On 9 October 1996, rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) abducted 139 girls from their boarding school in Aboke, northern Uganda. While 109 girls were subsequently released, 30 of them were retained by the LRA and made to fight in its ranks, to kill and to marry rebel commanders. Angelina Atyam is the mother of one of the Aboke girls. Her daughter, Charlotte, was forced to remain with the LRA for seven years and seven months, until she finally managed to escape in what her mother regards as a ‘miracle’. During her time in captivity, Charlotte was ‘handed’ to Raska Lukwiya, one of the highest-ranking commanders in the LRA (he was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2005 for crimes against humanity and war crimes), and gave birth to two children.
While Charlotte was held by the LRA, Angelina and other parents of the Aboke Girls came together every week to pray for their children. Their tireless efforts for the girls’ release led, in turn, to the creation of the Concerned Parents’ Association (CPA). Of the 30 girls who were kept in captivity, five were ultimately killed while the remainder eventually escaped. One of them is now a doctor; one of them is a lawyer; Charlotte herself is studying for a PhD in the United States. According to Angelina, the girls are survivors and they are resilient; they refused to let themselves be broken by their experiences or by the lack of attention that they have received from the Ugandan government.
Although Angelina regards herself as an ordinary woman, her own story is one of remarkable resilience. What stood out most strongly from speaking to her – under a tree in Lira in northern Uganda – is that she is a woman of faith. Despite everything, she never stopped believing in God. Her religious convictions, in turn, facilitated and fostered her resilience. According to Angelina, God spoke to her through the Lord’s Prayer. ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’ – this part of the Prayer deeply resonated with her. She never stopped believing in God and believing in forgiveness. It was because of Him that she was able to persistently fight for her daughter, for the other Aboke Girls and indeed for thousands of abducted children in Uganda. She became a vocal advocate for their release because, in her view, this was her religious calling. ‘I think that God wanted me to speak out and not to keep quiet. “Rise up when it is not yet too late” – this is the message that he wanted people to hear’.
Angelina travelled to Gulu in search of Raska Lukwiya and met his mother. She told this woman that she forgave Lukwiya and simply wanted her daughter back. After Lukwiya’s death in 2006, Angelina attended his burial, not in order to rejoice but because she had always wanted to talk to him. She had needed to talk to him, to find out why he did what he did. His death robbed her of that opportunity. She recalled that during Lukwiya’s burial, his mother stood alone. She had become ostracized within her community because of the atrocities ordered and committed by her son. During the burial ceremony, Angelina stood next to Lukwiya’s mother, to console her. ‘I think she needed comfort because death is the last thing’. After the burial, Angelina asked the CPA in Gulu to take Lukwiya’s mother – who had a problem with her elbow – to the Lacor Hospital for treatment. Angelina’s faith, in short, enabled her to demonstrate remarkable magnanimity towards Lukwiya’s mother and to forgive the man who had destroyed her daughter’s innocence and childhood. Even though Lukwiya died before he could be held accountable for his crimes, Angelina carries no sense of bitterness or resentment. What she wanted most was for him to apologize – and for people to be reconciled. If he had stood trial in The Hague, this would not have benefitted her or her daughter in any way. If he had stood trial in Uganda, he would have been sent to the gallows – ‘And killing someone never pays’.
Uganda has a Transitional Justice Policy, now in its eighth draft, which is currently before the Cabinet. What is Angelina’s view of this? Rather than answering the question directly, she instead focused on the meaning of ‘justice’ – a word that ‘sounds so sweet and nice’. Instead of viewing ‘justice’ through the prism of her own needs, she focused on the former children who were abducted by the LRA and on the children to whom the girls gave birth in captivity. They needed psychological help, medical treatment, support and education to be able to carry on with their lives, she underlined, and to move forward. Implicitly, thus, she highlighted a crucial linkage between transitional justice and resilience. Transitional justice is not just about dealing with the past in order to build a better future. It is also about the present – and about ensuring that people’s present problems and difficulties do not compromise or threaten their futures. And it is about doing ‘justice’ and dealing with the past in ways that do not rob people of their faith and willingness to move forward.