From captive to budding entrepreneur with a boost from UNHCR

News Stories, 13 October 2011

© UNHCR/J.Katsurama.
Adult literacy classes like this one in Dungu help traumatized women work their way back into normal life in northeastern Congo.

DUNGU, Democratic Republic of the Congo, October 13 (UNHCR) -- Whenever Marie*, just 16, looks at her lively toddler, Honoré*, she has the most intimate reminder of the 25-year reign of terror inflicted by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army on innocent villagers in Uganda and neighbouring countries.

Marie is an escaped sex slave of the LRA, and her son, now about two years old, was born after she endured months of rapes by LRA soldiers. These days, though, she's not focused on the past, but is rebuilding her life and looking forward, thanks to her family and programmes funded by the UN refugee agency.

"The assistance I've received from UNHCR helped me overcome the trauma of my experiences," the young woman says. "Now I feel like I have returned to normal life."

Life was anything but normal after she and her classmates were rounded up by the LRA three years ago from their village in north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), near the border with South Sudan. The armed militiamen left older teenagers behind, and tied the children at the waist and marched them off. They were forced to carry food, clothing and furniture the LRA had looted from her village to the rebels' permanent base.

The LRA kept the children ensnared with what they said was magic oil smeared on their palms and foreheads and threats of death, underlined by the execution of one of Marie's friends after he tried to escape.

That unlucky boy was one of the estimated 30,000 people who died during the LRA terror that also displaced some 2 million people in northern Uganda alone. Today the LRA remains active in neighbouring DRC, South Sudan and Central African Republic.

For Marie, life ground down to days of forced labour in the field and nights of sexual slavery, all the while being forced to fake a cheerful demeanour. She gave birth at what she says was a secret camp set up especially for pregnant sex slaves. She recalls incredible pain without any medical care.

During her pregnancy, the Ugandan military had stepped up pressure on the LRA and in June 2010, Marie managed to escape during a battle. Ugandan soldiers took her and her baby boy back to Dungu, the capital of Marie's district. To her relief, her family welcomed her back and gave her a home of her own on their land.

"I was overcome by a feeling of joy to be reunited with my family again after such a long time," she recalls.

Her first challenge was to begin healing. Marie enrolled in a psycho-social programme run by UNHCR and its partners to help victims of sexual violence overcome their trauma and reintegrate into normal life.

"Continuing stigmatization of former victims of sexual violence remains a huge problem in eastern Congo," says Jorge Holly, head of UNHCR's office in Orientale province. "That is why UNHCR is supporting these empowerment programmes to reduce the risks of stigmatization and social isolation of many of these survivors of sexual violence."

So far this year, UNHCR has provided psycho-social support for 348 women in Dungu, a part of the country where rape is endemic. Literacy classes are helping traumatized women reintegrate into society, while also providing a platform for education on violence against women.

Marie has resumed her interrupted education and hopes to take part soon in a UNHCR programme that teaches women baking, sewing, budgeting and personal finance so they can support themselves.

Because of all she's been through, Marie exudes the maturity of someone far older, and speaks about her experiences in calm, measured tones. Cuddling Honoré, whom she now regards as a gift from God, Marie says that once she completes the new training, "I hope to be able to start my own business selling vegetables, so I can support my child and pay for my education."

* Names changed for protection reasons

By Sebastian Frowein
In Dungu, Democratic Republic of the Congo