Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Would You Rather...

Gulu, Uganda. Recently:

The rain is finished. The sky is overcast and a thick dew encroaches on this wide, windowless conference room. I realize that the interview conditions are terrible. There are too many note-takers here. One of them, thankfully, is a woman, Hannah. But I, unfortunately in this circumstance, am a man. What's worse, our interpreter, too, is a man: Victor Oloya, former abductee of the Lord's Resistance Army, and founder and Chairman of War Affected Children's Association, an NGO based in Gulu. My only consolation, at this point, is that the woman we're going to interview has approached us herself.

The three of us sit in cramped, wooden desk-chairs and create something of a circle around Anena Aginess, a 23 year-old from the village of Awach. Aginess has a small face and smooth features. Her hair is drawn down tight in cornrows. Her front teeth are missing. She pays no attention to the swarm of mosquitoes that harass us. Her head hangs down and she focuses her big brown eyes, her dilated pupils, down at the floor.

We begin with questions that are usually basic, but always churn your guts here. She has two brothers, who live in Gulu, and one sister who lives in Awach. The LRA killed her father in 1995. She has two children, one of them conceived in the bush.

In 1996, LRA rebels ambushed her village, abducted her, brought her to the thick wild of Kalongo in Pader District and gave her away to a rebel commander 20 years her senior. She became a mule, carrying water and supplies on her head for her captors. They beat her when she walked too slow.

The commander who called himself her "husband" raped her and made her pregnant. He forced her to stay at his side in the battles against the Ugandan army. One day, she tried to escape. As punishment, he stabbed her in the right leg with a bayonet. Aginess lifts up her long skirt to show us the scar.

During the battle of Atiak, two years after her abduction, he was shot and killed. She asked her cousin, another LRA commander, to let her escape. She told two of her companions, who were also abused and treated like mules, of her plan. Together, at 4 o'clock in the morning, they fled into the bush towards the nearest town. They found some civilians, who took them to the local council.

Finally, after going through experiences too horrific to relate, Aginess and her friends were free. Back in the bush, rebels found out that her cousin had helped her escape, and they killed him.

When Aginess returned to Awach, the villagers feared that the LRA would return, to seek vengeance. There were no rehabilitation programs available. And, she says, nobody in her community helped her. Eventually she met a man, and they had another child together. But he rejected her first baby, so she left him and moved in with her family.

Now Aginess lives alone. Every morning, she goes to the market to sell fruit. She's trying to start a small garden, where she can harvest crops to sell. But she hardly sees her family and she has little help. Her children are 8 and 2 years old. She worries about their education.

About a million LRA abductees have registered with the government, she says, but there is no government assistance. There are just UPDF soldiers, who themselves are known to commit sexual abuse and violent atrocities.

When we are finished asking questions, Victor, Hannah and I walk back to the center of Gulu. Victor chats with me and ignores Hannah, who walks behind us. The three of us are stuck in an overwhelming quiet, so there is not much to talk about. Victor waves goodbye when we reach WACA's office. When he is gone, Hannah recounts a match of the game "Would you rather...?" We had played it the week prior. I asked, "Would you rather be a man or a woman?"

Now that she's given it some thought, Hannah says, she would rather be a man. It's interesting that she has been thinking about this, I tell her, because so have I. If I could do it over again, I say, I would rather live the life that is undervalued, neglected, even despised, but that is ultimately more admirable, which requires ineffable strength and responsibility in the face of great ugliness, corruption and impotence: I would rather be a woman.