and not valued or simply because they are mothers, which makes them think that others are more important than them.

It is common for a woman to talk about what happened to her husband or children and not to her yet she suffers most during conflict both directly and indirectly. This makes it hard for their issues to be considered. For that reason we used a body mapping exercise to guide the women through the discussion so that they are able to reflect on themselves and not some one else.  

They put marks on a drawing of a body maps to indicate where they were physically, psychologically, mentally, spiritually or socially hurt during the conflict. Later on they discuss what they have marked and relating it to reparations.

One of the women put a mark on the body they have drawn and says:  “The point you see marked on my knee is an effect of war. I got injured by a bullet and it is still buried there. The mark you see on my chest shows the sorrow and heartache that I have because a lot of my time was wasted during the war.” 

The majority of the women have similar responses to the questions, most likely because of the similarity in the kind of violence they experienced. They talk about crimes that were violated against them such as being forced into marriage to older men. They talk about how they gave birth to children who they are taking care of now at home without support of the men, their families or the government. They talk about sexual crimes that were violated against them.  They narrated stories of giving birth on battle field. Some of the women developed complications as a result of being forced into giving birth at an early age. 

They narrated stories of how the men forced them into sex when they were not yet ready. How they were beaten every time the men called them to the house to have sex with them or how they were threatened to be killed if they refused. Many of them were young and still virgins.  Many of the women gave birth at the age of fifteen and below.

One of the women lamented of how labour is more painful in a battlefield.

“I was in captivity when people were sent to the camps. For those abducted, it was not nice to be a woman. When I think of what happened to us during the war, I find life is useless. First of all we were abducted as very young girls and forcefully given to men who are our grandfather’s age mates. If you refused, you were killed. You became pregnant whether you wanted or not. We delivered in very uncomfortable conditions. Sometimes you delivered on the run with no water to clean up yourself and flies come over covering you up because of the bleeding.”

Another narrates how she gave birth during a convoy: “We reached a certain road on the third day, labour pain intensified and my water broke and I started pushing and delivered there. They dug a hole and buried the placenta as I carried my baby.”

Many still have pain because of giving birth at a tender age under terrible conditions. Others have contracted HIV after being given to men whose HIV status was not known.

They narrate stories of how they had to cook for the rebels, carry their luggage, be wives and mothers to the children they gave birth to. As female combatants they had the extra burden of taking care of the kids they were forced to have.  As one of the participants in the story telling narrated: “During battles it was hard for us to run with the kids especially when they were many. Men did not mind about children.”

Despite returning home, many of the women are still traumatised as mothers because of the loss of their children, and what they went through. One of the women is distraught about one of her children who got lost during an attack. Her body was not found and she does not know the fate of the child. She still has dreams of this child. 

It is not easy to talk about such experiences and some of the women break down as they talk. In one of the sessions we are seated under a mango tree one chilly afternoon as we listen to them. They encourage each other in their groups and give each other support. Sometimes there is silence as they recall the past. Others decide to just keep quiet while others decide to talk. The women narrate war stories like old women narrating stories of the ogre to kids and not stories of sexual violence, physical torture and so much evil. Stories you would not wish to be true or to happen to your loved ones.

We listen intently as one of the women continues to say: “We gave birth to very many children. I now have six children because I started giving birth when I was still very young. Whenever there was fighting it was the women to carry the children. When one of them got shot, you left him there and continued running for your life. Newborn babies were tied on their mothers’ necks to make carrying them easy and if the mother was shot then the baby remained with her. Sometimes it was the babysitters carrying them who got shot. The babies remained with them and starved to death.”

On top of what the women went through as women, girls and mothers because of their gender they also experienced the same trauma as of being forced to kill as the men and boys who were abducted. One of them narrates “sometimes you are trained as a soldier and taken to the frontline. Worst of all, whenever someone is caught escaping you were forced to kill them against your will. When such a thing has happened to you, it keeps on haunting you when you come back home.”

Despite the silence of the guns, women continue to suffer. Some of the women have returned to stay with the men they were forced to stay with in the bush because they think the only way to take care of the children they were forced to have is by staying with their fathers. These men continue to violate the rights of the women. One man mistreated his wife for a long time until she finally opened up to her friend through one of the storytelling sessions. She said she got confidence and courage to report the man to the authorities after sharing her story with the rest. She felt empowered and that her dignity was restored when she shared her story with the rest. Her friends managed to get her a place to work. She then left the man and is taking care of her children alone.

When we asked the women how they think their lives should be restored they responded that they feel the homes of the children they gave birth to in the bush should be traced and unity created among them with the men’s families.  They think it is important for the children to know their paternal homes. They also say they want the government to reform laws on land so that children born in captivity need to have access to their family land. As one of the story tellers says: “For me what I ask the government to do is to put laws that deals with land wrangles because I have returned with children whom they say do not own land. This idea of saying that they do not own land should be stopped.”

They also want their children’s school fees to be paid. They say it breaks their heart to see their children not going to school and that their children may not have a bright future.

They also talk about the need for reparations for the physical ailments they now suffer from because of the conflict. Some women continue to live in pain because of bullets lodged in their bodies that have to be removed.  A woman says, “I still have a bullet on my head that is why I have marked it and I feel a lot of pain. I always tie [a cloth over] my head because of the pain I feel. I only untie it at night because it does not want me to stay in a hot place most especially when I am cooking.”

They also want monetary compensation for the time they wasted in the bush. As one of the storytellers suggests, “If at all the government can, it should pay for our time that was wasted that led to our being illiterate. I should be compensated with money that will change my life.”

The women also feel that it is important for them to know the truth about the war. Some are back and do not even know the reason why they were abducted or why there was a war in Northern Uganda or even who is responsible for years of suffering. They also want acknowledgement from the government about what happened to them and they want apology from the commanders who abducted them and mistreated them in the bush.  

They also want the government to apologise for not protecting them. They believe the men who committed sexual crimes against them should be prosecuted. They talk about the need for psychosocial support to help them overcome the trauma they went through and say it is important to put up centres where they can go and get counselling.

When we asked them who they think should provide reparation the majority of women said it is the government, but one of the women groups discussed the role survivors and victims have to play. They cited how they have to make good use of what the government provides in form of reparations. The communities also have to accept the past and come to terms with it so that they can create reconciliation among themselves. They believe the community has a big role to play in creating    reconciliation and forgiveness if they are to live in harmony. They gave an example of stopping stigma within the communities and the acceept of children born in captivity. 

They also talked of the big role communities play in reviving the lost culture by teaching their children about the culture they had before the war.

They talked of people being responsible citizens as they move on with their lives, such as by reporting of crimes within the community and thereby helping to reduce the level of crime. The communities should also hand in the guns they had during the war and stop using them they said.

Ultimately, the women believe reparation is very important because it can lead to healing and reconciliation and it is a way of attaining justice.

 

It is important to have a transformative kind of reparation that does not just repair the lives of the women but transform them. Women have been marginalised for a long time and it is important for them to be empowered so that their lives are changed. For example this can be done by providing free education for the girl child who suffered during conflict and through the sensitisation of women about their rights so that they can be active citizens.

It is also important to empower women economically so that they are more independent, otherwise they will continue to suffer and be abused even after the conflict. Now that the war has ended, women are still suffering from domestic violence and girls are being forced into early marriages. If the country is to have an effective reparation system then it has to change the lives of women so that they are more empowered citizens and there is no chance for them to be abused again.▪

 

Nancy Apiyo is a Project Assistant with JRP’s Gender Justice department.

 

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