In Conversation with Victoria Nyanjura
My story dates back to the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group in Northern Uganda. The LRA was characterized by the abduction of young boys and girls, often from schools, taking them into captivity. One of the schools that was affected was my school, St. Mary’s College Aboke – a Catholic girls’ boarding school – where 139 girls were abducted by the LRA in 1996. The head of our school, Sister Rachele Fassera, negotiated with the LRA to return all of the girls; the LRA allowed 109 to leave, but kept 30 behind.
I was one of the 30.
I was 14 years old. My life changed completely. I spent 8 years in captivity, returning to my family with two young children in 2004. All the studies of LRA violence have described what the Aboke girls and other captives experienced: the working, the beating, the sexual violence.
Read more of Victoria’s story in her alma mater Notre Dame Magazine.
On Returning Home and Rebuilding A Life
I had so much support: my parents are alive, and my whole family welcomed me back. I had a sense of belonging because of my family, and I had support from friends around the world.
If your family loves you – even the neighbors and community will respond positively. When I came home, I learned that every day I was gone, my family prayed the Rosary for me. My community welcomed me back, and my church.
But that wasn’t the same for others in the same situation. If you have no family, then it is very hard. In some cases, the families were killed in massacres or died in the camps. Many families were afraid and ashamed to take back children who had been captured and victimized by the LRA.
For me and other survivors, there are immediate needs. For me, an immediate need was to take care of my children. I also needed to have a goal for the future – something to look forward to, instead of looking backwards. What I needed to do was study. With the support of one of my sisters and her husband, who cared for my children as if they were their own, I was able to go back to school in Kampala. Other supported me with school fees.
Resuming my studies was very difficult. I had been away for 8 years and had had no schooling at all during that time. Sometimes sitting in class triggered memories. I was abducted when I was in secondary level 2; when I returned, I started at secondary level 2. My marks were low, but later I picked up and started performing like any other kid. I continued my studies and was able to complete high school and go on to college.
Before the abduction, I had dreamed of being an engineer or an accountant. But when I came back and went to school, my ideas changed. I thought, “I need something that will take me into community work.” So at the university I opted to take development studies.
On Survivors Helping Survivors to Heal
I met a Ugandan organization, the Justice and Reconciliation Project in 2013 in Gulu. The organization worked on research, documentation and advocacy in the local communities and helped victims of the LRA return to normal life. They invited me to an exchange program organized for women who had suffered violence from across the region.
There were about 100 women at the workshop. I think I knew 90 percent. When they saw me, they were so excited. They couldn’t believe that people like me existed, because I had been in school and hadn’t gone back to northern Uganda. Hearing the survivors’ stories, seeing their body movements, I would really feel it because I know what it means. I would be overwhelmed by thoughts of what I’d listened to. I couldn’t share it much with other staff; we shared these things among ourselves. It is what we all went through. There is no stigma; you can’t stigmatize somebody when you have experienced the same thing. The survivors in the program told me: “We let you know so you can talk about things.” It is always easier for us to share these things among ourselves. It is what we all went through.
Because of that experience, I became so passionate about the plight of these women and seeing how we could work together to tell our stories and ask for support.
Seeing my engagement with the survivors, I was invited to become part of the team at the Justice and Reconciliation Project so that I could directly work with women who had returned from captivity. Some of my relatives were worried about my getting involved. My father was afraid that it would stir my memories. “You need to heal and put all that behind you.” But my family listened to me and trusted me to make a decision about what I needed to do, and they supported my desire to work with women who had gone through what I did.
When I remembered things that had tortured me for some time, I had to make a decision to continue. I tell survivors: It is important not to give up on life. Acknowledgement of what you’ve gone through or are going through is very important. Once you acknowledge it, it is easier to start thinking through how to overcome it and engage with others. If you don’t acknowledge realities, then you live in denial.
I have friends, who experienced what I did, and I have seen how they have grown. But there are also those who have never acknowledged, what happened, or don’t understand. They think, “I wish this had not happened, why did it have to happen? Why did God punish me?” Yet if you come to appreciate that: “I went through this, it was against my will, it was not the future I wanted,” you can move forward.
On Raising My Voice
My first public presentation was at a war victims conference in Kampala in 2013.1 One of the things discussed at the conference was the impact of the blanket amnesty for the LRA on the women and mothers. The captured women with two or three children received the same benefits package that the LRA soldiers got. I just found myself wanting to raise my hands up to talk. It was so unfair to give the same amount of benefits to mothers who had returned with children as were given to individual LRA men themselves.
Speaking up was frightening. I had never done it before. At that time I was really raw, but I just said it because I’d heard from women. I didn’t know how my family would perceive me. I didn’t know how it would affect my personal safety. But I felt like certain things are not coming out that I kept hearing women talk about.
Once I did speak out, I realized that I have much to do out there. Speaking up motivated me further. Journalists and donors wanted to know my perspective.
At the beginning I didn’t have somebody to mentor or guide me. I just did everything within my capacity. People created platforms for me and helped me speak nationally and internationally. And I started speaking without any fear. The time came that I didn’t mind when somebody near me says “I was abducted.” The more you talk about it, the more people see it as a normal thing. For me, it is easier. I have my family and friends around me. I have friends within the groups I work with; it is an advantage that not every survivor has.
Note: Victoria coordinated the efforts of more than 500 war-affected women to provide input into the Ugandan government’s post-conflict policy and program. Her work resulted in the Parliament of Uganda unanimously passing a resolution to address the plight of women survivors of northern Uganda’s conflicts, and the adoption of a National Transitional Justice Policy that considers the unique gender justice needs of war-affected women and their children born out of sexual violence.
Her work was recognized by Amnesty International in 2019, when she received the Ginetta Sagan Award.
On Overcoming Obstacles for Survivor Participation
I disagree when people say survivors are not willing to speak, because I am one of them. Service organizations should pay attention to the stories of the survivors. Not every survivor wants to speak out, and that decision should always be respected. But there are those who wish to speak. They should be supported and provided opportunities to do that.
Survivors need people around them to support them, to listen to their story, to learn of their difficulties and needs. Supportive people around the survivor gives her the ability to speak and engage in her own communities – like working, education, skills training.
One obstacle to survivor participation is stigma. The Justice and Reconciliation Project had a radio program where different women would be invited to talk about what they and their kids are going through. Afterwards we used to invite listeners to ask questions and offer advice. We used those questions to enlighten the community about what we survivors had gone through. The program helped dissipate stigma; people came to learn that the reality of survivors’ experience.
On Listening and Engaging with Survivors as Leaders
It is important to pay attention to the stories that victims/survivors continue to tell. Those stories have messages.
For those working with survivors of violence, it is crucially important to engage survivors in different stages of planning. If you engage them, you won’t leave out the needs they have. Their needs will change over time. If you engage them at different stages of planning and make them own the process and become part of it, it will be sustainable, with or without you. If you are working in that direction, you can give survivors options.
It is important to go beyond individuals. If you can interact with the community where they live, it is important. The solution for survivors’ problems lies in our communities.
In the journey I have gone through, I have seen the need to provide economic empowerment to survivors. Individuals will not feel that justice has been served if they don’t eat or their kids don’t go to school. As survivors, it is important to demand what is right for us. Women can never fail to work in community. They know the importance of supporting another person because someone or some people supported them.
To be a survivor advocate, somebody needs to guide you. If I had not gone to school. I don't think I would be able to raise my hands and speak. It is the same for organizations and agencies that want to be survivor-centered; somebody needs to guide you. I have been working with IJM to develop a Survivor Leadership Toolkit – this is to help teams in different countries design programs and deliver services that will not only benefit survivors but engage survivors as stakeholders.
In the IJM Survivor Leadership toolkit, we say that before survivors can engage, it is important to build their capacity that helps them to do more than what they’ve been doing on their own. How can you document your own experience, then share within your own survivor groups to encourage others to speak?
On Standing Up and Moving Forward, Together
As we continue to think of how to create change, we need to know what the individuals really need. The process of solving that helps them to stand up.
The other thing for survivors to know is that your voice matters. If I had not been for my family and my education, I could not have spoken out. We need a Global Survivor Network for survivors who don’t have my advantages.
There are many examples of survivor leaders effectively advocating for change, and there are groups on the ground doing this right now. The Global Survivor Network brings us together to support one another, and it creates an opportunity for us to bring solutions at the international level.
I always told people: I don’t have much to complain about because there are certain things that will never be repeated. That keeps me strong. If I am going through something, I know there will be an end to it. There will be life after that.
The journey is challenging for survivors of violence, but once you make up your mind and get support you can realize that dream. I am happy for who I am. I have a photo of when I returned [from captivity] and I don’t recognize myself. I must keep it to see how good God is.