Telling my story through words and artefacts

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Grace Acan

As I think back about how it all started, I find truth in the common saying “a problem shared is a problem half solved.” Sharing a story like mine is not easy. It takes time and courage. When I escaped the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) after eight years of captivity, I was unable to do so. It took years and a book (A Lone Way Gone: Memoirs of A boy Soldier) written by Ishmael Beah for me to consider the possibility.

When reading Beah’s story, I found myself pondering how helpful it can be to share one’s story. As a child soldier during the civil war in Sierra Leone, Beah went through a lot more than I had imagined. He faced and escaped many dangers on the frontline of armed conflict. When I compared this to my own experience in the Ugandan war, I understood why they used to say that I was a civilian living amongst soldiers. My experience of captivity in the LRA was similar to Beah’s, but also quite different. I realized that I needed to share my own story.

There is a proverb in our local Acholi language: “when two elephants are fighting, it is the grass around them that suffers.” One could say that I was suffering like the grass trampled in the confrontation of two armed groups.

My book Not yet Sunset: A Story of Survival and Perseverance in LRA Captivity was published in 2018. In the process of sharing my story, I found healing.

Exchanging with other women who lived similar experiences helped me build the courage to talk and find the determination to write. Realizing that my problems and experiences concerned every girl and woman who went through the same situation was crucial. This initial storytelling project—launched by Professor Erin Baines and the Justice and Reconciliation Project—gave survivors the courage to speak up. Yet, a year or so after the project ended, we asked ourselves: “Will it end here with us just listening to one another? What can we do together to change our lives?” We knew there was something we could do ourselves to address the issues that were affecting us all like poor access to healthcare, economic hardship, social stigma, and exclusion. As we brainstormed, we came up with the idea of forming an association that would bring together and advocate for women affected by war in northern Uganda. We founded the Women’s Advocacy Network in 2011; it is dedicated to the pursuit of justice for former LRA captives and their children born in captivity.

The most pressing issue facing women who escaped LRA captivity was returning to their community with a child or children. When men returned home, they did not have any other responsibilities other than for themselves. Women, on the other hand, have to take care of the children they gave birth to in captivity without having the necessary means of livelihood. Shortly after returning home, I had to leave my child in the care of my mother so that I could go back to school and complete my studies. I left my infant girl at home despite the fact that I still felt that I was the best person to raise her. But I had no choice. I needed to go back to school in order to move on and rebuild my life.

The idea of sharing my story in an exhibit came shortly after the publication of my memoir. I was approached by Véronique Bourget of the Conjugal Slavery in War (CSiW) project, with which I had been working. Bourget and I first met at a CSiW conference in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2016. A year later, she travelled to Uganda with Professor Annie Bunting for research. She talked about the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) and their project of creating an exhibit on stories of women and sexual violence in war. This is when we sat down in a hotel room in Gulu to record the first of the two interviews that informed the selection of content for the “Ododo Wa” exhibit. In 2018, I travelled to Toronto and met the CMHR curator, Isabelle Masson, after months of back-and-forth communication about potential artefacts.

One of the artefacts displayed in the exhibit of particular significance to me is a card that I received in 2004 from my former headmistress, Sister Alba, and the former deputy headmistress, Sister Rachele, at St. Mary’s College about two weeks after I escaped. This card reminds me of them, gives me strength, and furthers my drive to move on. When I first returned home, I feared being seen by members of my own community as helpless. I thought that they would not be supportive. And I feared becoming this helpless person that I never was. It was an honour, a great comfort for me, to receive this card encouraging me to be strong and to move on, affirming that I could. Its quote from the Bible refers to the words of God to His people, which remains especially meaningful to me: “Do not be afraid … When you walk through the waters, I’ll be with you.” It gave me strength and determination to go back to school. Whenever I read these words, I am reminded of the hope I felt when I reclaimed my education. I felt that, despite what I went through, my former school leaders were still with me though at a distance.

Card sent to Grace Acan by Sister Alba Brulo and Sister Rachele Fassera on display in the “Ododo Wa: Stories of Girls in War” exhibit, Canadian Museum for Human Rights, 2019. Credit: Canadian Museum for Human Rights, photograph by Aaron Cohen

Another significant artefact shown in the exhibit is my school sweater. When Sister Rachele pleaded with the LRA for the release of all the Aboke schoolgirls, we were separated in two groups, with thirty of us remaining with the rebels, including myself. The school sweater captures that moment when the girls whom the LRA rebels agreed to release gave us their sweaters because they knew we would end up marching for days in the cold with very little to cover ourselves. We, the “Aboke girls” as we became known, all wore these blue sweaters for years. We were easily recognisable in captivity whilst moving in a single line as we walked through the bush and across mountains. The sweater gave us warmth. But, most importantly, it reminded me of my days at school, of my passion for my studies, of my ambition to become a nurse, and of my conviction that I was as good as any male students who were often treated better.

St. Mary’s College school sweater and books displayed in the “Ododo Wa: Stories of Girls in War” exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg, 2019. Credit: Canadian Museum for Human Rights, photograph by Aaron Cohen

I kept my sweater until the year 2000 when I resized it to fit my first child, a baby boy, born of a forced union with a rebel commander old enough to be my father. I altered my sweater into a smaller one to keep him warm after we sought refuge in the Imatong Mountains of Sudan, now South Sudan. I didn’t know how to sew at the time of my abduction. I learned on my own without a sewing machine. Seeing the sweater in the exhibit is meaningful to me on many levels. It reminds me of my son. It reminds me of the gesture of my peers on the day we were separated. It reminds me that I was a bright 16-year-old student. It reminds me that I completed my studies.

The exhibit also displays three romance novels. These are some of the books from the St. Mary’s College library that I used to read in my spare time before my abduction. As a 16-year-old, I didn’t really know what to expect growing up. I read novels like these to imagine the future, to dream. I was young, full of hopes and curiosity. It was a surprise to me at first that the CMHR was interested in such artefacts. It was moving to see them displayed with the school sweater. The exhibit felt intimately connected to my story, yet also connected to the stories of so many other women.

This connection to other stories, to other women, and to other conflicts even is especially important when it comes to our advocacy for justice. Based on my own experience and my interactions with women affected by war, justice means first and foremost addressing their needs and the issues affecting them in their everyday lives in the aftermath of conflict. Are those economic needs? Social needs? Do they need acceptance from their family? Their broader community? Do they need medical support? Physical and psychological care? Do they need support to send their children to school, or to complete their own interrupted education?

All of these issues represent justice for them.

Grace Acan works as an Archives Officer at the Refugee Law Project in Uganda and is co-founder of the Women’s Advocacy Network.

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