AS the search for the 219 kidnapped Nigerian girls who were one year ago abducted by Boko Haram Islamic extremists reaches a critical juncture, few people can relate to their situation of as vividly as another group of schoolgirls from Uganda.
Some 139 girls from St Mary’s College, Aboke in the northern part of Uganda were in October 1996 abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Christianity-professing terror group led by Joseph Kony.
After sustained pursuit and pressure from the school authorities, the LRA released 109 of the girls within days but retained 30 others as captives for years.
Five of those died in captivity.
In 2009, the last of the 25 surviving abductees escaped from captivity and returned to start a painful and challenging re-union with her family, seeking emotional rehabilitation and re-integration into a life that had been so brutally snatched away.
One of those who had escaped earlier was Janet Akello, who was re-united with her family on August 27, 2004. She recalls that the re-integration process was plagued with difficulties owing to self-esteem problems and recurring nightmares of her ordeal.
“At first I would isolate myself. Sometimes I would walk and think that people can easily spot me and say, ‘Look at that girl. She’s from the bush’,” Akello told Mail & Guardian Africa.
While in rebel hands, the Aboke girls suffered among the most inhumane treatment imaginable – from walking thousands of miles and being forced to club fellow captives to death to deter others from escaping, to enduring regular beatings and being used as sex slaves by the leaders.
Those physical and psychological injuries continued to torment the Aboke girls – all of whom were abducted as minors – long after they had returned to safety.
The Pope adds his voice
From the time they were abducted, the Aboke girls became the poster children for the abductions of thousands of other unidentifiable girls during the LRA’s 30-year rebellion, with world leaders including Pope John Paul II, then US president Bill Clinton and US talk show host Oprah Winfrey calling for their release, along with that of other abductees.
In Nigeria, a similar scenario is playing out, with the #bringbackourgirls Twitter campaign having been endorsed by many leading world figures such as former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai and US First Lady Michelle Obama.
When the Nigerian military recently announced that it had rescued hundreds of female abductees and children held by Boko Haram, there was global interest in whether the Chibok girls were among them. So far, they haven’t been found.
Resume normal lives
As Nigeria prepares to re-integrate the rescued girls and free the remaining group of the 2,000 girls that Amnesty International says were abducted, the Aboke girls say community support plays a key role in helping resume the lives that were snatched from them.
First on the list, according to Victoria (second name withheld on her request), a captive of eight years who returned as a mother of two, government and its partners should “prepare the communities” the girls are returning to in order to avoid discrimination and other acts that could further torment the already traumatised girls.
Tormentor: Joseph Kony
“The most important thing that can help the girls heal is to be socially accepted. In a place where you are socially accepted, the stigma will be minimal,” she said. “The communities should be ready to accept their children home. When they accept them, you feel loved and feel part of the community and family rather than when you are rejected.”
In Uganda, the Aboke girls found a strong and formalised social safety net in the form of an organisation set up by their own parents. The Concerned Parents Association (CPA), led by Angelina Atyam, a mother to one of the abducted girls, pressed for the girls’ release and, whenever it happened, took primary responsibility in their counselling, organised social events that kept the girls together, and solicited for initial funding to return them to school.
“For us because we were accepted, education came in our minds so fast that we thought, ‘let me go back and continue with my studies’. But there are many who were rejected when they had just come back and that made them to lose the opportunity to go back to school,” said Victoria, who has since graduated from university and works with a women’s advocacy group in northern Uganda, which was the epicenter of the war.
By the time the government of Uganda came in to offer supplementary support, the parents’ association had already laid a firm foundation for the Aboke girls.
In subsequent years, further support to the girls came through foreign Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) such as Sponsoring Children Uganda, which was set up by Belgian journalist Els de Temmerman, and Children of Hope Uganda (COHU), formed by Canadian teacher Lorna Pitcher.
Sponsoring Children Uganda paid tuition fees for more than 3,200 former abductees while COHU paid for 163 children and built a technical school at the site of one of the worst massacres ever committed by the LRA.
“Children of Hope has raised over $1 million since 2007 but a lot of that money has gone to building the vocational school and the nursery school in Barlonyo,” Pitcher told Mail & Guardian Africa in a Skype interview.
Making it through university
The results of the two organisations’ work is perhaps most visible in the Aboke girls, most of who went on to pursue university education and have graduated with bachelors’ degrees in much-sought-after courses such as medicine, biotechnology, law, mass communication, development studies and education.
However, the fact that the majority of the Aboke girls have completed their education does not mean the effects of their enslavement are over. According to Pitcher, the organisation continues to mobilise funding for the education of the 18 children born to the Aboke girls while in captivity.
“COHU still struggles to find the $14,000 a year needed to pay school fees for the 18 children, born in captivity, of the 12 Aboke girls sponsored by COHU,” she reveals. “We have done that for three years now.”
Some not lucky
Given that each of the primary school-going children, currently aged 7-12 according to their records, still has a long way before completing their university education, then solving the problems brought about by the abduction of the Aboke girls is still more than 15 years away.
While many of the Aboke girls might then be able to pay for their own children’s education, other former abductees who are uneducated are not so lucky – especially as the NGO industry starts to suffer from donor fatigue.
However, one way of helping the former LRA victims reduce dependence on donations is to make them productive and find markets for what they produce. Pitcher says COHU markets crafts materials made at its technical institute to customers in Canada.
“We are trying to go away from donations and give them a market for their products here,” she explained. “I sell the paper bead jewellery and stuffed animals that the caregivers send me. Its products made by the COHU caregivers that we use because it’s a social enterprise.”
Drawing on the experiences of Uganda’s Aboke girls, Pitcher believes the Nigerian government should prepare a comprehensive plan for supporting the former abductees as a “failure-to-protect” measure.
“They should make sure that they go back and complete secondary school because education is a solution to poverty problems and terrorist problems,” she says.
She believes Nigerian authorities should also reach out to Uganda’s Aboke girls so that they can serve as role models to the Chibok girls and other former abductees in the west African country on how to turn their lives around after suffering such a dehumanising ordeal.
“The Aboke girls would really have a lot to contribute and if they would maybe they would want to do it confidentially without making a public outcry about it,” she notes. “They have lived through hell and the bigger thing that helped them was their camaraderie with each other and I am sure they would reach out to their sisters in Nigeria if they ever got them back and help them.”