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Girls experiences’ in the Lords’s Resistance Army (LRA)

An article by Rosa Rosanò 
Photos by Marc Ellison

Girls experiences’ in the Lords’s Resistance Army: a debate on gender perspectives

Lords’s Resistance Army (LRA): Introduction

In many contemporary African wars, girls and women participate in fighting forces. They both are found along with boys, sharing many of the same experiences. However, as Fox argues (Fox, 2004), the subject of girl soldiers has been considered difficult to locate within traditional social or state military security discussions: this article is an attempt to find a space in which this dialogue can be recognized and addressed.

Aware of the debate that regard the agency of children and young people in war contexts, starting from the case study of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda I analyze some of the roles that girls covered in that context and some of the specific difficulties they suffered after the end of the conflicts.

I don’t argue that the war in Uganda was less cruel and harsh for male children soldiers than for girls, rather I want to reflect on some gendered components that female human beings suffered during and after wars.

 

LRA
Alice Oyella spent three-and-a-half years with the LRA as a porter, babysitter and fighter [Marc Ellison]

The conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda had lasted twenty years and it was declared officially over by the government in January 2007. In the first paragraph I give a reconstruction of the events that marked the birth of the army since Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement, highlighting that children were massively abducted and proposing a brief debate about their role (Behrend, 1999). In the second paragraph, I move to the common experiences among women and girls in terms of abduction, treatment and abuses inside the army (Ehrenreich, 1998).

I quote also Baines‘ study that delves into the topic of forced marriages and controlled births (Baines, 2014). When the guns were finally silenced in Uganda, many people had to live together with the after-war effects in their daily life, and in the last paragraph I consider specific challenges that girls faced to psycho-social recovery. As we can read from Nakazibwe and Van Reisen‘s study (Nakazibwe and Van Reisen, 2019), few of them went through official UN processes of disarmament demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) that were meant to allow them protects, not only in dealing with trauma and pain they suffered but also in reintegration into the social fabric.

However, in societies destructured by deep and long-lasting crisis, violence is structural. It regulates the political sphere and penetrates also into social relationships: inequalities and discriminations were therefore present even in the absence of armed conflict (Jourdan, 2010). In these contexts, as demonstrated by the post-traumatic disorders and the difficulty of reintegration that Ugandan women experienced (McKay, 2005), vulnerable layers of society were at risk even in conditions of peace. What I claim is that violence in the age of globalization during wars and political conflicts are somehow gendered phenomena that affect men and women differently.

 

Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA): a reconstruction. When children are victims and executors

This chapter describes the general situation in Acholi since 1986 portraying the Holy Spirit Movements of Alice Lakwena, Severino Lukoya and Joseph Kony. In Uganda the socio-economic division, present since the British colonial era, between northern peoples (like Alcholi) and southern ones, solidified in the decades since independence (Ehrenreich, 1998). When in 1986 native to the south-western region Musevani, who is still the Ugandan president, deposed general Tito Okello, an Alcholi exponent, and adopted a policy perceived by the northern ethnic groups as discriminatory towards them [«they accused the government of planning the complete annihilation of the Acholi as a tribe» (Behrend, 1999)], northern Uganda has been increasingly isolated from the rest of the country.

 

LRA
Agnes Akello still bears machete scars on her shoulder and abdomen [Marc Ellison]

The NRA (National Resistance Army), the official government army, declared Gulu and Kitgum Districts war zones in 1987, and Museveni offered an amnesty to anyone who voluntarily surrendered to the NRA.

«Since the NRA behaved worse than the ‘rebels’, it continually lost support among the populace. This, in turn, led the NRA soldiers to consider the people of Acholi in general sympathetic to the ‘rebels’, and they treated them with corresponding violence.» (Behrend, 1999)

The NRA’s brutal methods of waging war drove a number of people to seek protection with the resistance movements of Holy Spirit Movement. The head of this movement was initially Alice Lakwena. Lakwena was the name of the spirit who possessed Alice; they developed their own interpretation of Christianity, blending elements of the Bible and the Ten Commandments with ancient local beliefs.

«In Acholi, spirit possession is a form of empowerment. From a local perspective, the spirits are the real agents. They have the power. How did the power of the spirits manifest itself in the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces? In the discourse of the HSMF, it was the spirits who possessed the power not only to kill but also to keep alive. They directed the bullets to the enemy as well as to their own forces and decided who, being sinful, had to die and who would be allowed to live.» (Behrend, 1999)

After the defeat of the HSMF in 1987, the contradictions and antagonisms inside the movement came to the fore. Alice fled with a few loyal followers to Kenya, while some soldiers tried to return in small groups to northern Uganda, some became members of another Movement under the leadership of Philip Ojuk, others accepted the offer of an amnesty and were integrated in the NRA.

Many who still believed in Lakwena, though, joined Alice’s father, Severino Lukoya, who in 1948 had experienced a vocation. Severino declared that he would have carried on his daughter’s mission and brought the fighting to its conclusion, taking command of a part of her soldiers. In 1988 Severino sent a message to Joseph Kony, apparently a relative of Alice Lakwea who operated mostly in the north, informing him that he wanted to take up his work in Gulu District.

Kony responded sending a group of his soldiers, who declared Severino a sinner, took him prisoner and killed him. Later, Kony declared that the movement was no longer called the Holy Spirit Movement, but the Lord’s Resistance Army.

«Unlike Alice, who waged war primarily against the NRA, Kony fought almost as fiercely against the other resistance movements. He also increasingly used violence to force segments of the population into his war. Again and again, Kony kidnapped schoolchildren, students, women and men and forced them to act as porters. As in precolonial times, he and his soldiers stole young girls and women (especially after the spirit Silli Silindi rescinded the prohibition against having sex) and distributed them among his followers.» (Behrend, 1999)

The conflict from that moment was fueled by regional geopolitical dynamics: Kony, in fact, received Sudanese president Bashir’s support. Thanks to the protection of Khartoum, since the mid-nineties, the LRA has thus been able to use the Sudanese territory as a base from which to carry out attacks in northern Uganda. These dynamics changed in 2005, when the peace agreement in Sudan had the effect of considerably weakening the movement’s operational capabilities.

 

LRA
Rose Achayo, former child soldier, pulls down the front of her dress to reveal a series of scars that mark her chest [Marc Ellison]

The LRA limited its range of action to the peripheral territories of the DRC and the Central African Republic, where Kony seems to have taken refuge after, in 2008, a military operation carried out jointly by Congo, Uganda and SPLA had destroyed its new base established in Congo.

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These forces didn’t manage to capture him. Today the Lord’s Resistance Army is reduced to a few hundred soldiers, scattered in territories without any real state control and which therefore constitute the ideal environment for prolonging Kony’s hiding.

The explanatory narrative just examined is only part of the complicated situation connected with HSMF and LRA since the late 1980s: it is better to be sceptical about the possibility of constructing a master explanatory model for all the events that happened until today, and it is not this article’s focus, as well as it is not the Holy Spirit Movement complex development.

Along with this summarized history, though, there are instead personal narratives, and among them the ones of the children who had been massively abducted by the rebels of LRA, especially from the moment in which Kony took over.

The debate regarding children soldiers agency in the war context is very wise. Human rights workers and anthropologists do not always agree in their vision of childhood, innocence and power. Ehrenreich writes

«what makes this conflict unusually vicious is that the LRA rebels target young children for abduction, virtual enslavement, and even death all part of their campaign of civil terror and as a principal means of military recruitment. Children as young as eight are abducted from their homes and schools and are used as beasts of burden and forced to march through the bush carrying the rebels’ looted goods. Those children who protest or who cannot keep up with the march are killed, and captive postpubescent girls are given as “wives” to rebel commanders.»

Later, she clarifies:

«I discuss the dilemmas this creates for the human rights activist, who is committed both to acknowledging diverse cultures, with all their internal complexity, and to being a strong advocate for change on behalf of those whose rights are trampled. (I am not unaware of the problematic nature of the terms I have just used; to speak blithely of “cultures” and, indeed, to speak of “rights” is to enter into dangerous territory.)» (Ehrenreich, 1998)

Jourdan, on the other hand, considering the narratives of children soldier in Congo’s contest, writes:

«young people and children emerge as active social actors, endowed with their own capacity for action (agency), although this is expressed in a context dominated by mass violence that severely limits the freedom of the subjects. Enrollment allows them to escape a condition of exclusion and dangerous passivity, and at the same time to create a “strong person model” and particularly credited in the youthful imagination: that of the fighter.» (Jourdan, 2010)

Inside the ranks of this army that has carried out bloody massacres militated, as Alcinda Honwana argues,

an inadequately trained and equipped individual who frequently, mercilessly, harasses, indiscriminately plunders and kills defenceless civilians. (Honwana, 2005)

When this kind of inadequate individuals and fighters are children, the debate gets wider and the question is: are these children executioners or victims? My intention is not to answer this question, but I believe that an accurate analysis should not take for granted the role of young fighters as victims.

The figure of children soldiers provokes scandal, is disturbing, and the representation that the humanitarian industry gives of it sometimes is not faithful to the contexts in which these debates fit; it is controversial also for scholars who want to approach this topic with a careful look trying to avoid what critical anthropology would define as “moral economy” (Fusaschi, 2017) connected with emotive participation. However, this paper’s purpose is to go deeper into the specific roles girls and young women occupied in this war context and to what extent the freedom of their agency reached.

 

LRA: Abducted girl-soldiers, sexual slavery, forced marriage

Girls have not always been observed within the LRA by NGOs: in disarmament demobilisation and reintegration programs (DDR) for a long time aid packages contained only male clothing, and did not provide for feminine hygiene, or required the surrender of a weapon, when girls who were in support roles sometimes simply did not possess one (Fox, 2004): what I claim is that their presence and roles in the LRA gradually became realized over time, and the different ways in which war and political conflict-affected men and women were not always analyzed deeply.

Within the LRA, girls and boys often shared the gruelling military ‘training’ that lasted from one to three months after they were abducted either individually or during raids of entire villages. I will not deepen the theme of abduction, I only clarify that the children sometimes voluntarily enrolled because they saw in the figure of the warrior the possibility of a better future. As far as girls are concerned, some specificities should be highlighted.

 

Abducted when she was just six years old, Mary spent 11 years in the bush with the LRA [Marc Ellison]

Most girls, as well as functioned as combatants, served in a range of supportive roles: they worked as porters, in food preparation and other camp activities. Girls as support were crucial for continued maintenance of armed groups, and in most cases it was the foundation upon which the fighting forces relied: some scholars then claim that gender is then a key factor, perhaps the key factor, in maintaining fighting forces (Baines, 2014).

Girls were also used for entertainment and sexual purposes, and sometimes forced into marriage. The LRA context had a very complex codex regarding sex, religion and impurity, yet rapes and sexual violence in war contexts are very frequent and effective to subjugate and force under power.

This abuse is a mean of control, it serves to devalue bodies and to create a condition of impotence; that is true for children and men as well as for girls and women.

Moreover, rape and forced sexual relations were not the only violent ways for LRA to exercise control over girls bodies: also marriage was a very effective one. Some girls were forced to become wives of commanders, and If they were pregnant or had small children from them (“sons of the nation”), were granted better access to necessities. In this way, girls became implicated in the reproduction of the nation and, by extension, in the organization of power and domination in the armed group.

Forced marriage and other attempts of sexual and reproduction regulation are considered by some scholars as a crucial part of the LRA’s political project of realizing the “new Alcholi”, providing new insights into the LRA’s modus operandi and political agenda. (Baines, 2014) This example also helps this research’s attempt to face and analyze what girls’ bodies, sexuality and psychology have undergone during war.

It is then relevant to deal with problems that follow the end of war’s violence for girls, both from an individual point of view and from a social one. When girls managed to escape from LRA, were released, were rescued, or even when the conflicts were over, whether they volunteered as girl soldiers or were abducted, they faced specific problems integrating back into the society that they might have walked away from or that failed to protect them from forced recruitment.

 

After the war: post-traumatic stress disorders, rejection from their communities and failed reintegration

When their experience in the army was over, many people in Northern Uganda were left to deal with post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) as a result of the atrocities committed by the LRA and the National Resistance Movement (Nakazibwe, Van Reisen, 2019).

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The experience with the rebels left many severely traumatised, and their return home did not erase these horrific experiences. Focusing on girls, once back home they had to deal with personal trauma as well as with the collective ones suffered by their community, that often rejected them for the stigma attached to the adhesion to the armed group and, often, for the fact that they brought children.

Many of those diagnosed with mental health problems suffered from depression, alcohol abuse, anxiety and suicidal tendencies, which are all signs of untreated trauma (Ovuga, 2005). A study carried out in Kitgum, located in the far north of Uganda, bordering South Sudan (Nakazibwe and Van Reisen, 2019) reveal different traumatic experiences affecting girls who escaped from LRA.

The stories of how they managed to do that demonstrate that the getaway was also severely traumatising experiences, as well as the trauma of abduction and captivity. Nevertheless, when they returned home, they did not receive the reactions they expected. The girls who were lucky enough to have parents alive could receive a warm reception from them and, still, if they were lucky enough, could be treated like survivers; but since during abduction, many girls were forced to kill their own relatives and friends, once back the wider community often marginalized them.

These mothers were sometimes forced to send their children away to keep peace with others in the community. The only option for the girl who did not want to separate from their sons and daughters, even If some of the mothers considered them “sons of the killers” who reminded them suffering, was to move to other places. Here, jobless and without any support, some of them ended up marrying to survive in new places. Sometimes again these new husbands did not accept and welcome the children born from the rebels and girls had once again to send them to a relative who would take care of them.

The vast majority of these children did not attend school, grew up uneducated and prone to all sorts of negative behaviour, giving continuity to the mechanism of suffering, violence and structural inequalities in times of peace as well as in times of war.

The negative feelings between the community and the children of the returnees fathered in the bush, translated into negative information about each other, exacerbating mutual hostility and negative behaviour towards each other (Nakazibwe, Van Reisen, 2019).

 

Jennifer Apio was abducted by the LRA when she was just 14 years old [Marc Ellison]

I understand that the sufferings of these people cannot be easily understood into Western categories of diseases and disorders, but what I want to highlight is that the gender component has had an impact in the difficulties people suffered during the war.

The Ugandan government placed many social protection programmes for the rehabilitation of the survivors of the war in Northern Uganda and in ensuring support for women and girls who had been abducted. However, many of them were unable to get professional assistance to manage their trauma, they were only given support for a short amount of time and then encouraged to go home where thy experience social stigma and discrimination.

The government, NGOs and scholars did not look at abducted women and girls as a category requiring special (or better: specific) attention for a long time. The interviews of Nakazibwe and Van Reisen study confirm that many girls felt the loss, guilt and shame associated with their life with the rebels, and despite their high expectations of being able to return home they often experienced a sense of abandonment by their families and communities.

This discrimination did not allow women to be part of the groups formed in their communities, thus many of them continued to live lives on the margins of society with little hope of receiving support.

 

Conclusions

The choice of the Lord’s Resistance Army’s case study aims to sample how the experiences from the beginning to the end of a conflict could differ for girls, from traditional role expectations to sexual abuse to gendered shortcomings in post-conflict aid.

This approach on the case of LRA represents the beginning of an identification regarding gendered insecurity concerns; it could also be used to analyze other dynamics and the one of children abduction, that I partially considered in this article preferring to focus on the gendered component, is also a very relevant one.

Wondering “where are the girls?” when we analyze some structural violent contexts, I think that this is the answer: women are involved in wars, as fighters and as slaves. The evidences I presented suggest that the gender component is a factor that often shapes and diverge experiences in these frameworks of armed conflict and militarism, where misogynism and sexism might be intensified. I don’t want to feed the prejudice that African forms of patriarchy are a simple system of rules imposed by men on women, in a historical, universal and univocal manner.

It is important to avoid reproducing dangerous stereotypes like that of men naturally violent that exerted violence on women who are victims. I think that rather there is a much more complex system that involves genders and generations.

To conclude, I quote Appadurai when he claims that

in situation of extreme poverty, economic crisis and state collapse violence, exerted on the body of the other, becomes the instrument through which, in an illusory way, we try to establish the boundaries that clearly separate “us” from “them” (Appadurai, 2010).

The body of the other, when this other is a girl, generates some specific insecurities, not worse in a quantitative term, not bigger because connected with gender and not with age, just different. In this work, I tried to point them out.

 

Bibliografy:

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    Resistance Army”, Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 51, No. 3
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Valentina Sbocchia

Laureata in Antropologia, Religioni, Civiltà Orientali presso l'Alma Mater Studiorum di Bologna, frequento un Master in Antropologia Medica e Salute Globale presso la Rovira i Virgili (Tarragona, Cataluña).