On Oct. 24, 2019, a panel discussion was held by the University of Manitoba’s Master of Human Rights program in collaboration with the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, and the SSHRC’s Conjugal Slavery in War project. The event, entitled “Advocating For Justice And Reparations In Uganda: A Conversation With Grace Acan And Evelyn Amony,” was chaired by Dr. Kjell Anderson, director of the U of M’s newly-created Master of Human Rights program.
The Conjugal Slavery in War project, funded by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), involves research into issues of conjugal slavery worldwide, particularly as it relates to war-torn places. The initiative is concerned especially with the intersection of transitional justice and the experiences of women and children in armed conflict, and is carried out by researchers who work with community-based organizations which advocate for the rights of survivors of armed conflict, as well as helping their re-integration into society. One of these organizations is WAN (Women’s Advocacy Network) Uganda, which employs women survivors so they can support themselves financially, for instance creating handcrafted items like beaded jewellery. The initiative involves interviews with children born in war, regarding issues such as their sense of belonging, kinship, and displacement from their homes. Their work has revealed the complexity and diversity in the experiences of women, men and children affected by war.
Evelyn Amony gave her testimony first, translated by Grace Acan. She was one of the children abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a group of rebels who have been fighting against the Ugandan government for years. Amony was kidnapped at the age of 12 – snatched from the arms of her grandmother, who tried in vain to protect her from the rebels – and taken to South Sudan. When the Ugandan government finally mounted a surprise attack against this faction of the LRA, Amony was shot 12 times, but survived. The skirt she wore during the ambush, peppered with bullet holes, is currently on display at the Canadian Human Rights Museum’s Ododo Wa exhibit.
When she was finally returned home, Amony was so traumatized that she was unable to talk about her ordeal; the abuse and injustices that she had both witnessed and had been subjected to. Amony had a daughter while she was still living at the rebels’ compound, whom she lost during the ambush. She is still searching for her, and hopes that in sharing her story, word will spread and she will be able to find her daughter. In her account, Amony renounced war and the abductions of young children, imploring that they be stopped.
After Amony, Grace Acan also gave her own testimony. She was abducted in 1996, when the LRA stormed her Catholic girls’ school, and abducted 139 of the students. Many were eventually let go, but the rebels kept 30 of them, among whom was Acan, who was held captive for 8 years. The camp was eventually liberated, and she returned to her community at the age of 16 with a baby girl.
Among the challenges that these two and many other survivors faced upon returning included rejection of the women and their children by their families, stigmatization and ostracism within their communities, as well as the financial and economic limitations caused by not having completed their studies. Speaking on behalf of survivors like themselves, Amony and Acan declared emphatically that for them, justice means addressing the immediate needs of people affected by war. These include food, education for their children, a means of subsistence and medical care – support essential to their daily living and their reintegration into society, which are more important to them than merely taking their abductors to court or spending years pursuing legal trials.
Regarding legal reparations, however, Amony, Acan and the organizations they represent have petitioned the Ugandan government to address their issues. A new transitional justice policy was released June 2019, though it has not yet been implemented. Transitional justice refers to the measures taken after gross human rights violations. The two women said they were very excited, though it was still a work in progress, and they said they would like to see the policy implemented during their lifetimes.
According to Dr. Anderson, Uganda’s amnesty bill was passed in 2000. There has been a lot of discussion regarding the reconciliation and reintegration of war combatants into society, and how they can make reparations. To go from living in “the bush” to society has proved difficult for both abductees and abductors. Meanwhile, Joseph Kony, one of the main leaders of the LRA, is still at large. You may remember him from the media frenzy around the KONY 2012 movement, just a few years ago. These all bring up the question of what post-conflict justice looks like, and what changes need to be made to effectively support people who are affected by conflict.
Isabelle Masson, a curator at the Canadian Museum of Human rights, was in charge of the Ododo Wa exhibit. In creating the exhibit, she worked closely with Amony and Acan, as well as the researchers on Conjugal Slavery in War. She described the process of creating the exhibit, as well as the careful and conscientious consideration that went into telling the stories. She mentioned that there was an ongoing conversation about the overall message, and this is manifested in how they chose to represent the items in the exhibit. The exhibit is based on the 2 memoirs of Evelyn Amony and Grace Acan, as well as interviews with other survivors and human rights advocates.
The visual design incorporates elements of drawings made by the survivors of the LRA camps. As previously mentioned, the skirt Evelyn wore when she was ambushed and injured 11 years ago is on display (loaned from her grandmother), as is Grace Acan’s blue sweater, a part of the school uniform she was wearing when she was abducted. Acan explained that the sweater was her only source of warmth, and when she gave birth to her daughter, she had to cut a small piece out of the sweater to make clothes for her child. Also on display are the romance novels older girls liked to read in school, juxtaposed with the jerry cans with which they would fetch and carry water from camp to camp, a symbol of their daily labour in captivity. Masson went through what informed their choice of these “artefacts,” explaining that the curators made a conscious decision to move away from the graphic violence and torture, such as is often depicted in the news and other media, and this is evident even in their use of animated videos to recount the women’s stories. Masson and other collaborators made the deliberate decision to focus on the women themselves, to emphasize the women’s agency, rather than solely the violence of their situations. It describes how the survivors chose bravely to become outspoken advocates for justice, reparations, and for the rights of others in similar situations.
Both Amony and Acan are activists, and helped to found advocacy groups; together they co-founded the Women’s Advocacy Network (WAN), which creates a space for dialogue, and to highlight the issues affecting women returnees, such as social stigmatization. They each decided to write a book about their experiences. The goal in writing these accounts was to explain in detail what had happened to them, to counter and correct misconceptions the community had about abductees, and to make a strong case for the destructive effects that war has on women and children, and why it must be stopped. Evelyn Amony in particular wanted to articulate the pain parents feel at losing their children, and hopes that her book will reach someone who knows the whereabouts of her own child. Whereas prior to writing she had been afraid of being judged, Amony revealed that she found so much courage in herself after writing the book. Both women’s books also aim at encouraging returnees such as themselves to move on, to get through their challenges, and to remind them that there is always life after suffering.
The stigma attached to the abductees who have returned cause them to be shunned by society. Children born in captivity were shunned by the families that should have accepted them; in a patriarchal society where the fathers were absent war criminals, the families of the men wanted nothing to do with these unknown and unclaimed children. The word “returnee” became derogatory, as did the notion of being born “in the bush.” The mothers continually encourage their children by telling them that they are not defined by their origins, and reminding them that they are still human beings, and not to be discouraged from their studies by such taunts from their classmates or others.
The stories of these two women is a reality of life shared by many women around the world. It is important that we are aware of these harsh truths even if they are occurring elsewhere in the world. As the KONY 2012 campaign and media frenzy showed, it is very easy to be captivated by these stories while they are all the rage on the media, but equally as easy to forget when they are no longer trending. What is the role of the viewer and the public upon hearing of these atrocities? How can we become better informed viewers, better global citizens?
To learn more about the stories of women and children affected by war, you can visit the Ododo Wa (“our stories”) exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, on now until winter 2020.
For more information on conjugal slavery and these women’s stories, visit https://humanrights.ca/story/voices-of-women-and-girls-in-war
Or you can learn more about the Women’s Advocacy Network and support their initiatives here: https://blogs.ubc.ca/wanuganda/