Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The struggle after the war

Abeja is one of the many women struggling to survive the horrors of war. Her home is a few kilometres from Barlonyo, where the LRA massacred over 200 people in a single attack in February 2004. Abeja was captured in 2002. She was a wife and a mother of six children. She was captured along with a daughter and a son by Uganda's feared rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and was forced to join them. But not before the soldiers made her kill her one-year- old baby girl, by smashing her skull in, and then gang raped her. Abeja can’t remember how many men they were; she says there could have been 10 to 15. She doesn’t know what happened to her son or if he’s still alive. Like many abductees, Abeja had to kill or be killed. In her four years with the LRA she tells IPS she can’t recollect the number of people she was forced to kill, but she puts the number at more than 40.

The LRA fought in the north and north eastern parts of Uganda for 23 years. The war, which forced close to two million people into internally displaced persons camps for decades. Thousands of people died as a result and the war was characterised by its use of child soldiers and the conscription of civilians into the rebel group. The LRA were forced out of the country in 2006 and are currently operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and western South Sudan.

Since the war ended in 2006, people went back to their original homes and depended on emergency aid. A recovery and development plan was put in place in 2009 by the Ugandan government but this has not covered the emergency medical needs of the population. Most of the money went into building new blocks of health units and rehabilitating the destroyed ones.

In Ogur, Lira in northern Uganda, Abeja has come to a temporary medical camp run by Isis-Women’s International Cross Cultural Exchange (Isis-WICCE), a women’s organisation working with women in conflict and post-conflict settings. The camp is specifically for women with reproductive health complications, which they have mostly sustained from being raped during the almost two decades of war. For most of the women here it is the first time they have been offered special medical attention since the war ended in 2006, and for many it is the first time they have been treated by a doctor. It is also the first time that many of these women have ever spoken out about the violence they had to endure. Dr. Tom Charles Otim, a lead gynaecologist at the camp, says Abeja has lived with a prolapsed uterus for years now. Uterine prolapse – the descent of the uterus into the vagina or beyond – is one of the long-term complications associated with sexual violence. In Abeja’s case, her uterus is hanging out. She will need surgery, which costs about 200 dollars, to remove her uterus. She and 39 other women are referred for treatment to a regional hospital many kilometres away. A majority of the women seeking medical treatment at the camp have chronic pelvic pain as a result of pelvic inflammatory infections. "The infections are high here; because of the war, the women were not able to access medical care early," says Otim. This has had an effect on the women’s sexual lives and the majority of them have painful sex. Many women who have come to the camp have fertility problems.

Abeja not only has to live with the physical scars of the rapes but the psychological effects as well. She and women like her have to endure intense stigma from the community. Her husband rejected her after she returned, and left her to raise their four surviving children and her child from the war. Fighting back the tears she wonders: "Do they think I wanted to be abducted and raped by the rebels? Do they think I wanted to kill my own child?" Women like Abeja need more support than just surgery.

The district health officer in Lira, Nelson Opio, says that "When war ends, there’s a silent war that has to be fought.Politicians here think they will just put up structures so they can say ‘This is what I did during my time’ and ignore people’s real needs." .

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