GULU, Uganda — When Lilian Akello was 32, members of the Lord’s Resistance Army killed her two sons, then kidnapped her.
“I lived in the forest for several years, cooking for the soldiers. They raped me and tortured me,” recalled Akello, now 48. “I always cry and think of committing suicide when I remember the terrible experience I went through at the hands of the soldiers.”
Akello gave birth to three children while in the forest serving soldiers. In 2012, she and her children escaped with the help of vigilante groups. However, her children, fathered by LRA rebels, have faced rejection from the community.
“People have wanted to kill my children, referring them to soldiers who killed their people,” she said, explaining that her children have been living in fear, and she has been forced to hide their real identity to protect them from violent revenge. “Life has also been difficult to people who escaped from captivity. No one is willing to give us jobs or live with us. They think we have evil spirits, and we are like soldier who killed people.”
From 1986 to 2006, the LRA, led by its founder, Joseph Kony, fought government soldiers and targeted residents in villages. The United Nations says the rebels murdered more than 100,000 people, recruited children as soldiers, abducted women and girls, and made them their cooks and sex slaves. More than 1 million people who had escaped and sought refuge moved into camps for internally displaced persons.
The Archdiocese of Gulu supports women like Akello and her children to regain their confidence and dignity. The church offers free mental health care and better access to services. The church is also educating children fathered by soldiers, empowering women economically to be independent, and advocating for their rights.
Gulu Archbishop John Baptist Odama said women and children were always the most vulnerable to attacks and being abused during the war.
“We are counseling women who were abused and children who are traumatized due to the experience they went through during the war so that they can heal and have hope in life,” said Odama. “As a church, we want to rebuild these people’s lives so that they can fit in our communities and be productive. We are reaching out to them in their villages and refugee camps to pray and involve them in various spiritual activities to heal first.”
Catechist Peter Oyat said many children have been counseled and returned to school.
“We have been sensitizing the communities to embrace them as their children and not to take revenge because they are innocent,” he said, revealing that many children have been traumatized as a result of rejection from their own families and village mates. “The church has embraced these children and mentored them to be responsible and God-fearing adults. We have taken them to school as part of their rights to help them achieve their dreams.”
Vincent Okot, a student at Kitgum High School, thanked the church for giving him hope and sponsoring his education. The 16-year-old boy told how he faced rejection after escaping with his mother from captivity.
“People wanted to kill me,” he said. “But I thank people from church who came and began talking to us, praying, and encouraging us that we were also human beings and had a right to live.”
Sister Lilian Awino of the Sisters of the Holy Cross said her congregation is training women in fields such as tailoring, farming, embroidery, handicrafts, baking, soap making and cooking. The nuns also teach business skills to enable the women to take care of themselves.
“We meet, talk, and pray with them before we begin to understand their needs and what they need to do to improve their lives,” she said, adding that they counsel the women to understand their worthiness in society before empowering them. “We give them skills and money to start their businesses to help their families. We have also bought them several sewing and embroidery machines, and they can now sew school uniforms for schools around the region.”
Akello said the counseling sessions and empowerment from the church have changed their lives for the better, despite the challenges they have gone through during the war and even after returning to their communities.
“We were nobodies, and no one wanted us,” said Akello, who is now working as a tailor after being trained. “But the church has brought new life in us, and we now feel honored. God has given us another chance to live, and we are also taking care of our children through the businesses the church has started for us.”