Uganda diaries: Monica Atto
This is part of a special IRIN series
, was abducted by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as a child but escaped and now lives in a suburb of Gulu, northern Uganda, with her five children, eking out a living making paper beads.
Photo: Charles Akena/IRIN
|Monica shows off some of the paper beads she is making in Gulu town for a living
" I no longer stay at the Child Protection Unit in Gulu town; I left last June after four years. I was told to leave by the army officer in charge, who said they could no longer accommodate me because my husband was no longer working at the unit.
I am now living in Gulu town. I am staying in a three-room house built by World Vision. They provided me with the shelter because I have nowhere to go with my children.
I am still struggling although I thank God I have a house. The biggest burden now is school fees for my children and how to feed the five orphans under my care since my sister passed away two years ago.
My four children can’t continue with school next term because their school is closing. Two are in year four and five while the other two young ones are in nursery. Each child’s school fees are 15,000 shillings (US$7.50). They are studying at Grace Christian Academy but the school is closing because the proprietor passed away at the beginning of this year.
I am worried because I can’t afford to pay for my children to attend a new school in Gulu town. The fees are expensive - at Grace, my children were subsidized.
My children will have no future if they don’t study. But I can’t pay for the children under my care because I don’t have a good source of income. The jobs I do are casual that pay little and aren’t sustainable.
I am making paper beads for a woman in Gulu town. She pays me Sh5,000 ($2.50) every week for making the beads. The lady sells the beads in her craft shop for Sh15,000 ($7.50). I have been working for her for two weeks. Before, I was working for Watoto Church in Gulu town, making teddy bears and aprons. The first month the pay was good, Sh120,000 ($60), but after that they did not pay me. I worked for five months without pay and decided to quit the job. The money they owe me could pay my children’s school fees for three years.
My sewing machine is broken down. The machine was given to me by World Vision after undergoing rehabilitation when I returned from LRA captivity. The machine helped me raise some little income but the mechanic told me it can’t be fixed and needs replacing.
My husband John Obita is far away in Karamoja. He was transferred to Karamoja in January this year. He is still serving in the Uganda People’s Defence Force but I have lost contact with him. I can’t reach him on his cell phone because the area is out of reach. Maybe he could bring some money for the family if they allow him home.
Food is a problem. I feed the family on what I get during the day. I have no garden to cultivate crops to feed the children. It is a very hard life. I leave everything in God’s hands. I have been thinking about my suffering and I can’t think any more. Nothing good has ever happened in my life, it’s all hardship.
My mother Macilina Abalo is ill. Her legs are swollen and she can’t walk on her own, she is on crutches. I visited her last February as all was not okay in our home village in Palabek. My cousin, who was looking after my mother, was involved in a car accident and her limbs were broken. She has undergone three operations but she is not feeling better. She can’t walk properly for long distances. Yet she has to work in the garden to grow food to feed my mother.
I have the skills and the knowledge for making beads, teddy bears, sewing clothes and aprons. I don’t know if I will ever have the opportunity to start up my shop to sell these items I can make.
My youngest has grown - he is 1¼ years. I can’t believe he has grown despite the enormous challenges I am going through and those still ahead. Even the other younger children are staying well despite all this."
14 December 2007
The downfall of Otti
We’ve heard that Kony killed Otti, his number two, although he says he’s imprisoned. I don’t know what the truth is but if it’s true it’s very bad. Otti was the one who was most involved and positive towards the peace talks. This says to me that Kony is not interested in the peace talks.
It seemed to us in the LRA that it was Otti who was really in charge. He was a man of action.
In the army we thought he had a strong personality. Once he decided upon something he followed it through.
He was the one who would insist that we showed we were real soldiers by going back to our own homes, to go and kill our own people. He himself went back and murdered his own father, murdered his own mother in Atiak. He was ruthless.
In the LRA it was Otti who was feared the most because no one could ever move him in his decisions. If he said someone would die, they would die. And this time he had committed himself to the peace talks. There was to be no turning back for him.
Otti is open compared to Kony. Kony would hide things; he would camouflage his intentions and his motives. Not with Otti.
I was abducted by Otti’s group before being transferred to serve under another commander.
But even if I was abducted by his men I don’t hold a grudge. He was also acting under orders. That was the way of the LRA. I don’t have any personal bad feeling towards him. Despite my suffering I think it’s bad if he has been killed.
A visit to Kitgum
My mother has been very ill recently and so I travelled out to see her in Palabek Gem camp, near Kitgum. She has been coughing up a lot of phlegm and blood. I think it might be tuberculosis but she hasn’t been checked out. I want to take her to the Good Mission hospital here as soon as I can afford to.
My mother took a serious beating when she was abducted by the LRA and I don’t think she ever really recovered. My father was killed and so she has no one to support her and then there are orphans relying on her, and when I arrived they all looked to me as their only hope. It was really desperate.
Generally things there seemed to be a lot better than when I last visited in February. People are reaching out to the their homes and have started digging the land. Many people have left for resettlement camps and some are even back in their original villages.
People aren’t nearly as reliant on the World Food Programme. But I think the big problems now are with education. Families still find it very difficult to send their children to school, the classes are terribly over-crowded and we are a long way behind other parts of the country.
It was very difficult for me to go back. I really don’t like it. I was getting nightmares during the day just being there. I still think a lot here but it’s not like there where my family were killed.
Here life is difficult. Poverty may be here but it won’t kill us. There, anything could happen.
All the other children who were abducted with me were killed and now their parents ask why, and tell me how lucky she had it. ‘Your girl is back from the army while ours are dead,’ they say. ‘What did she do to survive? What blood does she have on her hands?’
But I had no control. It was so unfortunate they died. I feel a certain guilt that I’m the one who survived but what could I do? And now when I’m there I worry about what their families might do - who could come for me in the night.
Life in Gulu
The father of my two children came back in October. I was happy to see him again. He gives me some stability. I now I have someone to lean on.
But I still feel so lost in the world and wonder why I’m living.
We see these white cars, we see the signs of all these organisations but I’ve no idea where to turn. No idea how to cope when I see all those orphans looking at me and my mother coughing up more blood. What am I to do?
I feel I need to commit myself to church. I have been going to a Pentecostal church since June and I want to become more involved. I grew up in a strong Catholic house and then I moved to become an Anglican but those don’t give me any heart.
When I go to this Penetecostal church I find this incredible relief and my heart fills up. For a short while it releases me from all the troubles I’ve been going through. We sing until we can’t sing any more. It really touches you.
20 July 2007
In Acholi names usually have a meaning. You name your child after something that’s happened around the time of their birth.
My eldest is called Elma Alimo – meaning ‘difficult moment’. I named him that because I was young when I had him - just 13 - and I was very scared, I was alone and didn’t know what to do.
After we were abducted, the girls were picked out on the first day back at the camp to ‘cook’ for particular men. The man I was to cook for was an old man – 45. I didn’t know what was expected of me until he started explaining. I didn’t know of men; I could never be at ease with him, he was like a father. I used to feel shy with him.
I did try to refuse but he told his soldiers to beat me and they brought pangas and told me I would be killed and I pleaded, telling them I would do what he wanted. And he taught me to be a woman. I became his fifth wife.
I didn’t know how to wash my first baby properly and he got an infection around the umbilical cord. In Acholi culture you throw a child up to make it brave and when an old woman was doing that the pus burst and my baby started screaming.
My second child is called Rackara Goddy. My husband was shot in a fire-fight immediately after I conceived. By that time I had become fond of him. I became sick and had to go to the health centre but I left my firstborn son with a Sudanese lady I thought I could trust but she turned out to be a horrible old woman. She made my little boy keep the fire and then if it went out she’d burn his hands with light grass. So after all of that I felt pretty unlucky and so named my boy Rackara – the unfortunate one.
My third child is called Rwot Okonya Sandy, which means ‘God rescued me’ Sandy. Sandy was the name of my best friend in the bush. I’d really like to see her again once all this is over. When I arrived she looked out for me, made sure I didn’t get myself killed. We looked after each other’s children. And then she always covered my back when we were in a fight.
It was no more than two days after I had given birth that the UPDF [Ugandan People’s Defense Forces] crossed fire with us. I had gone to get water. The other rebels had fled and Sandy had picked up two of my children but couldn’t manage the new-born and so left him where I would see him. I found him while the shells were falling around us and we were eventually re-united with the others.
I could have escaped but how could I have left my other children? One time they released me when I was pregnant but I followed them because who would take care of my children? On another occasion a friend offered to sneak out my first-born but I couldn’t do it; instead I waited until we could all go together. I might have hated being in the LRA but my family was more important to me than escape.
It was very difficult to stay without a husband in the LRA. A man will guard and protect you. My second husband was a friend, a kind guy and he saw the trouble I had and said to me that I could join his family. I was lonely and after a while I took his protection. I wouldn’t say it was love - it wasn’t - but in the bush things were fine. Out here things changed, he became a womaniser. After getting out he joined the UPDF but then he went off with another woman to another district.
So I named my fourth child Lalam Innocent in the hope that he would remain innocent of what his father had done.
My hope for them is that they grow up and are sponsored at school. I never went to school myself but I want them to have the opportunity.
I wouldn’t be able to concentrate in a class. Sometimes when I’m happy I can read and write well but when things are bad I don’t even know how to hold a pen.
10 July 2007
These days with the peace talks things have changed. There is no more captivity. There is no more abduction. People are at rest and we aren’t having so many funerals. But the peace talks have kept many of the children in the bush and we don’t hear about them coming back any more. Now they are all up in [Democratic Republic of ] Congo, people are not escaping any longer.
There is no one particularly I would like to see but I feel for them all having that hard life up there. I was there for 10 years myself but my life is much better now I’m back. I live with my four children at the Child Protection Unit here in Gulu, along with some other returnees, and I can go and sell vegetables down at the market, do what I need to get by.
Before I went to the bush I was living in Palabek, a camp in Kitgum district, with my mother and brothers and sisters. I was 13 when I was taken. By that time I was really the mother of the family. My mother had fallen ill with a disease that cracked her hands and legs. She couldn’t walk and had to crawl so I became the mother when I was eight years old. That’s the way it was.
The LRA had collaborators and one was a neighbour. He led them to where the children were and so one night they came for us. They came at 10 in the evening when we were asleep. By the time I woke up they were already inside and one guy took off his bag and handed it to me to carry. My mother was shouting, pleading, saying she wasn’t well and needed me but they wouldn’t listen. They took a stick and started caning her. I said to her, let me go and as long as there is still life we will meet again. And if they kill me the young ones will grow up and support you. I was worried that they would kill her if she protested any longer.
After I escaped in 2004 I went back and found that everyone had been killed by the rebels. My father had good land up there and if peace comes I could perhaps go back, lots of people are, but who’d take care of me up there? If I was living there it would just be a constant reminder of all the people I’ve lost. I’d be so empty, so lonely. My brother is still with the rebels and if he was released and came back things could be different. Perhaps we’d both go back together.
Things were difficult when I went back. Because I was a returnee my uncle expected that I’d had lots of help from NGOs and was wanting things from me but I didn’t have anything to give. With four children to look after, what would I have to take?
But these days I have too much fear that it would be too lonely. So I’ll stay here in Gulu, this is where my life is now.
What were the aims [of the Lord’s Resistance Army]? The main aim was to take over the government but it was impossible. Children were dying; we were all dying for no reason. We were only taken to be killed, no higher purpose than that. I never saw it as a fight for justice.
20 May 2007
“Kony will never sign a peace agreement”
Atto, 25, was abducted by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) as a
child but escaped and now lives with her children in a rehabilitation
centre in Gulu, northern Uganda.
Monica Atto, 25, was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels in northern Uganda as a child.
Now living with her five children in Gulu town, she believes LRA leader Joseph Kony will not attend ongoing peace talks with the Uganda government. She spoke to IRIN:
"I have been following the Juba peace talks between the LRA and government of Uganda so keenly on my radio and it is not surprising that up to now no peace deal has been signed. For Kony to pick up a pen and put his signature to a peace agreement is impossible.
"He deliberately doesn't want to sign the agreement because he knows that if he comes out of the bush the government and the International Criminal Court will arrest him for crimes he committed against innocent people in northern Uganda, Southern Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo.
"We know that Kony is buying time to reorganise. It makes us sad when we hear he is failing the talks by refusing to turn up. It reminds us of the suffering we experienced while in rebel captivity.
"We have lost hope in the talks because all these years the rebels have refused to release children and women. I know there are still hundreds of children and women in captivity.
Photo: Euan Denholm/IRIN
|Monica Atto, 24, Former LRA abductee and soldier, Gulu Town, Northern Uganda, 10 July 2007
"We hear he is abducting more children and women in Congo and Sudan. We fear he is preparing for war. Peace was the best chance for him and people in northern Uganda, but chances of peace are fading away. It will not be realised and the rebels might come back and wage terror on the local population."
"My mother is still very ill and her health is getting worse, her legs and arms are developing wounds. I visited her in February this year in Palabek Gem in Kitgum and found her vomiting blood. I brought her to Lacor hospital in Gulu for treatment but there was no significant improvement.
"The doctors gave her antibiotics and advised her not to do any hard work and she should always go for regular medical treatment. It is difficult because neither my mother nor I can afford the cost of her treatment. She is complaining of chest pain.
"I feel sad because my mother is living alone. My father was killed by the rebels and she has no relatives to support her. At the moment I cannot travel to Kitgum and see her because I am nursing.
"People are busy cultivating crops on their land; so many are going back home. But others are still living in the camp, saying they will not go back home until the rebels come out of the bush. They fear that the rebels might come back and abduct their children.
"I am happy that I delivered my fifth child on the 16th of this month. She is looking healthy. I have not given the baby a name; I am waiting for the father to give her a name. I delivered the baby while he was away.
"He is a soldier in Kapchorwa in eastern Uganda; he was deployed by the government late last year to protect people there against Karamojong cattle rustlers. We do not know when he - Obita John - will return but he says some day in August he will come to see us. He is a hard-working man and also formerly abducted by the rebels. He returned from the rebel army in 2004.
"He calls me to find out how we are doing. He was very happy when I told him about his new baby girl. I did not want to have another child but somehow my husband convinced me. Having so many children with no work makes life so difficult and stressful. I want to stop with the five children that I have.”
"My life in Gulu is getting more difficult because of poverty. I have nothing to do, I was trained as a tailor by World Vision in 2006 and they gave me a sewing machine. I have kept the sewing machine but I have no money to rent a shop and buy materials for sewing.
"I am worried I am losing my tailoring skills because I am not practising. I tried selling food and cabbages in the market some years back but I stopped because I could not make a profit. Now I have no money but when school opens next month I will begin selling boiled cassava to at least earn some money.
"My colleagues who returned from the rebel army are finding life hard with the biting poverty in Gulu.
"I am unfortunate because my mother is weak. My husband is an orphan, his parents and brothers were killed by the rebels and we have nowhere to turn for support. We cry when we talk about it and when we reflect on the past and imagine the future.
"I have been trying to seek assistance from NGOs in Gulu to help pay for school fees for my children and younger brother. I will keep trying so that my children and younger brother are educated.
"We, the formerly abducted girls, are so saddened because former rebel commanders who made us suffer are building fortunes and mansions but we have nothing to feed our children.
"The government is giving these former rebel commanders a lot of support; all their children are studying in schools, but we are not being supported. Do we deserve all the suffering we experienced at the hands of these rebel commanders?”
[This is part of a special IRIN series: Uganda Diaries, in which a selection of ordinary people in northern Uganda talk about their lives in their own words. The "diaries" were gathered over several interviews in Uganda starting from July 2007. Each individual's diary will be updated from time to time over the coming weeks.
Visit Living with the LRA - IRIN's rolling in-depth coverage of the stuation in northern Uganda and southern Sudan.]