Rebel leader Joseph Kony hand-picked the young girls he and his coterie of trusted soldiers called their “wives”.
Polline was a 14-year-old schoolgirl who dreamed of becoming a reporter when two young men approached her in her village one Friday morning as she hung out her washing in 2002. Her mother was not at home when they questioned her about being married, but her instincts told her to lie so she told them her husband was at the market. She looked young, they didn’t buy her story, and instead brought out the guns concealed under their shirts, beat her, then marched her into the bush to join a large group of rebels and other abducted children.
“Most girls are given to men to serve as housewives, cooking and cleaning, and most are not allowed to fight. Their work is to carry heavy luggage” says Polline.
Polline was a hard worker, focused and clever. These qualities brought her to the attention of Joseph Kony and his commanders and would later save her life, but not before surviving seven long years of war. “The worst part was when were in Soroti (north-eastern Uganda) and many people were killed. My best friend was shot in front of me and it was so painful. The hardest thing was seeing innocent people killed for no reason. If you fail to walk long distances you are killed for no reason.”
For four years her life was a series of long treks through the bush, fighting government forces, enduring attacks, abducting more children and being subjected to sexual violence on a daily basis. “We were always moving, from six in the morning to six at night, mothers with children on their backs, carrying heavy luggage, just like the slave trade.”
Then in 2006, when Joseph Kony and the LRA leaders were forced back into the Democratic Republic of Congo, Polline was with them. “I knew Joseph Kony. We were together, we moved together, did everything together. He was the type of person to give orders. He didn’t do things himself. He could send soldiers out and tell them “when you see people, just kill them.’”
“He could know anything before it happens. When we were about to reach fighters in the bush, or when the UDPF soldiers from Uganda were coming, he would know it before. People in Uganda thought he had special power. I don’t think he has special power.”
The retreat into dense jungle in the Congo meant a more settled life for Polline and the other young women, many of whom had one or more children to the soldiers. Being smart, Polline had stepped into a leadership role within that harsh world. She still dreamed of school and learning, but was losing hope of a life beyond the camp and taking care of the physical needs of her “husband”. Once, she tried to escape but she was beaten with 80 lashes and forced to keep fighting. After that she lost the heart to try again.
After the LRA retreated to the Congo in 2006, Polline fell pregnant to the commander and as she went into labour found herself alone and frightened in the camp while others were away fighting. Two women stayed with her, but when the labour stretched on, day after painful day, they grew tired and left her. She knew nothing of what to expect. There was no mother or sister to prepare or comfort her. After two weeks and two days she could not stand it.
The baby had not arrived but she was certain it had died. She was torn and leaking and knew she would soon die. “Please take me into the bush and kill me. I am of no use now,” she pleaded with the commander, but he wouldn’t.
Instead, he sliced her abdomen open with a blunt knife and retrieved the dead baby with his hands. There was nothing to sew the wound up with, so the women packed cloth around it and for two weeks she stayed this way.
In 2006, when this happened, there were peace talks starting between the LRA and outside negotiators, so for the first time foreigners were coming into the camps. For Polline the timing was life saving. Her plight came to the attention of the UN and despite Joseph Kony saying “she can’t go, she won’t come back.” She pleaded, ”Of course I’ll come back. I have nothing to go home to.”
She was taken to Juba in Sudan, where she received rudimentary medical treatment before being flown to Nairobi. Had the negotiators not been in the camp, she would have perished in the bush like thousands of other young girls in her position. Though still perilously sick, Polline planned her escape from her hospital bed in Nairobi. When one of her LRA minders asked her for her passport she told him “I’m not a citizen of Kenya, so I must keep it”.
This is when Alice Achan from CCF Pader came into Polline’s life and her hopes for a new life soared. UNICEF had been helping Alice in Pader, northern Uganda, as she took in the young girls and babies returning from war. The days when Polline escaped from the hospital and went into safe accommodation in Nairobi were tense for them both. Alice called Polline every few hours, reassuring her, advising her, being with her as a loving fellow Acholi woman who would not allow her to return to life in the bush.
Soon after, Polline found herself at the Pader Girls’ Academy. So powerful were her innate leadership qualities that she became head girl after one term, and has held the position for the two years until moved away and into the next stage of her education outside the school.
She’s twenty-two now, with two more years of secondary school before she can follow her ultimate dream of becoming a human rights lawyer. At times she feels discouraged, that she’s too old, that’s she’s missed her chance at becoming a lawyer. But then her ambitions revive when she sees the other girls she lived with as wives to LRA soldiers, the ones who haven’t been given as much opportunity as her, who are perhaps still traumatised and living without the hope she still holds.
She knows she has a powerful voice for the powerless. She’s used it before, when in July 2010 she stood to tell her story of abduction and escape before British aristocrats in the House of Lords and it was heard, and when she wrote to the British Prime Minister and he replied. She’ll use it again and again, until the world knows the plight of young girls taken in the conflict Uganda.
And she has chosen to move on in her heart. “I met the very person who abducted me and took me to the bush and I told him, ‘don’t worry, it was not actually your wish to do that to me. I’ve forgiven you.’”
Please visit www.giftsforwarbrides.com for more on Alice Achan and the Pader Girls’ Academy.
Philippa Tyndale is a Sydney-based writer with an active interest in development and philanthropy. The Pader Girls’ Academy, founded by local Acholi woman, Alice Achan, is the only school in Uganda that allows babies to stay in school with their mothers, ensuring that more girls stay in school. Philippa is currently writing a biography of Alice Achan.
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