LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A former child sex slave told on Wednesday how she was kidnapped from her home in Uganda, tied up with other children and marched barefoot hundreds of miles to Sudan where she was repeatedly raped until she could barely move.
Esther Ruth Atim told a global summit on sexual violence in conflict she was kidnapped at nine and brutalised for three years by rebels from the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) during its two-decade guerrilla war in northern Uganda.
"I cannot count how many times I was raped in Sudan by the LRA rebels," Esther told a session attended by actress Angelina Jolie and British Foreign Secretary William Hague who are co-hosting the conference.
"Rape was on a daily basis. I was raped so I couldn’t even move … like a normal (person) ... I could only move like a jumping frog."
Esther said girls abducted by the LRA still faced stigmatisation after returning home to their communities and were struggling to survive after missing out on education.
She called on the Ugandan government to provide education, training, financial support and protection for former LRA abductees and the children they bore in captivity.
The LRA, led by warlord Joseph Kony, kidnapped thousands of children during the conflict which spread to neighbouring countries. Children were used as soldiers, porters, cooks and sex slaves.
Esther was abducted at night from a village in Kaberamaido District in eastern Uganda in 2003.
"We were taken like slave trade with ropes tied tight on the waist," said Esther who still has marks from where ropes were also tied round her arms.
The LRA told her they would her kill if she attempted to escape. One man who tried to flee was butchered in front of Atim and other children.
The captives often moved under cover of night in the long march north. "Children were dying like flies," she said.
"Our clothes were all torn. We were moving barefoot in coldness, in rain, in sunshine. We walked (through) big bushes … We crossed lakes, rivers and swamps.
"There was no food, no water. If you wanted water (you) would force a fellow child to urinate so (you) could drink." The children were so thirsty they would threaten to kill their fellow captives if they could not urinate, she said.
Esther was made to work as a cook but was not allowed to eat any of the food. “I was forced to eat leaves,” she added.
After crossing into what is now South Sudan the rebels put her to live with other children in a tent. She was raped by men of all ages. "If you say ‘I don’t want to’, they kill you."
Esther escaped when she was 12, finding her way back to Uganda, where she eventually received psychiatric counselling.
"I had mental problems. I would get nightmares. I would feel like killing somebody. I would get nightmares as if people were chasing me," said Esther who is now 20, but looks and sounds older.
She said she would like to see her rapists brought to trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Esther was reunited with her parents, but her ordeal was not over. She learnt that during her captivity rebels had killed her brother with a machete. Her mother had been gang-raped and her father tortured.
She was able to return to school but, like other former child slaves, she has faced stigma and hostility.
"They said, 'You are a killer. You killed our relatives and now you are back we are going to kill you'. They stigmatised me."
She has now formed a support group with other girls who were kidnapped. They earn money by working in people’s gardens and making bricks.
Esther's participation in the summit is the first time she has left Uganda, aside from her years in captivity. She says her motivation in sharing her story is to make a change for women and children who have no voice.
"I'm appealing to the Ugandan government at least to give support to former child abductees … They are completely marginalised. They have no voice. They are so silent," she said.
Jane Akwero, Uganda programme officer for the rights group Women's Initiatives for Gender Justice, said abducted girls had not received help under the national plan to help northern Uganda recover from the conflict, which ended in 2008, and to assist survivors.
"I’m sorry to say that most victims feel that they have been abandoned by the government of Uganda since their plight has never been adequately addressed," she said.
LRA leader Kony has been indicted for war crimes by the ICC in The Hague, but is believed to be hiding in the jungles of central Africa.