|AVSI Hosts International Seminar on Northern Uganda: Testimony of Former Child Abductee|
|Friday, 21 July 2006 00:00|
On July 10th, AVSI hosted an international seminar at the European Parliament in Brussels with the title, “The Human Challenge in Northern Uganda: Witnesses of War, Hope and Peace.” The place and context of the seminar recognizes the important collaborative relationship between AVSI and ECHO, the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Office, in addressing the most urgent needs of the populations of northern Uganda.
The seminar was a great success on many fronts. A series of high-level and passionate speakers captivated the seminar participants with their individual witnesses of the tragedy and hope that is encompassed in the reality of northern Uganda.
The Vice-President of the European Parliament, Mario Mauro, moderated the event. A welcome was provided by the President of AVSI, Arturo Alberti and by the Ambasador of Brussels to the Republic of Uganda, T.K.Katenta Apuli. Alberti explained how AVSI’s work is motivated by an ideal and follows the fundamental method of sharing the life of the people we are trying to help. With this as the starting point, AVSI has a unique capacity to be a true presence among a people. Apuli shifted the focus to the task of reconstruction in Uganda and pointed out the important role of entities such as AVSI as catalysts in this process.
Five testimonies comprised the main body of the presentations.
Luisa Morgantini, responsible for the Commission for Development and Cooperation at the European Parliament, expressed her gratitude for the partnership with AVSI in Uganda, and in particular for the support given to child soldiers.
Agnes Gillian Ocitti, former child soldier abducted by the rebels in Northern Uganda, and currently a lawyer at the Law Development Center in Kampala, Uganda, gave the most moving testimony. The full text of her intervention is included below.
Monica Maggioni, special designee from the Italian news station RAI 1 and speaker for an AVSI-ECHO publicity campaign, gave a first-hand account of her experiences creating the documentary “Emergency in Northern Uganda” in 2005. Her descriptions of the night-commuters and child soldiers captivated the audience with their tragic vividness, yet Maggioni also explained AVSI’s role in giving concrete support and hope to these children to face their future.
Roberto Fontolan, journalism and author of a new book, “Kop ango? A Day in Northern Uganda,” shared some key sections of his book which describe the context and capacity of the people of Northern Uganda and AVSI staff to live in this difficult, dramatic context. The book portrays the constructive engagement of AVSI in the daily context without forgetting that behind data and statistics, there are real people.
Cees Wittebrood, responsible of ECHO for Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, gave a moving testimony to the value of the work done by AVSI in northern Uganda, citing in particular AVSI’s capacity to provide services to those in greatest need in a proper and consistent manner. Mr. Wittebrood went on to elaborate on the political dimension of the conflict in northern Uganda, with national and regional elements, and the hope that recent attention by the United Nations and G8 countries will bolster the outcomes of the peace talks set to begin the following day.
Agnes Gillian Ocitti
I am Agnes Gillian Ocitti. I am 25 years old and I was born in Kitgum District, in Northern Uganda. I am an Acholi by tribe and a student at Law Development Centre.
For the last 20 years, the people of North Uganda have suffered and witnessed atrocities of war caused by LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army), a fanatic rebel group.
Like many other children in Northern Uganda who were abducted by the LRA, I was abducted, on the night of 10th October 1996, at the age of 14, together with another 139 girls from the college where I was studying, St. Mary’s Aboke, in Apac District. Sister Rachele, an Italian Comboni missionary sister, who was at that time the deputy headmistress of the school, together with a teacher named Bosco, followed our tracks and managed to secure the release of 109 girls. 30 of us were not released. I was among the 30. We later had to find our way out. Unfortunately 4 of my friends from Aboke died in captivity and 2 still missing. Its now 10 years since the students from Aboke were abducted.
I know intimately the hardship of life as a captive of LRA. I learnt how to endure beatings silently and to act the part of an obedient soldier. While in captivity, we were forced to kill an innocent young girl who had tried to escape, loot peoples´ property for survival, physically tortured cruelly and abused. Young girls were sexually abused and made to become mothers of children of the rebels. I was to be taken by an LRA commander as his wife. I knew that he would destroy me and my value as a woman. Everyday my heart wept for freedom.
I escaped after three months, months overshadowed by pain, tears and sorrows. We managed to escape as we were taking cover from the government helicopter. The place where we escape was about 10Km from the nearest trading centre. We run towards the main road and fortunately we met some villagers who took us to the UPDF barracks. My escape brought me joy as I left my tears to flow freely, tears of relief, pain and happiness.
I was warmly welcomed by my parents and my schoolmates. The love and care I received made me recover psychologically from the trauma. I was counselled, loved and cared for in a special way both at home and at school. I went back to study in Aboke after my abduction because I was greatly loved from there. The late Sr. Alba was really a loving and caring Headmistress. She treated us as her own children. It's a pity she died in April this year 2006 before seeing all her dear children return home. My abduction made me develop love for humanity in a special way. Because of it, I decided I should become a lawyer: my heart had a demand for justice and peace.
During my vacations from school, I used to work for AVSI in Kitgum in the Psycho social support programme for war-victims and people traumatized by the conflict. Even though it was work, giving support to other people who have suffered and were still suffering blessed my life. Every holiday I spent time at home with my parents and the community. As I was growing up and understanding the world, life became more challenging. Today, the loving community where I was received does not exist anymore. My people live in congested IDP camps, depending on humanitarian aid, living in poor hygienic and sanitary conditions, in abject poverty, with no access to quality education.
As a young adult, helpless lawyer, my heart always weeps with sorrow, seeing the kind of life people in Northern Uganda are living, children who want to study can hardly complete their primary level. Although there is a Universal Primary Education programme in Uganda, most people can hardly afford their basic necessity needed for school. Those who managed to complete primary level, see no future ahead as they cannot afford formal or non-formal further education.
I come from a family of nine children, two boys and seven girls. My dad is a secondary teacher earning approximately 150 Euro per month (330,000 Ugandan Shillings). My mother is a housewife. My parents used to grow crops and rear animals but now the farms are inaccessible due to insecurity and restrictions imposed on movements.
I am the fifth born of the family but the first and still the only one with a bachelor degree. All my elders hold certificates in primary education because my father could not afford to pay them a higher level of education. I count myself lucky because some friends offered to support me in my education, to make a change in my life and help me realize my dream of becoming a lawyer.
In 2003, my step brother was killed by the LRA because he had escaped from them in 1997, when he was abducted. In April, my younger brother was abducted together with his school mate from Lacor Seminar in Gulu. He escaped after three months and many of his colleagues are still in captivity and some reported dead. The majority, if not all families in the North are affected in one way or the other by the atrocities of the conflict.
My brother and his colleagues, me and other Aboke girls were among others abducted by the LRA. THE Survey of Way Affected Youth (SWAY) Uganda, reports that the abductions might be underestimated. While the UN reports an estimate of 25000 children, SWAY suggests a more accurate estimate of 66,000 youths.
Politically, in the last months the insurgency in Northern Uganda has greatly improved and we are really happy about that. Many people now desire to go back to their homes of origin. Within the Northern districts, some people are returning home especially those in Teso and Lango regions. In Acholi land, it still remains difficult for the people to move since they are still sceptical about the security situation. Peace talks between the Uganda Government and the LRA will start this week on the 12th day of July in Juba, Southern Sudan. We are hopeful and praying that these talks will result in to a real and long lasting peace.
I believe that now the greatest challenge is related to the social and economic needs of the Acholi population. Due to the conflict, the majority of them are traumatized, socially, and economically broken down. We therefore request that the international community not to forget us. We, the children, youths, young adults and the general community of Northern Uganda need your support to make our lives meaningful, to rebuild us and make us able to sustain ourselves.