Mary

Close to the border of what is now South Sudan, Mary Aluku and the villagers of Paracelle were particularly hard-hit by LRA incursions. Abducted aged 12, Mary returned two years later only to spend years in a camp for internally displaced people (IDP). Meant to protect civilians from the rebels, the cramped camps limited farming, people became dependent on food agencies - many became despondent and turned to alcohol. Today one organisation is trying to battle the legacy of this “dependency syndrome”...but with a hand-up, and not a hand-out.

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Portrait of Mary Aluku
Meet Mary Aluku
I saw a lot of death in my two years with the LRA.
In those days they wouldn’t waste bullets on you – they’d tie your hands and just beat you to death.
I knew it was just a matter of time until it was my turn.
So one night I when I was asked to fetch water I finally decided to make a run for it.
Meet Mary Aluku
Soldiers came looking for me - but I was saved when the Ugandan army ambushed the camp.
I took advantage of the chaos and ran away.
After I escaped I chose not to go to a reception centre like GUSCO because I knew my mother was sick.
I didn’t want to stay in another strange place – I just wanted to see my family.
By 1998, Mary’s family had been forced to move to the large IDP camp in Palabek Kal.
The camps, guarded by the Ugandan army, were a government strategy to move 1.8 million people from rural areas where they might assist the rebels out of choice or fear.
But the camps were little more than rural prisons with movement outside of the camps strictly limited.
Farming was almost impossible and families became dependent on food handouts in the camps from agencies like the World Food Programme.
Many became despondent, turning to alcohol for something to do...
...which in turn led to a rise in sexual violence in the camps.
When I found my family again I soon regretted my decision to not go to a reception centre like GUSCO - I saw other returnees with their sewing machines, saucepans and money.
But what could I do now with an interrupted education and no money?
I experienced a lot of stigmatisation when I returned. Boys tried to court me and they called me names when I turned them down.
And many villagers also pointed fingers at me...
She’s probably one of those that burned our huts.
I think she killed my mother.
Because I experienced so much in the bush, my natural instinct was to turn around and fight these people.
Even when I saw people laughing I just assumed they were talking about me – and I would attack them.
Meet Mary Aluku
After many years, when the LRA was pushed out of northern Uganda into neighbouring Congo, we finally moved back home to our village of Paracelle.
Since then our district of Lamwo hasn’t received much support from NGOs or the government.
And so I'm so grateful that the Grassroots Reconciliation Group (GRG) has come to help us.
Their group counselling has lessened the level of stigmatisation in the community - and it’s helped me cope with my own trauma and how I respond to insults.
Richard Okidi has been a counsellor with GRG since 2012...
The people here are still living with very painful memories, having seen loved ones killed with machetes or having survived massacres.
So with this level of PTSD it’s hard for them to resume a normal life – many become severely depressed, many commit suicide.
And when the new Lamwo region was carved out of Kitgum district in 2009, the already limited mental health resources stayed in Kitgum.
The NGO is helping rural communities like Paracelle with group trauma counselling.
Okidi says individual counselling would be better but with limited funding, he's just one counsellor working with over 20 groups...
Meet Mary Aluku
And GRG has tried to help us in other ways...
They split us into groups...about half of us are returnees and it’s hoped that working together will not only give us an income, but will also further reduce stigmatisation.
They first brought us groundnut seed, cassava cuttings, and orange trees to plant...but they only bred laziness.
No-one wanted to sacrifice their own land to grow these crops on because people need all their acreage to feed their own families.
Why should I give up part of my field for others, or give up time farming my own land to work the communal plot?
Meet Mary Aluku
There’s a 2,000 shilling fine for group members who don’t work - but that’s nothing considering the hard work you do in the field and they still expect an equal share of the profits.
Then we were given 6 goats…but there are 30 people in our group.
It will take years for them to breed and for each of our group members to get their own goat.
And so many can’t be bothered to take their turn to look after them.
Meet Mary Aluku
Our group then wanted to try beekeeping and GRG encourages us to choose projects that will be sustainable and provide an income.
One beehive could yield up to 100,000 shillings so with seven...you can see how much money that is!
But even today most people don’t know where the beehives are or whether they’re producing honey.
Apparently a good place was found – but it’s a 40 minute walk away from the village.
And so people can’t be bothered to walk all that way to check on them.
Even I did not know where the hives were until today...
The acting chief, Michael, had to show me where they were.
We asked other group members if they wanted to join us – but they weren’t interested.
I’d be more interested if I had my own hive.
And in our Luo language we have a saying: "No-one abandons the hunting trap they have set".
But one of the benefits of group work has been what we call 'boli cup' – or communal savings.
We each contribute a small amount every week, and like a bank, members can then withdraw amounts to act as capital to start our own businesses.
I’m now making four to five batches of 'waragi' alcohol a day using dried cassava root.
I can make about 5,000 shillings from a five-litre batch.
That's now my main focus as the group projects haven't been profitable and I have no husband to support me.
But life is still very hard...my husband died and my kids are supposed to go to school, but I don’t have the money to pay for them.
So now I drink to help with the stress in my life...
...and sometimes I start to think, with all my problems, that I just want to drink and escape from life.
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