26 February 2014

Uganda: In Gulu, a Brother's Search for His Missing Sister

The United States is more than doubling its deployment of special operations forces to help search for warlord Joseph Kony. President Barack Obama ... ( Resource: U.S. Doubles Troops Searching for Warlord Joseph Kony )

A northern Ugandan man has spent the last nine years looking for his sister. Strange though it may sound, his only hope is that she was taken by Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army.

"Every time I heard that abducted children had returned from the bush, I would rush to wherever they were staying so I could ask them if they had seen my sister," says Charles Oketa, 32.

It was on 5 May 2005 that Christine Ayaa went missing. Then 28 years old, Ayaa disappeared while living with her family in a displaced persons camp near the Gulu district. She had gone to the garden to collect cassava to cook for her young children. When she did not return in time, the family became worried. At first, they thought she had gone in search of her estranged husband who was living in another displaced persons camp.

"Ayaa and her children had been living with us for four months. She had left her husband after some misunderstandings that the family was still trying to resolve. So we just assumed she had returned to him," says Oketa.

It was only when one of their elder brothers visited the husband's home that the family came to accept that Ayaa was truly missing.

Not alone

But Oketa and his family are not alone. At the time, Kony's LRA was very active in northern Uganda. The rebels were known to abduct and kill people - many were children - who did not want to be recruited as soldiers or wives. Survivors were often taken to neighbouring areas, such as in present-day South Sudan, where the LRA had camps.

And six years after the collapse of the Juba peace talks that sought a ceasefire in the 20-year conflict between the Ugandan government and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), many families still don't know what happened to their loved ones.

In a survey carried out in 2012 by the Justice and Reconciliation Project, 56 percent of Ugandan families in the Acholi sub-region still had a relative missing as a result of the conflict. Of those respondents: 60 percent had one relative missing, 24 percent had two relatives missing and the remaining 16 percent had three or more relatives missing.

No resolutions

Oketa's search for Ayaa took him to the four established rehabilitation centres for former child soldiers to ask whether anyone knew something about his sister.

"We went from one centre to the next, but no one could confirm that they had seen her or witnessed her death," recalls Oketa. "Many of the abducted children changed their names so I suspect that my sister changed her name or was given a nickname by the rebels, and that is why no one could recall her."

Many abductees were killed in battles between the rebels and the Ugandan army, or died while trying to return to northern Uganda.

"They could have been killed by wild animals, or got lost in southern Sudan, or drowned while crossing a river. So I cannot tell whether my sister is alive or not," says Oketa.

Ayaa's disappearance meant that Oketa had to take on the care of her three children.

"Their father chose to ignore them," he explains.

Still, despite claims by the Uganda Army that very few LRA rebels and abducted children remain in the bush, Oketa hopes one of them will turn out to be his missing sister.

"Some families whose children are still missing have carried out funeral rites for their lost ones. But we haven't done so for Ayaa. We still have the hope that she could be alive," he says.

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