El Pais Interview with Victoria Nyanjura

This article was published in El Pais in Spanish: https://elpais.com/planeta-fut...

Held in captivity during eight years by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) armed group, Ugandan Victoria Nyanjura was reborn thanks to education and the love of her family. She was able to assimilate her violent experience without succumbing to trauma. Today, from the Global Survivor Network, she amplifies her voice and that of thousands of victims.


28 JUN 2021 - 01:48 CST

Prevalent in movies, therapies and even in realities, the term survivor is now lackluster due to abuse. Its noble meaning loses its power. But when referring to Victoria Nyanjura (Oyam, Uganda, 1982), the word picks up in flight like the phoenix. The Ugandan survived eight years of abduction by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a quasi-Messianic armed group that terrorized the north of the country since its inception in 1987 until well into the 21st century.

A nefarious cocktail of Biblical delirium, a cult to horror and geopolitical calculation fed off of the most vulnerable. It is estimated that some 30.000 minors were forced to take up the arms or serve as sexual slaves. Several years have gone by since the LRA was active, but its founder, Joseph Kony, is still at large, believed to be in the jungle of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Nyanjura was one of the 30 Aboke girls —the name of the Catholic boarding school where they slept— who in 1996 had their school changed for a lengthy torment. They were 14 years old. Some of them did not return home. She was able to escape in 2004 with the two children she gave birth to during her captivity. She was decided to pick up her life right there from where she had been forced to leave it that night in 1996. And, with admirable determination, she was able to create for herself a career focused on making peace take up roots in her country.

After graduating from high school, Nyanjura studied Development Studies in the Kyambogo University in Kampala (Uganda) and a master’s degree in Global Affairs, thanks to a scholarship from the Notre Dame University (USA). She founded her own NGO, Women in Action for Women, which supports the educational and labor rehabilitation of other victims of sexual violence. She currently works as a consultant from Uganda for the International Justice Mission, with headquarters in Washington, and is one of the founders of the Global Survivor Network. In 2019, she received the Ginetta Sagan award, created by Amnesty International to acknowledge the fight for the dignity of women.

Question. You always mention a conference for war victims that you attended in 2013, while you were a university student, as the moment when you decided to raise your voice. Did you surprise yourself that day?

Answer. I found out that the government was offering the same aid package to LRA members and to women who had been rescued. A combatant that invoked amnesty would get the same amount of money that a woman would, when she returned home with two or three children conceived during her captivity. It was grossly unfair. It was very difficult, I felt terrified, but I had to say what was on my mind.

Q. Since then, your activism has contributed to a fairer treatment for girls and women victims of conflict. Have you also helped in the revision of the gender patterns that already existed in Uganda before the war?

A. War itself brought about the change. Conflicts usually trigger consolidated expressions of violence. But they also bring to light other underlying tensions and this facilitates transformation. Men in northern Uganda were stripped of their status in the family, as during the war they were either fighting or hidden. Women had to go out looking for sustenance for their loved ones, risking their lives. And many men have assumed their women are perfectly capable of doing the same things they do. Perhaps too much so... [she laughs].

Q. Are they spoiled?

A. Some of them have become lazy, to the point where some organizations working in the field no longer need to insist that women can contribute to the family economy, but rather that men need to do so, too. Sometimes, if the woman refuses to take on the brunt of the family economy, the man leaves the home looking for another woman who'll accept his conditions. And the woman is left alone with her children, which is another type of violence.

Q. Many that returned from their captivity, especially if they did so with children, experienced and even now experience, stigma. You were more fortunate, since your parents received you in with love and full acceptance.

A. My case was exceptional. Most were harshly judged, marginalized by everything around them. They thought their only option was to look for a man and settle down with him. Some did it and it was the worst mistake they could've made. The husband started feeling the pressure, the importunate questions, "Why settle down with a woman like that? Couldn't you find yourself someone better from the many available?" And in the end, they abandoned their home, leaving the women with new children for the women to rear. Silenced weapons do not equate to peace.

For Nyanjura, justice is a path on to a horizon of stable peace. A safe path allowing all to advance firmly as men and women survivors; a path that gradually becomes smoother for everyone. Treaties and agreements, with their grandiloquent ratifications and vague commitments, can be propelled in the right direction. Even if at times they are nebulous, with their notion of having put the issue to rest, there is a need for holistic, long-term approaches.

Q. You often speak of your need to acknowledge what happened to you and move forward. However, your commitment repeatedly brings you face to face with your past. Are there two Victorias? The one who cares for herself and the one that helps other survivors? Do they ever collide?

A. It is clear to me that you cannot help anyone if you have not helped yourself first. The first thing I had to do was acknowledge what had happened, my suffering, and the fact that I would never be able to change it. From there, knowing that my captivity would always be with me, I started seeing glimpses of things I could do in the future. Not denying my past but refusing to live in it, in mourning, and instead projecting myself into the future.

Q. Going back to school must have been tremendously helpful.

A. At first, I could not concentrate, memories would throng my mind. But the academic demand was beneficial, the tests, having new challenges... Gradually, I came to discard my initial idea --to become an engineer-- and the calling started to emerge to serve my neighbor. The plan took shape to dedicate myself to helping other women who had gone through the same thing I had. My parents told me it was a terrible idea, that trauma would flow back. But I felt I had to be with them. It didn't take too long for my parents to understand.

Q. I guess it is not perfectly sequential: first, you heal completely and then you heal others. Sharing similar experiences can be very healing.

A. One is never fully healed. I still go through moments when I break inside, I collapse. However, to involve yourself in helping others, you need to have worked on a starting point for yourself. It [starts] from there, from appreciating the healing advantage of listening, of the sense of belonging, the happiness in seeing someone else smile when it had been impossible for me to do so before... Sharing is becoming aware that you cannot do it alone. Fixing your eyes on reclaiming justice presupposes the understanding that collectiveness is an immensely powerful force.

One is never fully healed. I still go through moments when I break inside, I collapse. However, to involve yourself in helping others, you need to have worked on a starting point for yourself.

Ever since that conference, when Nyanjura took the step to overcome her fear of public speaking, her voice has gained aplomb. And her actions, an unrepentant determination. Halfway through the past decade, she coordinated the work of more than 500 women with experiences similar to hers. This work included feedback on therapy and the fight. Their final report reached the Ugandan Parliament and was crucial in acknowledging the specific needs of women victims and their children.

Q. When survivors from around the world connect through networks such as the Global Survivor Network, the collective force increases exponentially.

A. It is essential that we are given a voice, to admit we are the true experts in what we went through. Together it will be much easier to claim what we want, to insist that pending topics be discussed, to succeed at being heard in our communities, governments, and international organizations.

It is essential that we are given a voice, to admit that we are the true experts in what we went through.

Q. Many LRA members were child soldiers that had also been kidnapped. They committed heinous crimes, but it is not always easy to judge their level of responsibility, their ability for moral choice. Are these types of dilemmas addressed?

A. They, too, were victims. Up to a certain point what they did was obey orders. But some went further, doing things they could have chosen not to do. These are sensitive matters and nobody has a definitive answer. What alleviates a crime? What exempts it? What is the proper degree of punishment? It has to be considered on a case-by-case basis, not losing sight that a fair peace process is a required condition for a lasting peace.

Q. The conflict in Uganda sheds light on difficult issues about the human condition. How free to choose are we really? Would all of us be capable of committing atrocities when faced with certain circumstances? I do not know if your Christian faith influences your answer to these types of questions.

A. I am a believer, but I do not like to speak as a religious authority, like a bishop or a nun would. My faith leads me to believe in fair justice. If we forgive all, are we being fair to those who lost their lives? They also deserve and demand justice.

Q. How did that 14-year old girl, raised in the Christian tradition, a student in a Catholic school, experience the fact that the LRA's rationale for their actions was "in the name of God"? [Their theoretical objective was to implant a regime based on the 10 commandments.]

A. Sometimes I would ask them, "Must you make people suffer in order to establish the 10 Commandments? Aren't there any other more organized ways to do it?" [She laughs.] Other times, I would see them pray, fast and I would wonder how much of what was happening was by God's design. It was all so confusing. There was also a mix with invocation of spirits... things that are hard for me to understand even today, although I do not believe much in it.

Q. Did Dominic Ongwen receive a fair conviction? [Ongwen is one of the leaders in LRA, who started as a child soldier and was sentenced in February to 25 years of imprisonment by the International Criminal Court (ICC).]

A. I was glad he did not get a life sentence, since he was recruited when he was very young and submitted to brainwashing. The court was aware of those factors.

Almost all LRA members invoked amnesty as offered by the Ugandan government. Top leaders were excluded, Kony leading the pack. The terrible events that occurred in the Northern part of the country activated the first case in July 2004 of the brand new ICC.

Q. Is it necessary to bring Joseph Kony to justice to definitely close the wounds?

A. It is the best that could happen to Uganda. I have no moral dilemmas regarding him. His responsibility is absolute. His selfishness cost many lives and altered the future of many persons.

Q. Have you ever had the impression that you are crossing the line between pursuing justice and seeking revenge?

A. I don't think so. There are things that happened to me for which I am not really sure who was ultimately responsible. Among the ones I do identify, some died during conflict. I would not really know against whom to direct my vengeance. What drives me is the adoption of measures to prevent this from ever happening again. Prosecuting the perpetrators is important, but the idea of economic justice is much more important. To succeed at having mothers and fathers be able to feed their children. That those who suffered the most receive an education and look at the future with confidence.

Q. Your determination to return to school at 22 years of age, to overcome the initial difficulties... were you at all rebellious against your captors? As though refusing to allow them to take your life as you had imagined it before the abduction?

A. I never thought about it. I simply wanted to retake control of my life from the place where I had left it. I loved studying, I just had to continue building on something that was already there. My dream to attend university never left me during my eight years of captivity. I insist: the love of my family, of my sister —who took care of my children while I studied— contributed enormously to my success. In time, external support came, scholarships, the possibility of developing my leadership abilities. Let me tell you another thing: studying helped me to understand that, if we want to coexist peacefully, we have to embrace the other. In the projects I have led, I have never denied anyone help over what they did in the past.

Q. As a model of such psychological fortitude and self-improvement, do you ever find yourself feeling some sort of arrogance towards resilience? As though the complaints of ordinary people, their everyday problems, make you judge them with excessive harshness...

A. I rarely judge anybody. Everyone is going through their own difficulties. The fact that mine were big does not mean that other people's difficulties do not deserve my attention. Thus, I always strive to listen, to encourage others to speak up, to express what is hurting them. I also try to help them from my own experience, be it in a survivor forum or while riding a bus next to someone. When you judge, you close the opportunity for the other person to open up and deepen their own healing process.

Q. Is there racism present in the global attention afforded to massive abductions of girls in Africa? If the girls in Aboke or those kidnapped by Boko Haram had been white, would they have deserved more coverage, more action?

A. Difficult question. What is clear to me is that the approach given to it seeks, above everything else, to grab the audiences' attention, with hardly any context or understanding of what is happening. Or about what happens to the girls when they return home. This prevents others from gleaning the lessons learned, from learning to address the problem in the long-term, and [they should] stop seeing it as a mere incident.

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