She wants her face to be seen. It’s not what you might expect—she’s not trying to get justice or retribution. Ester Abeja wants to show her face as a victim of gang rape, of abduction, of torture and daily violence, to be the image of a woman who has been forced to kill her own child and her own people. She wants to be acknowledged. She is a survivor of Uganda’s long-running war, but Abeja knows she is also a symbol.
When I first saw Abeja’s photo, I studied her oversized brown T-shirt, uneven hair, and mournful eyes. I wondered how a woman survives what she has and raises five children, one of whom is the product of her forced time in the bush with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). She has a 6-year-old boy who is the outcome of rape. Kids like hers are known as “Kony’s children,” after Joseph Kony, the LRA leader whose pseudo-religiosity has reportedly led him to feats of spirituality like covering himself with termites or spearing himself with the sun for days.
I came across Abeja’s story because of a Ugandan blogger named Rosebell Kagumire, who the U.S. Department of State recently nominated as an Internet Freedom Fellow. Kagumire wrote about Abeja after meeting her at a gynecological health screening in Lira, in northern Uganda, at the beginning of August. A Kampala-based nonprofit called Isis-Women’s International Cross Cultural Exchange (Isis-WICCE) will soon offer surgeries to 40 women to fix everything from uterine prolapse to fibroids to UTIs. Program Manager Helen Kezie-Nwoha said her group screened more than 400 women in a few days; it was the first time most of them had seen a gynecologist in years—local hospitals have lain fallow from the 23-plus years of fighting, and are often staffed with only a midwife if anything. Abeja is suffering from uterine prolapse as a result of her multiple rapes. In her case, her uterus is hanging out of her vagina. Her surgery will cost about US$200, Kezie-Nwoha said.
Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.
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“When they abducted me, I had my 1-year-old baby girl and the boy,” Abeja told Kagumire, explaining that rebels took her with only two of her six children. “A few kilometers away from home, they forced me to kill my child. I hit her head on the tree and she died.” After this, the rebels raped her. Abjea said she could not remember how many men there were but that there may have been 10 to 15. The men “pushed different objects” into her and cut her with machetes as she was attacked, she said.
Abeja showed Kagumire scars on her arms and thighs. She said she does not know what happened to her son.
The LRA rebels then took Abeja forcibly as a “wife,” a not uncommon outcome for women caught up in Uganda’s war. Also not uncommon is sexual assault—93.5 percent of forced wives said they were sexually abused or forced to have sex with a man, according to a study funded by UNICEF and published on the blog of Christopher Blattman, a Yale professor of political science and economics. During her four years as a bush wife, Abeja was also as a soldier, telling Kagumire she was forced to kill more than 40 people. Her eyes have seen unimaginable atrocity. Studying the two-dimensional face in her photograph, I asked myself: How can she live fully ever again?
“Being forced to do the unthinkable—such as kill someone, especially one’s own child—in my view causes a permanent scar in the psyche that separates that person from the rest of the human race,” said Karestan Koenen, an associate professor at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and at Harvard University who studies trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. “Recovery is compromised because the victim is not just a victim, or someone who is wronged, she is also a perpetrator. She cannot feel self-righteous or merit compassion because of the crimes she has committed.”
Beyond this self-abnegation, reintegration into home villages is difficult to impossible for many women, partly because the community doesn’t want to fold back in what they see as violent criminals—not to mention that rebels, including the abducted women, were often forced to kill their relatives in their own villages.
“Those who were never abducted don’t understand,” Kagumire told me. “They look at the women as rebels. They were forced to kill and have no support system.”
So after the double whammy of self-hatred and outside rejection, the women also face physical obstacles in returning home. They have often been bullied out of the rights to their land while they were gone, said Kagumire, and have a hard time finding work or government support to get them on their feet. The fact that they had been “married” while in the bush leaves them in a precarious spot as women who appear to have made a choice to leave their lives behind, to have a “husband,” and to return home with outsider children.
“Everybody knows that in the bush they had husbands—they don’t even see that they were forced,” Kagumire said. And when they return home, she said, “Men want nothing to do with them.”
Another brick that constructs the psychological fortress in which these women become imprisoned is the refugee camp they inhabit after returning from the bush, often for years. More than 2 million people were confined to such camps in Uganda in the last decade, according to the UN Refugee Agency, and about 250,000 internally displaced people remain in camps or transit centers—where social norms have disintegrated, HIV rages, and taking handouts becomes essential to survival. These lengthy stops along the way home are often the sites of heavy drinking and drug use, and sexual violence, according to the UN.
“We think of violence against women as being associated with war, which it is, but it also increases in post-conflict settings—in camps or when returning to home communities,” explained Gitta Zomorodi, a program associate who works on Africa for the Jewish World Service, a New York-based international development organization. “Women have taken over as the heads of home; men are feeling emasculated. Domestic violence increases.”
Abeja told Kagumire in their meeting that “many times” she has considered killing her husband, who abandoned her with all their children to take two other wives. With no family but the child she brought home from her captivity, the defeat shows in her slumped shoulders. I worry that even if Isis-WICCE raises money for her surgery, Abeja has a life of pain to face ahead of her. Koenen agrees.
“The biggest determinant of recovery is the response the victim receives from her community,” Koenen said. “The stigma prevents the community from giving her a supportive response, and unless addressed directly, my view of her future is dire.”
Yet by having shown her face, Abeja has let us know she is here, she is alive, she is trying to live. And by having written about her and shown the world her photograph, Kagumire has not only given Abeja visibility, she has acknowledged that she and women like her have endured horrific violence. The blogger has told a large community—the international community—that we must look directly at these women. That it is time to stare into their mournful eyes and not turn away. It is time to act.
To donate money toward Ester Abeja’s or 39 other Ugandan women’s surgeries, please contact Isis-WICCE’s Lorna Nakato at [email protected].
Lauren Wolfe is the director of the War Against Women Project on sexualized violence and conflict at the Women’s Media Center in New York. She is the former senior editor of the Committee to Protect Journalists, where she wrote “The Silencing Crime: Sexual Violence and Journalists.”