She was forced to marry a warlord. Now, she’s helping survivors heal.

Why We Wrote This

Rebuilding your life means searching for safety, stability, and belonging. But that last one’s tough when few people understand what you’ve experienced – and others reject you for it. This group helps survivors reconnect.

Erin Baines/Women's Advocacy Network
Victoria Nyanjura, Grace Acan, and Evelyn Amony (from left to right) look over Lake Victoria in Entebbe, Uganda. The women are leaders of the Women's Advocacy Network, which supports survivors of conflict in Uganda.

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Evelyn Amony was only a preteen, walking home from school, when she was kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Joseph Kony’s rebel group waged war in Uganda for two decades and abducted 30,000 children along the way.

At first, she was treated as a house servant for Mr. Kony. But one day, he called her to his house alongside his two dozen wives, and announced Ms. Amony would marry him, too.

“I asked him, ‘How can I be your wife when up until this point you have called me your child?’” she recalls. “He said, ‘You have no choice.’”

Eight years later, she was finally freed, along with her children, only to find her family had disowned her. She wasn’t alone. Many of the women forced into marriage by the LRA have faced similar heartbreak, and poverty, as they try to rebuild their lives. And Ms. Amony and other survivors decided to do something about it.

Today, their organization, the Women’s Advocacy Network, helps reunite returnees with their families – often in-laws, if women’s parents won’t accept them. They help each other find job training, raise money, and seek comfort, as they share experiences few others can understand.

The crowd ululated and cheered as Santa Aber and her daughter stepped out of the dust-streaked car. Nearly all the residents of this small village in northern Uganda had come out to welcome the women to their new home.

Two decades ago, at the age of 14, Ms. Aber was abducted from a nearby village by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group that waged a violent civil war in this part of Uganda from the late 1980s until the mid-2000s. She escaped in 2005, with a daughter she’d had with an LRA commander she was forced to marry.

But she couldn’t go home. Her family refused to take her back, as is true for many children abducted by the LRA. And so, for the next 15 years, she lived alone in a run-down hut, washing clothes for local families.

Then, last year, she heard about a group called the Women’s Advocacy Network (WAN), which helps reunite LRA abductees with their families. Her own family wouldn’t accept her back, she knew, but perhaps the family of her daughter’s father would. The group began quiet negotiations on her behalf, and two months later, she was here.

It was an unusual homecoming – to a place she had never before lived. But as she stepped into Atanga that day in February, Ms. Aber felt relief.

“I have a home now,” she said, her eyes filling with tears.

WAN founder Evelyn Amony, who had brokered the reunion, watched the scene with a biting mix of joy and anguish. This was the 54th time her organization had reunited an LRA abductee with her family, bringing an end to years of wandering and suffering.

And each of those 54 times, she wondered when her own turn would come.

John Okot
Evelyn Amony (in red) poses with community members in Atanga, a village in Uganda where she recently brokered a reunion between a woman abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army in the 1990s and her in-laws. The LRA abducted thousands of children during two decades of conflict.

From child to wife

In 1994, when Ms. Amony was a preteen, she was kidnapped by LRA rebels while walking home from school near Gulu, northern Uganda’s main city.

By that time, the LRA had been fighting a brutal guerrilla war in northern Uganda for seven years. Its goal was to overthrow the country’s national government, which had subjected the country’s north to decades of neglect and abuse, and establish a theocracy.

But the LRA struggled to find recruits. So it simply began to kidnap them.

Children were an easy target. According to the United Nations refugee agency, the LRA abducted at least 30,000 children between 1987 and 2006. Boys became soldiers. Girls fought too, and many also became “wives” to the army’s commanders.

Ms. Amony was 14 and working as a house servant for the LRA’s leader, Joseph Kony, when he called her to his house alongside his two dozen wives.

From this day forward, he announced, Ms. Amony would be his wife, too.

“I asked him, ‘How can I be your wife when up until this point you have called me your child?’” she recalls. “He said, ‘You have no choice.’”

Eight years later, Ms. Amony and her three children were in an LRA camp in what is now South Sudan when the Ugandan military attacked. In the chaos, she grabbed for her children, but only found two sets of little hands.

“I watched my [other] child slip through my fingers,” says Ms. Amony. “I have searched for her ever since.”

The Ugandan military took her into custody for eight months. When she was released, she went immediately back to her home village, only to find her family had disowned her.

“They would often say, ‘Kony’s children are still alive but our children are all buried,’” she says. (Ms. Amony had also adopted two of Mr. Kony’s other children, whom she met while in Ugandan custody.)

Healing together

So she left for Gulu, where she enrolled in a government-sponsored tailoring course at a local Roman Catholic school. Soon after, in 2006, she was chosen to represent former abductees at a series of peace talks between the LRA and the Ugandan government.

The experience was a revelation: She was not alone – or powerless.

Ms. Amony and a group of women she’d met at the peace talks and in Gulu decided to form a small organization to help each other save money. They called it Rwot Lakica (God is Merciful).

As membership grew, and the women grew close, they began to speak to each other about the traumas they had endured at the hands of the LRA. For many, there was a deep relief in breaking the shameful silence around their experiences of abduction, rape, and captivity.

Soon, the group began helping survivors tell their stories more publicly – at community gatherings, on radio talk shows, and in a book they published about women’s experiences under the LRA.

Renaming itself the Women’s Advocacy Network, the organization also formed small groups in villages across the region, where women can talk about the challenges of coming home, from stigma to poverty to the pain of searching for lost loved ones. They’ve helped each other find economic security, too, with job training and livestock purchasing programs.

One family at a time

But their work, at times, has seemed endless.

The two-decade LRA insurgency had led to the deaths of 12,000 people in northern Uganda and uprooted 1.5 million people. By 2009, the LRA had been driven out of Uganda, and its hostages have slowly trickled back to their homes. But they continue to face rejection, particularly children fathered by LRA rebels and their mothers.

Ms. Aber’s father, for example, said he could not welcome her back into their home because “you had [a] child with the devil.”

In cases like this one, Ms. Amony – who first met Ms. Aber when they were both being held by the LRA – and her team act as detectives. They ask the abductee to tell them anything she can remember about her child’s father: family name, clan name, village, lineage, and family stories. Then they use their own network of informants – WAN’s more than 900 members across northern Uganda – to find the family.

It didn’t take long to establish that Ms. Aber’s child’s father came from a village called Atanga. From there, Ms. Amony brokered a meeting with local leaders, and eventually with the man’s family.

Yes, the family said, their son had been abducted too, and yes, he had died while serving as an LRA commander. They agreed that Ms. Aber and her daughter were their family too, and promised to take them in.

On the evening of the reunion, as locals continued to ululate and dance to a convulsive local beat called lakubukubu, Ms. Amony watched from afar. She was happy for them, but another thought pressed down on her, heavy and aching.

“My plan is to continue helping as many returnees as I can,” she says. “But I hope my daughter will one day return back home.”

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