The Ugandan War Survivors Quilt

Background

 

Embroidery training in Gulu, Uganda

Between 1995 and 2003 the eleven Ugandan women featured in these pages were forced into sexual slavery by rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the violent Christian organization that has terrorized Northwest Uganda for over 35 years.

The LRA emerged in 1987 on the back of an earlier uprising in the North led by a mystic, Alice Lakwena. Both movements were a response to the emergence of Yoweri Museveni as president of Uganda in 1986, and reflected the tensions that had existed between Uganda’s main tribes since the era of colonialism. The LRA is an extreme expression of Acholi nationalism.

Ugandan districts affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army

Led by Joseph Kony, the LRA quickly established itself as one of the most brutal and ruthless movements in Africa. The LRA made widespread use of children and made sure that its methods of recruitment would cause maximum terror. Rebels would move into a village and force children to kill their own families and even their pets. They were taken off into the bush and forced to take up arms. UNICEF estimates that over 25,000 Ugandan children were kidnapped by the LRA.

The government responded with extreme force and by 2005 over 1.7 million people had been displaced and were living in over 200 overcrowded displacement camps. Conditions in the camps were terrible and caused death, sickness and disability. By 2007 over 90% of the Acholi population in the three north districts had been displaced.

Concy at work on her story

The impact of this terrible conflict was felt most heavily by women and children. Women and girls were captured and taken off into the bush where they were forced into marriage and child-bearing, often with several fighters. These pages describe what this meant to victims. The artists were repeatedly raped, beaten and tortured. Five gave birth to children. Even after they managed to find their way home they faced social isolation and stigma from neighbors who viewed them as traitors.

Over twenty years later the wounds remain raw. It is particularly difficult for those who gave birth as a result of rape and are reminded of their ordeal by their own children. Hundreds of Ugandan women went through the same experience at the hands of LRA fighters and probably suffer from the same extreme form of torment.

Victoria Nyanjura founded WAW after surviving sexual slavery

These ten artists have been mobilized by a remarkable survivor of LRA terror, Victoria Nyanjura who has turned her ordeal into a source of strength. Victoria, seen in the photo on the right, was able to study in the US thanks to the generosity of an American family, and she re-payed their love by earning a Masters degree at Notre Dame University. She then returned to Uganda, where she founded Women in Action for Women (WAW) in Gulu Town.

Victoria with Anna, 2021 Peace Fellow

Victoria reached out to AP in early 2021, and developed a strong friendship with Anna Braverman, who worked in Gulu as an AP Peace Fellow in the summer of 2021. Anna and Victoria seen together in the photo, organized embroidery training for the WAW artists who produced the images seen on these pages. They are among the most disturbing stories ever produced under our quilt program. At the same time, the quality of the stitching is superb.

The finished blocks were brought to the US in late 2021 and handed over to two expert quilters, Anne Watson in North Carolina and Peg Sullivan in Massachusetts. Anne’s quilt takes the form of a triptych and the centerpiece is shown on this page. Her powerful, jagged design is intended to portray the agony endured by the artists. Peg’s quilt will be completed by June.

Under Victoria’s guidance, the ten WAW artists have continued to made good use of their stitching skills. In the Fall of 2021 they produced embroidered stories about their experience of the COVID pandemic as part of a global project by AP to describe the impact of the pandemic on marginalized communities. The WAW artists have also produced embroidered portraits of Africa bread which will be made into a quilt and sold. Victoria reports that her WAW friends have “fallen in love” with embroidery and would eventually like to earn a living from it. We hope to help by selling their stories through an online store which will be launched in the late summer.

Anne Watson assembles the quilt at home in North Carolina

There is also movement on the horror that started it all. The LRA was the first case to be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, in 2004 and following year the court indicted the LRA leader Joseph Kony. Kony is still at large but the court has indicted, arrested and prosecuted one of his top lieutenants, Dominic Ongwen. Ongwen was kidnapped by the LRA as a child and rose through the ranks to a position of power within the movement. He interacted personally with many of the artists featured on these pages. For more on the ICC’s investigation of crimes in Uganda since 2004, visit these pages. Click here to read more about the ICC’s case against  Dominic Ongwen. AP will assist Victoria’s group in seeking reparations from the ICC later this year.

One final note needs to be added about these pages. We are often asked whether it is responsible to identify victims of sexual violence. Many NGOs maintain that publishing names and photos furthers their dis-empowerment and risks exposing them to further stigmatization. We have faced this dilemma for almost 20 years and our response is always the same – the decision must be left to the women and their representatives (who partner with us.) In the case of these stories from Uganda, as in almost every other quilt project, the artists have offered their work and photos with pride. They view their stories as an act of empowerment and resistance.

 

Artists and Blocks

 

 

 

Lalam Concy

Concy is 39 years old. She was abducted by the LRA in February 1995 at Koch Goma in Northern Uganda while in senior two (8th grade).

“I remember 8 of us from our family were abducted on that day. My father came in the night and found the rebels at home and they chased him away. The LRA hated government officials, teachers and religious leaders. 

We were tied with our hands backwards, and they threatened to kill anyone who tried to escape. I saw landmines planted in front of our home inside a granary. They made us jump over the grass to avoid having our footsteps traced by government soldiers the next day.  I prayed to God for fighting to begin so that we could all escape or die. A fight broke out and all my siblings disappeared. I remember one of the commanders asking my sister to carry him so that he wouldn’t have to step on water, but she couldn’t because she was young. 

We then started a journey to Sudan. We were required to walk long distances without breaking the line. Those who did were beaten or killed. I was beaten one day while crossing water and I remember falling. I saw many people die of thirst and hunger. There were moments that we never had time to cook or find something to eat. 

I was forced to be a wife to a man many years older than me. He was 54 years old; I was 15 years old. He raped me and physically abused me. I had 3 children with him. I refused to become his wife but I was forced to, and other commanders threatened to use force if I continued to refuse. I remember rejecting my child because the father was old, and the child would make it difficult for me to escape and return to Uganda. The commanders threatened to beat me if I refused to breastfeed the child.”

“I remember rejecting my child because the father was old, and the child would make it difficult for me to escape and return to Uganda. The commanders threatened to beat me if I refused to breastfeed the child.”

 

Women have been pulled from their huts by soldiers of the LRA. They are being led away with all of their belongings at gunpoint while their homes are being burned down.

A woman has been pulled from her house by a soldier. She is being dragged away, as another woman is in the background, shot and killed by the same soldier.

 

Achieng Nighty

Nighty is 38 years old. In 1995, she was abducted by the LRA. As a result, she was forced to drop out of school in primary level six (fourth grade). She returned home in 2000 with one child.  

“My mother was killed at home the day that I was abducted and this pains me so much. My father was killed by the same members of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) after I was abducted. I carried heavy luggage and it still affects me. Today, I have chest pains and constant headaches that I have tried to treat but cannot heal. I was forced to be with a man at the age of 14 years old. He raped me and this has left wounds in my heart that can never heal. I had a child with him and I have no way of providing for him and sending him to school.

My people do not like my son because they think he will want to take a share of their land. I do not have anywhere to take him because his father died in captivity, and I am struggling single handedly to provide for him. I am renting a room and staying with him in the same room. I had basic training in making bags, but never had the opportunity to start my own business. I had to provide labor to an organization to be able to earn something for rent and food . This is why I have not been able to send my boy to school.”

“I was forced to be with a man at the age of 14 years old. He raped me and this has left wounds in my heart that can never heal.”

 

The remains of a house that has been destroyed by the LRA. After being kidnapped, women returned home to their homes demolished and burned down.

LRA soldiers patrol around a burning village with dogs.

 

Ajok Concy

Ajok is 28 years old. She was abducted in 1998 when she was 12 years old, and at primary level three (second grade). She returned home in 2003, but never went back to school. 

“We had to walk long distances at an early age, and we carried heavy luggage. My legs were so swollen that I could not walk at some point. People died of hunger and thirst during our trip to Sudan and also once we arrived. I was trained on how to use a gun though I never participated in any war. I was forced to become a wife to a commander at an early age and the pain of that has never gone out of my mind. The commander’s older wives beat me and mistreated me even though I was still young.  While in Sudan, many new recruits died of Cholera, and hunger among other things. We had to walk long distances in search of food and many again died in the process. 

I escaped and returned home in 2003 after I had sustained a bullet in my arm. People abandoned me thinking I was already dead but God saved me. I regained conscience after a day and started walking alone in the jungle. I then came across a homestead and thereafter some people found me and I was rushed to the home of the Local Council leader who then took me to the barracks. My wounds had started smelling since I had not had any treatment for almost a month. The Uganda Peoples Defense Force (UPDF) government soldiers treated me for a month before transferring me to the organization World Vision. 

While at World Vision, a relative of mine came to visit her son who had also returned and saw me, and informed my mother of my presence at World Vision. My mother came the next day and could not recognise me since I looked so different.  She was also so thin that I could not recognise her either.  I was then taken home, where people were still living in internally displaced peoples camps (IDPC), and the war was still ongoing. The stigma of having stayed with the rebels was at its peak so I thought meeting a man would save the situation.

I then met a man after some time. We had a child and I conceived for us to have a second child, but he rejected me when he found out that I was pregnant. I gave birth and 3 months later he chased me away from his home. I then met another man who impregnated me and denied the pregnancy again. I have my 3 children with no support from any man or relative. 

The bullet I sustained in my arm weakened me; my arm cannot carry heavy weight. I decided to start a small restaurant to be able to earn something small to support my children and myself. I am currently struggling to raise rent and feed my children, but I am unable to send them to school. I sometimes ask God why he decided to punish me this way. I pray that one day I might find a good samaritan to help me upgrade my restaurant with utensils and start-up capital. This will help me earn something beyond just rent and food.”

A young girl returns pregnant after being kidnapped and raped by an LRA soldier. She was welcomed by her mother who is now suffering the consequences of her situation with her. They are struggling to accept their new situation.

“I was forced to become a wife to a commander at an early age and the pain of that has never gone out of my mind. The commander’s older wives beat me and mistreated me even though I was still young.”

 

Awor Stella Grace

Stella is 34 years old and was abducted in 1995 at the age of 12 while in senior one (8th grade). Stella returned home in 1997. 

“I was abducted from school and taken into captivity. I was beaten and given forcefully to a man. I sustained a bullet on my chest and that gave me a permanent disability that I am living still struggling with.  I then went back to school upon returning home before getting any counselling. I broke down due to the stigma I felt and was taken to Gulu Regional Referral Hospital Mental Health Unit for 3 years.  I went back to school after the 3 years and got a Certificate in Nursing. 

I then met a man. We had 2 children. When the man heard of my past experience of abduction, he left me with all my children. Life was so hard; I did not know what to do. But with my certificate in nursing, I started a small drug shop/clinic to sell drugs to earn a living, provide for my children, and be able to send them to school. I want to work and keep them in school. My chest pain does not allow me to do much and pus sometimes comes out from the wound. I have a cheat condition called osteomyelitis which makes thing difficult. 

My dream is to fully establish my drug shop and be able to concentrate on my business for the future of my children.”

“When the man heard of my past experience of abduction, he left me with all my children. Life was so hard; I did not know what to do.”

 

A woman is being raped by a soldier of the LRA. His gun lays to the side, showing the force used in this situation.

 

A woman attempts to escape rape from a soldier in the bush. His pants are around his ankles and her skirt is ripped in the process of her escape.

 

Adong Judith

Judith is 36 years old and was abducted in 1996 at the age of 11 years old while in primary four (third grade) and she returned in 2002.

“I spent 6 months in captivity and then was given to a man who forcefully raped me. I was abducted along with my father. He was sent to another battalion at Sinai, while I stayed at Control Alta.  It is unfortunate that my father never made it back home, — he died in captivity — leaving my mother to be a widow at home. We had to walk long distances while in captivity, carrying heavy luggage. All the pain and struggle inspired me to escape, but the rebels caught me and beat me extremely harshly. They said that it was to discourage me from escaping again and from living a civilian life.

I stayed among the LRA for one year and was later taken to Sudan. While in Sudan, we never had enough to eat, and we walked long distances in search of food. The government soldiers (UPDF) kept on following the LRA to fight and defeat them. I became pregnant from the man who raped me and had two children. Their father was shot dead during a crossfire with government soldiers. I faced difficulty raising children myself at that early age. Having children made it so hard for me to escape and return to Uganda. I later returned with my 2 children. 

I returned in 2002. We tried to trace the paternity of my children and found a few relatives. They came, but never expressed interest in the children, or in supporting me and the children. I had wounds on my eyes while at the GUSCO reception centre. My family members then picked me up and took me home. Life was so hard raising my children amidst stigma from people. I decided to go and start staying with a man with whom I bore 2 children, but life was so hard under his roof that I decided to return home in 2006 with my 4 children to start fending for myself and my children. 

Gulu Support the Children Organisation (GUSCO) in partnership with AVSI then supported me to do a tailoring course. I started making bags under an organisation programme where I would be paid for my labor. I developed serious chest pain such that I could no longer sit and make bags. As a consequence, I lost my source of livelihood. I then started a small restaurant business that I am still struggling to maintain. I thank God for giving me the strength and ability to do things that help me feed my children.  I long to be able to work hard and buy land that my children and I can settle on.  

I continue to pray to God to grant me the opportunity to find people who can support me to give my restaurant a new look and raise the standard. This would attract more customers, which would allow me to make a better profit that I will use to plan my future, buy land, and pay my children’s school fees, among other things.”

“All the pain and struggle inspired me to escape, but the rebels caught me and beat me extremely harshly. They said that it was to discourage me from escaping again and from living a civilian life.”

 

A faceless woman carries a load on her head. She is being forced along by an LRA soldier carrying a machete in one hand and a loaded rifle in the other.

 

Members of a community stand around a coffin containing the body of a victim of the LRA atrocities. The pain is visible on their faces as they have to bury someone and the individuals on the left are praying to end the conflict.

Atim Mary

Mary is 34 years old and was abducted at the age of 9 years old in 1996 while in primary three (second grade). 

“Life was so hard in captivity. I was given to a man in 1998; he raped me and beat me for refusing him. This incident hurts me a lot and it has affected me up to today. He would beat all the women in his home anytime one person made a mistake. His older women made me wash clothes for their children and beat me. The worst was when the man beat/flogged me with 150 strokes of his cane. I could neither walk nor sit immediately after this, but God healed me. When I escaped in 2001, I was told that the man looked for me so that he could kill me for escaping. God saved me and he never found me or the other 2 women I escaped with. 

I am a total orphan who returned with no home to go to. My uncle took me to his home but he stigmatized me at will together with my other siblings. Life became harder upon return. I never had the opportunity to return to school when I came back from captivity in 2001. I went back to GUSCO who offered to take me for a tailoring course. The training was for a short amount of time so I never learned much and could not use the skills anywhere. 

I later met a man who had returned from captivity and settled with him. He mistreated me so much after we had 5 children. I am struggling to raise them single handedly after the man was arrested and imprisoned.  I am currently making bags with an organization, but the payment is peanuts. That salary is not enough to send my children to school, as well as feed them and pay rent. 

I wish I could be given an opportunity to get support to do tailoring with a focus on making clothes. This would enable me to open up a shop and make clothes and bags at the same time. I believe that this will enable me to earn a living and provide all the necessities for my children.”

Life was not easy in the camps. A man and woman retrieve food from nearby and bring it back into the camp so that they can survive.

 

“I was given to a man in 1998; he raped me and beat me for refusing him. This incident hurts me a lot and it has affected me up to today. He would beat all the women in his home anytime one person made a mistake. Life was so hard in captivity.”

 

Akumu Christine

Christine is 37 years old and was abducted in 1994 at the age of 12 years. Christine was in primary seven (seventh grade) at the time of abduction.  She returned in 2004 with 3 children. 

“I went through hardships like being beaten, forced to be with a man against my will, and to hold a gun. Both my parents died during the war. He raped me and we had 3 children over the years. This has left wounds in my heart. I love my children but they are a burden because I do not have anywhere to settle freely with them.  They want to go to school, but I cannot afford the fees as a poor single mother. I try to make bricks to earn a living but it is so difficult for me. My children are always bitter with me that I cannot help them like other parents do, but it is beyond my control. 

To make matters worse, I did not have anywhere to go when I returned from captivity, so I decided to accept the brother of the late father of my children. He blindsided me by telling me that he wanted to raise his late brother’s children. After I accepted him and we started living together,we had 2 children (bringing the total to 5 children). The man then decided to stop talking to me and he said he did not want to see me in his compound with all my children. I am hurt and in pain, but I cannot wash away this kind of suffering that keeps following some of us. They sent me away with my children and I have never known why they had to do that to their own blood. I have failed to send my children to school, not because I do not want them to study, but because I do not have the capacity to do so. 

I wish I could have an opportunity to learn tailoring skills; I would then make and sell clothes, earn a living, send my children to school, buy a small piece of land, construct a hut for us and find space in my community.”

A man is stepping on a landmine that was planted by the LRA. His leg is blown off from the explosion.

 

“I went through hardships like being beaten, forced to be with a man against my will, and to hold a gun. Both my parents died during the war. He raped me and we had 3 children over the years. This has left wounds in my heart.”

Layet Nancy

Nancy is 40 years old. She was abducted in 1991 at the age of 13 while in primary four (third grade). She returned in 2004.

“I watched my father and a few other people be beaten to death the day I was abducted. 10 other girls and I were abducted in the same area; 5 of us returned home and the other 6 never made it back. I was told that my mother died of a heart attack from watching her children be taken away and witnessing the death of her husband.  My parents left behind 5 children and when I returned home, I struggled to provide for them. My siblings and I missed parental love. I tried to offer them love, but it is still very hard. 

I later thought of having a man to settle with. We had 3 children; 1 passed on, and 2 are alive. His family and our neighbors stigmatized him for having children with a rebel. The man later rejected me and my 2 children. I returned home to be with my siblings and my children. Life is so hard. I miss my parents because I know that they would be guiding me and maybe supporting me through this tough situation, but I have no one to turn to. I struggle to pay rent; as a result all of my siblings and children have fallen out of school. I rent land to do farming to get food to feed ourselves. 

I was a young girl who had not yet started seeing her period when the man took me to become his wife and forcefully raped me. I was hurt, and this took me some time to heal. I also sustained a bullet in my knee, and was told that it is too hard to remove it. The knee pains me a lot, especially during the rainy season when it is cold. I cannot walk for a long distance before it starts causing me pain. 

I wish I could be supported to get training in catering, especially making cakes and bread, with the goal of establishing an independent shop. This would help me earn a living and support my siblings.”

“My parents left behind 5 children and when I returned home, I struggled to provide for them. My siblings and I missed parental love. I tried to offer them love, but it is still very hard.”

 

Violence against victims of the LRA continued after they returned home. A woman, who hoped the violence would stop when she returned home, is beaten by her drunk husband and now is a victim of domestic violence.

 

An LRA soldier sits under a tree, dressed in his military attire and carrying a gun. He appears to be regretting his actions, perhaps indicating that he was one of the many boys who were kidnapped and forced to become a child soldier.

 

Akello Margaret

Margaret is 37 years old and was abducted in 1994 at the age of 10 years old while in primary three (second grade).  She returned home with 2 children in 2004.

“I was forcefully given to a man to live with as his wife at an early age. I was beaten. We walked long distances carrying heavy luggage before I was rescued by the government soldiers in a close battle where the gunships, helicopters, and foot soldiers were all over.  I remember that the caretaker of my eldest child disappeared, and I had to look for her. I then went with the government soldiers to look for my child and the caretaker. The soldiers almost shot at us thinking that we were soldiers wanting to fight them. 

Life has been so hard ever since I returned because I had no home to return to; I lost my parents, and have nobody to look after me. I also met a man and we had 2 children, but he left me with them. It hurts me so much how these men act nice but end up hurting us further. I do not have any skills that can help me earn a living, but would like to learn how to make cakes and bread. There is a large market for them, and I am very sure it would help me to earn and be able to provide for my children and myself.”

“I was forcefully given to a man to live with as his wife at an early age. I was beaten and we walked long distances carrying heavy luggage.”

 

The lion is both a metaphor and a scary reality. The lion appears to rape the woman, a metaphor for the LRA soldiers who inflicted so much sexual violence on women in Uganda. At the same time, there was the very real fear of being attacked by an animal if any woman attempted to flee the rebel camps into the wild.

LRA soldiers walk away from a house after they have looted it. The residents of the house are nowhere to be seen, likely having been taken by the LRA or worse.

 

Lumunu Irene

Irene is now 30 years old. She was abducted in 1998 at the age of 11 years old while in primary level four (third grade). She returned in 2000. 

“I was abducted with my brother but he died while in captivity and this pains me a lot. I was forced to be with a man at that early age. He raped me and I sustained wounds that took time to heal. I was also shot on the arm and sustained wounds that still pain me whenever I carry something heavy. I suffered during our long trek to Sudan; my legs were so swollen that I could not walk faster. I was beaten several times; I have scars on my back and my head. We suffered from hunger and had to live on wild plants. I almost died from Cholera in Sudan, but God saved me. Of all the 200 new recruits that I was among, only about 5 of us survived. We suffered due to thirst and I saw many die in the process.

People stigmatized me when I returned home. Many did not want me to disagree with them or say no to them on anything; if I did, they said it was the evil spirits making me act that way. I cried in pain.

I went through the World Vision reception Center. I returned when I was so young and wanted to go back to school but did not have anyone to pay my school fees. To make money, I did a short course in hairdressing, but I did not get all the necessary skills to enable me to do the job, so I decided to go back home.

I decided to get a man. We had 2 children but he rejected me, and he would beat me. I wanted to settle with a man but the abuse was so much that I decided to return home.

I now sell fish and silverfish at the market. This helped me rent a hut for myself, but COVID-19 affected me and I lost all the stock. I currently sell the little I have and get money to buy food, but cannot afford to send my children to school or plan for the future.

I wish I could have someone to support me to start my business again; It would help me plan for my future and that of my children.”

A woman who was abducted and escaped has been caught. She is being beaten by an LRA soldier to discourage her from trying to escape again.

“People stigmatized me when I returned home. Many did not want me to disagree with them or say no to them on anything; if I did, they said it was the evil spirits making me act that way. I cried in pain.”