By Ben de la Cruz
washingtonpost.com staff writer
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
GULU, Uganda -- Catherine Ojok was cleaning off the tables in her windowless cafe when the first customers of the day walked in. It was 9 a.m., and the morning light peeked through the pale yellow curtain hanging in the doorway.
"Catherine, coffee," one customer called out in the local Acholi language. "And katoga," added another, referring to a traditional Ugandan breakfast made with root vegetables.
Her customers know her by name. But they don't know her story, her secret.
For more than 10 years, Ojok was held captive by the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group waging an insurgency in northern Uganda.
Since the conflict began in 1987, the group, known as the LRA, has abducted an estimated 66,000 young people, according to a 2008 report by the Survey of War Affected Youth, an organization documenting the effects of the war. Most are forced to serve as soldiers, laborers or sex slaves.
Ojok was 12 years old when she and her sister Agnes were abducted as they walked to school one day in 1996.
At first, Ojok served as a babysitter for children born in the bush to other abducted females. Then, for five years she was one of 21 sex slaves held by a senior rebel commander, Gen. Raska Lukwiya, the father of her daughter, Harriett.
"All of us were staying in one house, and he could just come and say, 'Today it is you who will sleep in my house,' " she said.
Ojok and another abductee ran away when Lukwiya told them they would become "his wives" as soon as they had their first menstrual period. But the rebels quickly caught them.
"We were told if we didn't want to be his wife, we would be killed. I was 15 years old by then," Ojok said.
Two years ago, the Ugandan military captured Ojok and her daughter and eventually freed them. But her sister Agnes and her baby were killed in a battle in Sudan.
Ojok's first stop after returning from the bush was World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization that provides counseling and vocational training for former captives.
"When they first come back from the bush, we show them that we love them," said Sam Lukungu, a World Vision counselor. "We accept them as they are, and we don't blame them for all that had happened."
But World Vision also warned them that not everyone in the community would be as welcoming.
"When we were in World Vision, we were told each and every day that people have different attitudes" toward former rebels, said Ojok, 24. "Even where I am now, there are a lot of things people say. But some of them don't even know that I was once in the bush. But I don't mind."
Ojok said she is not afraid that people will physically harm her, but their candid talk reminds her to keep a low profile. "Some of the things I hear people say is that they don't want to see or be near someone from the bush like me. 'She might have done some things, certain things that are very wrong like the atrocities committed by the rebels,' " she said. "But for us who have come back from the bush, we know that it can happen to anybody the same way it happened to us."
The breakfast rush passed, and Ojok sat on the cement floor and focused on chopping vegetables for the lunch menu. Wearing a brown print dress and with her hair pulled back in tight braids, she was all business when she worked. She rarely smiled.
When Ojok started the cafe, she worked alongside another former abductee. But the woman left to get married, something Ojok hopes for herself one day.
But for now, Ojok's priority is supporting Harriett, her mother and her siblings, who welcomed her back into their home.
After closing down the restaurant at around 7 p.m., she walked home to spend some time with Harriett, who is 6. They sat together as the sun set. Harriett nibbled a piece of corn Ojok had brought back from the restaurant. Ojok's mother and a sister took a seat beside them on the ground outside their hut. The night air was cool.
Ojok spoke with pride about her daughter's recent promotion in school. She wants to give Harriett a chance to finish school, something she was never able to do. She wants Harriett to have a normal life, an aspiration that for now seems possible because government forces have secured the region.
"I pray that God should help Harriett have a brighter future," Ojok said. "I feel I should not tell her anything about the father because even if I tell her -- what next? I feel that she should just grow up among the children here and feel that she is a sister to the children who are here. Nothing else."