'This Was Not Her Making - She is Still Beautiful to Me'


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Beauregard Tromp

Across northern Uganda men and women live with lips, ears and limbs hacked off, a constant reminder that the "Lord's Resistance Army" is still alive. Africa Correspondent Beauregard Tromp and chief photographer Anton Hammerl visited the region.

Hurriedly making her way across the open field which dominates the centre f Lokung is Elda Akwero. Having been summoned by the camp commander, Elda takes each of the men standing in the office-cum-storage shed's hand in turn, kneeling and head bowed as she does so.

When she stands up it is with a ready, albeit shy smile. Even though her beautiful ebony skin conceals most blemishes, it is impossible not to notice the scarring which runs across the top of her lip, the result of a jagged bayonet slash at her face in an attempt to mutilate and intimidate not only her, but her entire community.

With a population of about 21 000 people this is the last Internally Displaced Peoples camp before the border with Sudan, some 18km away.

"I feel pain," is all Elda is initially prepared to say about the events leading up to her horrific ordeal.

Followed by two other women who were mutilated in much the same way, she takes us to the hut she shares with her husband and four children.

The day started out as any other with Elda joining a group of women from Ngomoromo, 7km from the Sudan border, to fetch water at a source 4km away.

The sleepy, non-descript, dustbowl of a town is truly the final frontier, the last outpost for the Ugandan People's Defence Force before the lawless no-go zone where "LRA rebels" are said to roam freely. There is no border post, fence or any other discernible marking showing where the two countries meet. Just an invisible line that everybody sees but no civilians dare cross.

Approaching the stream which runs across the dirt road patrolled by the government troops the women saw the clusters of speckled butterflies which mark all water sources in this part of the country. Other women were already returning, their jerry cans empty. Questioned, the women said they had seen boot prints around the waterhole, a sign that rebels were in the vicinity. The entire group of almost 20 women decided to turn around and head home, three of the women, including Santa Akwero and nine-month-old Nancy Angwec, carrying children tied to their backs.

"We didn't make it. We ran straight into five rebels. Some of the women escaped but we didn't. They ordered that we remove our blouses and run with them carrying the jerry cans," said Elda.

They ran for about 3km before stopping at an abandoned homestead. Half-naked and stumbling through the undergrowth towards an unknown destination, the fear among the 10 women was palpable.

"There was a woman with us who had just given birth. Her child was two months old and started crying. She just would not stop crying," said Elda.

"One of the "rebels" said the mother must hand over the child so that it could be killed. She refused. So he came to her to grab the child and she put it down on the floor," she said.

The "rebel soldier" grabbed the mother, took her outside and, using the rifle butt, beat the seemingly dissenting woman to death.

"When the rebel returned he saw me holding the child and said I must be killed too. I put the child down on the floor. He took the child and hit it against the head with a branch. Again, again. He threw the body into the bush," said Elda.

Perhaps fearing that their position may have been compromised, the "rebels" moved the group 2km further away to another abandoned village. The jerry cans were lined up and a piece of cloth was used to try to tie the cans together. The fact that the cloth was too short for this purpose seemed to anger the rebels who then held a quiet discussion among themselves.

The women were ordered to strip naked and enter one of the huts. Elda and the rest of the women had heard of this before. Women are ordered to strip naked and are tied together before being bundled into a hut which is then set alight with them in it. The fear was paralysing as the women obeyed their captors and moved into the hut.

"We thought we were going to be burnt alive in the house," said Santa Akwero.

Moments later a single soldier entered the hut, a blunt bayonet in his hand.

"He started cutting the women in the face. Cutting their lips off," said Santa.

No one resisted, survival paramount in their thoughts.

"We knew there were more soldiers outside and they would kill us," said Elda perfunctorily.

Of the 10 women who entered, only two left the hut without being mutilated.

"Those two were spared because they had to tell the people what happened," said Elda.

Naked and bleeding from their wounds, the women were eventually released and left to find their way home. The entire ordeal had lasted no longer than four hours.

A group of UPDF soldiers eventually happened upon them and took them to safety.

Four months later the scarring is still clearly visible on the women's faces.

Organisations like the Concerned Parents Association, Jimmy Carter Centre and World Vision set up programmes to counsel the women and equip them with skills and some supplies to allow them financial independence, in case of community rejection.

"When these things started happening we expected the women to face some hostility from the community, even their husbands, but this has not been the case," said Andrew Oryem from the Concerned Parents Association in Kitgum.

Elda and Santa agree there has been no stigmatisation from their community and say life has returned to normal.

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Elda's husband, Kennedy Onama, has listened attentively from his perch, his wife at his feet, coddling their youngest child.

For him revenge is out of the question as he does not have the means to pursue his wife's attackers. Instead, he took the family's meagre savings and hired a bakkie to fetch his wife and the other women who had been attacked. "It was not her making. I don't have any intention of getting any other wife because this one is mutilated. She is still beautiful to me."

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