By Ochieng’ Ogodo
[GULU] Her eyeballs rolled left and right in a dance of hopelessness with tears on the edges as she softly bit her dry cracked lower lip. Betty Ajok was certainly struggling with some terrifying deep inner feelings. She was in great pain.
And the harrowing three-year ordeal in the bush that snowballed into her phobic existence is what many a young girl in northern Uganda has had to endure because of the many years of senseless civil conflagration pitting the National Resistance Movement army presided over by President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni and the sadistic ragtag Lords Resistance Army [LRA] in the hands of Joseph Kony.
She is ex-girl child abductee of the brutal and barbaric lot that is the LRA that has terrorised northern
for the past 26 years turning the once agricultural rich region into a huge camp of suffering and destitution. Uganda
at Anaka IDPs camp, Northern Uganda
“All that I underwent in the bush makes me feel like I am not a human being anymore. I deeply loathe all that I was forced to do but the experience has stuck and gives me a deep sense of misery each passing day. I feel hollow,” Ajok said.
On a sunny mid-morning in 2000, Ajok and three other unsuspecting little innocent life vessels-they were about 10 in age-walked a little distance from their Anaka Internally Displaced Persons camp in search of firewood. Anaka is about 50 kilometers north of Gulu town.
In a split of a second, as they gathered firewood in the forest, they found themselves surrounded by mean looking and blood thirsty men who ordered them to follow.
“It was about 10 AM on that fateful day when they ambushed and ordered us to follow them. Disregard to commands from rebel soldiers was not possible if you knew what had been going on in this part of our country,” she said with her eyes cast in a hollow distant look.
For three days they were on the move drooping under the heavy weight of looted property in the thick forest further to the north, the stronghold of the rebels that attack and run to hide in eastern Democratic Republic Congo and
On those three days they were on the move joining other rebels with abductees, men and children forcefully drafted, in the bush. Once they reached one of the rebels’ make shift camps in far northern
they were declared wives. “I was only twelve and I absolutely knew nothing about having sex. I had never slept with a man but as soon as we reached one of the many make shift camps we were declared wives.” Uganda
Like animals in a market place the leaders paired them in jungle matrimony to bloodthirsty rebel soldiers. “The man I was given was about thirty years and I was only 12. Like a ravenous animal he pounced on me subjecting me to excruciating pain in my private part that l will never forget. It was not love making. I was being raped. After sometime I had to resign to this painful, dehumanizing life. What else could I do,” she posed resignedly.
“Any girl, who dared resist was shot dead as everybody watched,” she recollected, a choking pain of anger splitting her voice into a hoarse delivery.
Along the way, as they moved northern from one camp to the other, she got a first hand experience of human tragedy in the hands of bloodletting rebels that have incessantly tormented her ever since then.
“From the day of the abduction I was to stay in the bush for the next three years during which time I saw raw human rage consume many innocent lives.”
In the bush any person who grew weak was shot dead and left to rot there or for the body be consumed by wild animals like hyenas. Some of the areas they passed, Ajok remembered, had human bones strewn all over.
“It was crystal clear from such a spot that several people had been shot dead and just left to rot away. You reach such a place and get bones and skulls spread all over sending shivers down your spine,” she stated.
If you dropped down any of the looted property because you could bear the weight no more, the soldiers turned and snuffed life out of you instantly in a hail of bullets.
Barefoot, Ajok and many other captives soldiered on in places full of thorns, waded through the long dew filled grass and swampy regions.
“We walked barefoot sometimes on stony dry places at times in swamps or on thorns and if you got exhausted and could not proceed any more you were shot dead or tied to a tree trunk to wither off and die, and many died. Many died in places where they were abandoned tied to tree trunks or if you were lucky you were found by government soldiers in pursuit of rebels,” she said.
Many girls got pregnant and gave birth like animals in the bush. There were no hospitals, no midwives. After birth you healed naturally. “And quite often the so called husbands slept with you even before you healed, and there was no room for otherwise. It was cruel. It was the rule of the gun,” Ajok shuddered as she uttered the words.
It was a life of uncertainty and suspicion; you never stayed in one location for long and even immediately after birth you were forced to be on the move.
“We were forced to kill children in the bush. The soldiers could order us to kill some children for hampering our quick movement. We strangled many to death. I did things that I hardly would want to remember yet I did them and I no longer feel like I am a human being.”
Sometimes when people had been killed they were forced to place them in a row and walk over them in rounds. “We made forth and back movements on bodies with their fresh wounds oozing blood.”
Today she lives in a single mud walled grass thatched hovel, which belongs to her elder sister, at the Anaka IDPs center. The center sprung up in neighborhood and when she left there were not many people but on coming back she found it teeming with men, women and children displaced by a senseless war.
In the area they are suffering from many health problems due to the atrocious civil war; respiratory tract infections and water borne diseases like diaorrhea, malaria which has killed three members of their one room household that now houses six
“I have seen hunger, poverty, diseases kill people. I have seen people tortured and brutally murdered. I have seen children strangled to death. I know what this kind of insanity means to people, especially women and children. Yet the world is looking at us from a far,” she said with a blank stare on her face.
A total orphan-her father was shot dead before she was abducted by the rebel soldiers while the mother died when a landmine blew up a pubic vehicle they were traveling in-Ajok was impregnated while in the bush.
She was later released to go home. “As war intensified they did not like those with children because we were making their movements slow and this is how we regained our freedom.”
The father of her son born in the wilderness and is now ten years old was shot dead by government soldiers in hot pursuit.
After their release the three reunited on their way back and by stroke of luck they met government soldiers. The soldiers took them to a camp called Aler, a short distance from Gulu town, before word was sent out to other camps. Her elder sister got the news and went for her.
With no formal education or any skill she is now finding life extremely difficult with three children; two born after she returned back to care for. “Without parents, no job, three children to care for and not being registered with the World Food Programme for food rations life is turning unbearable,” she stated.
Although she is trying a bit of cultivation in sorghum, finger millet, maize, cassava and potatoes the total breakdown in the socio-economic structure of this area makes life exceedingly difficult for majority of the people in this camp.
Ajok hates war. “War is bad, it's destructive. There are many skeletons out there of people who would still be alive were it not for this madness. If I could talk to Kony I would ask him to surrender and bring this senseless maiming, killing and suffering to the people of northern
to an end,” she wished. Uganda
Ajok is the personification of what a senseless war can do to the young. She symbolizes the devastation and poverty emanating from a murderous rebel outfit on the loose and what the destruction of socio-economic and political systems of an area can do and the urge to positively push on in life.
The writer is the winner of the English-Speaking Africa and the
Middle East region for the 2008 REUTERS-IUCN Media Awards for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. He can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org