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Seeds of Peace

Moving Past Life as a Rebel Slave

Young Ugandan Woman Cares for Daughter Born in Captivity

Catherine Ojok runs a small café where customers have no idea of her past. And she wants it to stay that way.
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washingtonpost.com staff writer
Tuesday, July 29, 2008; Page A11

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.

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"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.

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