The Aboke girls' abduction by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) left mental scars on students, teachers, parents and the entire nation.
One of the survivors of the October 9, 1996 abduction, Esther Acio, recalls that a celebration of any public holiday at St Mary's College Secondary School, Aboke, was always an excitement for students because they would not attend class on that day and would have some entertainment in the evening (maybe a dance or watch movies).
"But on this particular celebration (October 9, 1996), the school was kind of 'cold' or the students felt different (we even had no entertainment) because of the rumour that the rebels were in the vicinity. This time we didn't even go into hiding but prayed to God and asked him to take control of our lives," Acio told The Observer.
"On other occasions when the school management heard of such rumours, they would take us into hiding to some nearby villages (we would not sleep at school). ...we also heard that Sister Rachele had travelled to Lira that afternoon to try and get some soldiers to come and guard us that night," Acio added.
St Mary's College Secondary School Aboke is located in Kole district. It is 25 Kilometers west of Lira municipality. The current head teacher of the school, Sister Anna Maria Spiga, who was a teacher then at the school, recalls that 300 LRA rebels attacked the school at midnight on October 10, 1996, and spent four hours outside the senior one and two dormitories trying to force the girls to open. It was only when the rebels threatened to throw grenades into the dormitories that the girls gave in.
"...The rebels who came inside started to order us to go out, but at the same time they were asking us for gumboots, watches and money... We then moved that night with our hands tied behind us with ropes, and for those given luggage to carry, they tied ropes around their waists and we moved in one line, the rope joining from one person to another. The destination was unknown to us and we kept following the rebels," Acio recalls.
"More than 150 school girls were abducted when Lord's Resistance Army rebels raided their school in Apac district, Wednesday night," The Monitor newspaper reported on October 11-14, 1996. "Maj Gen Salim Saleh who is spearheading the counter-insurgency campaign in the north explained that the UPDF couldn't pursue the rebels for fear of catching the girls in the cross-fire."
"The deputy head teacher of the school, Sister Rachele and a teacher, John Bosco Ocen, followed the rebels into the Gulu bush and negotiated the release of 109 of the girls. The rebels first selected 30 light-skinned and beautiful girls and said they were taking them to their leader (Joseph Kony) before releasing the rest...," The Monitor reported on October 30 - November 1, 1996.
Acio, who was among the 30 girls that remained with the rebels, says she and another Aboke student managed to survive Kony's captivity after escaping during a UPDF helicopter gunship attack in Patongo near the Uganda - Sudan border. Dr Frank Ayo Olyet, who had a daughter in senior three recalls rushing to Aboke on the morning of October 11, 1996. "My daughter, Caroline Anyango Olyet, was among the abducted girls. It was terrible and for the first time in my adulthood I found myself crying," he said.
"I collapsed in the school's compound when I learnt that my daughter, Esther Acio was among the girls retained by Kony. It was devastating. I and other parents were in great shock," Jackson Atwii recalls.
As if that was not enough, when Sister Rachele returned with 109 girls from the bush, riding on a tractor the following morning, Olyet's daughter was not among them.
"What happened was something horrible," Sister Spiga says, adding: "... This should also be a testimony that these things should not be repeated. Never again - but unfortunately, by out nature we have a very short memory..."
On October 12, 1996, the parents of the 30 missing girls decided to form the Concerned Parents Association (CPA) after realizing that they would not go on crying for their daughters. CPA demanded for the immediate release of the girls, stoppage of abductions and rehabilitations of the girls. Out of the 30 girls, 25 have since returned, four were confirmed dead and one is still missing.
"For the returnees, we have tried to put them back to school and some have even graduated as lawyers, doctors and nurses. Some are still in school. For those that returned with children, we have found a way to look after them and send their children to school in order to reduce the burden on the mothers," Olyet said.
In her book "Aboke Girls: Children abducted in Northern Uganda," Els De Temmerman reconstructs the journey of two Aboke girls who managed to escape from the LRA. "Alice, who had been given as a wife to [an] LRA commander, escaped from Nisitu camp in Sudan in July 1999. A Sudanese charcoal man hid her in his house in Juba for five months, forcing her into sex in exchange for protection. She ran away on New Year's eve of 2000."
"A commander of the Equatorial Defence Forces, another local militia fighting alongside the Sudanese army, took her to Torit, close to the border with Uganda. There, she was kept by another man for two months. When she was seven months pregnant, she was marched back to Uganda in April 2000. On the way, in the mountains, she had a miscarriage and almost bled to death. A fellow captive carried her over the border to Uganda," Temmerman narrates.
Sister Spiga says it took time for the school to settle after the abductions. "For several years things were tough because the girls that returned were so afraid that they slept in the villages at night and attended classes during the day. It was difficult to convince them to sleep in the dormitories. The number of students even dropped in 2002/3 when the rebels returned from Sudan. It was only in 2005/6 that the school normalized again in terms of numbers and the increased confidence of the parents."
"We as CPA want government to give reparations to the affected families because of its failure to protect us. For example, some of the abducted girls returned to old, weak or dead parents. Some didn't find [their] homes at all because they had been destroyed and their parents' livelihoods disrupted," Olyet, a member of the CPA Board of Trustees, said.
"We feel that government has not done much to assist us who have suffered because of this war. We might be forced to [consider] legal means because the peaceful negotiations have failed," Olyet argues.
"We absolutely need reparations from government because it is guaranteed to protect us under the Constitution. Before the Aboke abductions, there were intelligence reports that the LRA was in the area and could attack anytime. So, government should have provided protection. What surprised us was that the rebels [spent] five hours at the school and there was no challenge at all from the UPDF. The army only came in the following day when it was too late and the rebels had abducted the girls," Atwii says.
"Before we talk of reparations, we would wish that the girls who returned with children born in captivity are given meaningful education support. Some are so traumatized and need specialized medical attention," Atwii, the CPA Board of Trustees chairman, suggests.
"Some of the Aboke girls who returned suffered from the Stockholm syndrome, a condition experienced by people who are held hostage for a long period during which they become attached to their captors. Others were filled with anger towards their rapists and hatred for the children they had produced. Jackline, who was deeply affected by the news that her mother had died of grief after her abduction, went into shock when recalling the night Kony forced her into sex, holding a pistol to her head...," Temmerman writes.
"...So many people are suffering as a result of the war, so it would be [proper] if the government gave them another hope to live and survive. Besides, some people have been compensated while others have not, I think it would be fair that all should be compensated because they all suffered the same, (or others even more) but have not been compensated or have been promised, but nothing has come of it yet," Acio argues.
"I have already forgiven him [Kony]," Acio says, quickly adding: "Because I felt it was no use holding him in my heart forever. I needed to let go and progress with my life, so I forgave him."
Acio went back to school and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Ethics and Development Studies from Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi and a Master's degree in Peace and Governance from the Africa University in Zimbabwe. She is now a lecturer at Gulu University.