The Little Sisters could barely hear the sounds of the rebel army approaching the first night they were attacked. In Acholiland, after the sun sets, the country hums with a cacophony of insects and other nocturnal creatures. The heavy wooden door to the women's dormitory was old, but thick and strong. After the war started the Sisters began securing it with a metal bar. This night, however the soldiers forced their way inside. Some of the Sisters jumped out of windows, fleeing the compound. Sister Pauline and several others ran to the chapel. Hands clasped, heads down they prayed while the soldiers searched.
Soon the Sisters that had remained in the chapel were being led through the bush carrying stolen goods for the soldiers who had just kidnapped them. The darkness of the jungle enveloped them. Perhaps, frustrated by the slow pace of the women stumbling through the darkness, but unwilling to beat or kill so many of them, the soldiers eventually set them free. Turning towards home the Sisters found themselves face to face with another group; the Nuns who escaped earlier had come to find them.
Two of The Little Sisters peer from their compound in Northern Uganda
Beginning in 1986 the people of Uganda experienced a horrific civil war that would last for twenty years. The majority of the fighting was waged between the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the Government of Uganda. However, it was the civilian population that suffered the worst casualties. At the signing of the final peace agreement in 2008 nearly 2 million people were displaced from their homes and into camps, 100,000 were killed and over 60,00 children were abducted and forced into combat or sexual slavery. According to Human Rights Watch, "Living conditions in the over crowded camps were horrific, and for years communities were largely cut off from basic necessities. The death toll from cholera and other diseases was often higher than from the conflict itself." In addition to the human casualties, the pyscho-social, cultural, and economic damage continue to devastate northern Uganda.
Many have heard of Joseph Kony, leader of the LRA known for the kidnapping of child soldiers. Behind the sensationalism of the child abducting warlord, there lies a different story, this one is about a society working to rebuild and reintegrate. The Little Sisters of Mary Immaculate of Gulu (LSMIG), a group of native Acholi Nuns, have dedicated their personal and religious lives to fighting the negative effects of Uganda's civil war in post conflict Acholiland. The Sisters are pursuing a doctrine of peace; one that means choosing reconciliation over retribution, peace over justice.
Sister Pauline Silver Acayo spent her life dreaming of becoming a nun in the order of the Little Sisters. As a little girl she'd seen them, their serene blue habits flowing neatly around them, covered modestly despite the often sweltering sun. After achieving this dream, despite the war and its atrocities, she let nothing deter her from her work. "People need love and all humans are my brothers and sisters, sons and daughters." She knew, as did the other Sisters, that the war made their work all the more necessary. During the war the Sisters cared for those in need, provided education to those who had none, and fed those who were hungry. These are parts of what they did every day, before, during, and after the war.
Sister Pauline relates: "Once the rebels came into the chapel. They had a female leader. She said 'if you don't leave now we are going to shoot you most of us were hiding under the pews. The priest said 'No, I will not leave mass' and that gave us all resolve. The woman said "I'll be back in ten minutes and if you are still here we will kill you all" the priest continued the mass. When we finished we left and locked ourselves in our rooms at the compound." Sister Pauline's courage is all the more remarkable when you understand just how intimately she had faced the rebels before. When the war started her family's compound was looted and burned. Her brothers were abducted. Later she was kidnapped and only escaped by faking an injury. On a trip home her Uncle was beaten and left for dead, lips cut off, while she lay hiding in tall grass.
Sister Pauline and postulants of her order on thier compound in Gulu, Uganda. The Sisters' work includes hosting radio shows for peace on local radio, mitigating land disputes and holding cleansing ceremonies. They campaign to stop domestic violence and spread awareness of HIV. They have opened multiple schools and an orphanage specifically for those formerly abducted by the LRA and forced into battle. In all of their work, the Sisters focus on returning the lives of their fellow Acholi back to normal. Though they work selflessly, they are a closely knit group because they rely heavily on each other for the support that they themselves need to recover as well.
Perhaps it was the Church's resilience that angered LRA leader Joseph Kony. After 17 years of war the religious leaders of the north provided most of the health and education services as well as refuge to thousands. Kony chose to specifically target these peaceful people. His orders: "Catholic missions must be destroyed, priests and missionaries killed in cold blood and nuns beaten black and blue."
While Kony was using stolen radios to broadcast orders to his troops, the Little Sisters were using the radio to combat violence. When the LRA began abducting children the Sisters knew that they would have to find a way to fight this atrocity. "Children were used to replenish [the ranks of the rebel army] because they are easier to manipulate. They would force them to do terrible things and then tell them that they could never return home because their families would not accept them. They told them that if they left the bush they would be killed." The Sisters used the radio to call the children home. They began broadcasting a simple message hoping to reach those in the bush. "Come home. Your community still loves you." Knowing that the LRA commanders would continue to lie to the children and tell them the message was a trap, the Sisters began recruiting the recently returned 'formerly abducted persons' (FAPs) in order to help assuage fears. "…and we would call to those who are still listening to us to come out. 'your friends are here in the radio' we give them a chance to talk and ask them 'please find your time and come home.'
Forcing a child to participate in savage beating or the killing of a member of their own community was a common practice of indoctrination used by the LRA. Beatings and other severe punishment as well as rewards for what they deemed "good behavior" were further used in the brainwashing and attempted brainwashing of children in the rebel army. Children who lived through such ordeals are the main focus of the Sisters' work.
Rony, seen here with his family, was abducted by the LRA. He tried to escape several times and was stabbed with a bayonet. He was shot at, beaten and forced to carry heavy loads. When he finally did escape he was helped through his ordeal by other civilians, housing him and feeding him, as well as a member of the rebel army who cared for his wounds and gave him medicine. A member of his extended family, Sister Pauline Acayo met with him at a center for returning abductees where he was cared for and assisted through psychosocial healing.
The boys and girls of Mother Angeleta Secondary school walk a long dirt road each day to school. Their uniforms dusty and brown in the dry season or caked with mud around the ankles during the rain. Lessons start early and for most of the year the sun has barely peaked the horizon by the time the sparse classrooms are filled with the sounds of students following their teachers lead, speaking in unison learning the first lesson of the day. The Little Sisters began opening schools like this one as soon as the war ended. They opened these schools as well as orphanages particularly for those who were abducted and those who were maimed by land mines. Many of the challenges of caring for IDPs and FAPs was apparent from the start.
Staring out over the fields surrounding the school, Sr. Pauline draws a long breath and sighs, "At Mother Angeleta we have children who committed atrocities. You can't get healed in a day after committing atrocities." At first, when the students began reintegrating, conflict was widespread. The students did not want to study together. Sister Pauline explains "there was a lot of finger pointing, you killed my mother you killed my brother, if I am suffering it because of you and here you are in the same school." The LSMI in conjunction with other NGO's and relief organizations began forming peace clubs after school. "If you, as a Sister or teacher were to step into all the fights it would not be resolved. It must be resolved between them." They trained students in conflict mediation and the importance of staying peaceful in the schools. "Slowly we began building peace in them and now it is much better now and even some of the students are telling us 'Oh Sister I was able to mediate between my parents."
The Sisters are quick to point out "It is not just the peace clubs, we also have a culture of forgiveness here…you are my brother why should I hate you? You have done something wrong to me but I am a human being I may also do something wrong to you. In Acholi culture, when something happens if you can not move on from it the community will never be in peace. Our culture values peace, togetherness, and brotherhood so much. We understand; when you forgive you are also released."
Acholi culture, like the Christian culture of the Sisters, is based largely on forgiveness and harmony. This culture grew endangered due to the effects of war, but the Little Sisters make a mission to revive it. "Our culture has disappeared due to the war. Like sitting around the fire, usually in the evenings the elderly people train the young ones how to behave. Moral life and all those. But these days it is lost." Many families were living in the displacement camps for so long that there was an entire generation born and raised there. In a camp where mere survival was a struggle the loss of tradition is not surprising.
Another challenge that the Little Sisters found a solution to, in the Acholi tradition, is conflict over land. As the people left the displacement camps land conflicts increased. Returning from the camps a family or entire community might find their land occupied by another community or by the government after having been taken over by it's troops. A lack of land titles, land boundary declinations, or just the changing of the land's markers over time brought about many new disputes. Responding to this, the Little Sisters worked towards peace through the traditional land mediation ceremonies. Under the shade of large tree or the blue tarps of a local market communities gather to air grievances and settle disuputes with the help of the Sisters. Bringing the disputing parties together they act as mediators, calling on the community as witnesses and talking through the problem until it is resolved.
In northern Uganda the extent of the scars of war --physical, socio-cultural, economical, and psychological-- are difficult to imagine but, in the face of the circumstances thrust upon them, so are the many acts of humanity, kindness, charity, ingenuity, and human spirit, that have helped a nearly decimated region survive and move forward. Faith in God, faith in their fellow congregants and faith in a society that has largely chosen to forgive rather than to seek retribution buoys the spirit of the Little Sisters of Mary Immaculate. But even the Sisters need help, they call on each other for support and at times are concealed for trauma themselves. "When i give much i get tired. I feel empty…especially when I've been listening to those [who were] in captivity." But the Sisters do not focus on themselves barely recognizing their personal struggles. "The most important thing is to see that those suffering…That they feel they are part of the human community…accepted loved…and that they have a future. I would say humanity they are my family. I make jokes…I have millions and millions of children. I like making that fun but thats the reality. We look at any human being, especially vulnerable people, as somebody we are supposed to help."
In becoming nuns, the Sisters decided to enter a life of peace and love for humanity. "I think sometimes in Africa they look at girls as those who are supposed to bring dowry. I told them if you are thinking that about me I don't think that is my life. I have a different thing in my mind." Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to be a Nun…the way they loved people…I always wanted to live like that." Their love is not limited to certain people, and they do not choose between those who have done good or those who have committed evil acts. They love all people.
This project was made possible by the Chantal Paydar Foundation
Copyright 2014 Ryan Kellman