Evelyn Amony was just a few weeks shy of her 12th birthday when rebel soldiers from the Lord's Resistance Army abducted her from her village in Northern Uganda. It was the summer of 1994, and for the next 11 years she would endure a series of unfathomable hardships: grueling marches through the mountains during which any child soldiers who lagged behind were beaten to death as an example to the rest. A forced "marriage" at age 14 to the LRA's leader Joseph Kony, with whom Amony had three children — the last one born as Ugandan military aircraft bombarded her refuge. Then, one day in 2005, Amony was among a group captured by government forces, who returned her to her family. It was only the first step on a long road to recovery.
Today, Amony is the chairperson of the Women's Advocacy Network, a group for war-affected women, and the author of a book about her experiences, I Am Evelyn Amony. This week she traveled to New York for a meeting on how to help women and girls in conflict, organized by U.N. Women, the International Center for Transitional Justice and the Liu Insitute for Global Issues of the University of British Columbia.
We spoke with Amony, through an interpreter, about how she was able to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of her abduction. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
A few years after your release from the LRA you started using a recorder to keep an oral diary of your day-to-day experiences as well as your memories of your time in captivity. You started every entry with the words, "I am Evelyn Amony." Why?
It was part of adjusting and getting back to my original self. When I was abducted, I had to use a fake name because if you used your real name the LRA might trace your relatives back home and wreak havoc there. So from the very first day I gave them the fake name "Betty Ato." When I returned home my relatives were still calling me Evelyn Amony. But I was so used to being Betty Ato. It took me some years to start feeling that sense of, "OK, I am Eveyln Amony. I'm not Betty Ato."
Who is Evelyn Amony and how is she different from Betty Ato?
When I was in the jungle and I was called Betty Ato, I only used to have bad experiences. I used to see only bad things. But the Evelyn Amony that I am today, well ... just look! Right now I'm in New York City!
Evelyn Amony is a happy person?
But it sounds like it took a while to get to that point. And the process of recovering was made more difficult by some of the reactions from people after you were freed. What was the most hurtful or ignorant thing they would say to you?
They would ask me questions like, "Why didn't you return sooner? You must have taken so long because you loved Kony." Such questions made me feel so hurt. They just wouldn't understand what life was like when I was there [with the LRA].
They didn't get how difficult it was to escape?
Yes. You know, some people were abducted when they were older, and they had the ability to trace directions and return home. But I was abducted when I was very young, and I couldn't tell that if you take this route you can reach home. So it was hard for me to escape. Also, you know the LRA has so many tactics. They used to tell us if you escape and go back home you will be killed. When a girl tried to escape and she was gang-raped and maybe killed by Ugandan government soldiers they would call all the younger girls to come and see it — to say, "See if you try to escape this is what will happen to you." And there were people who tried to escape and were caught [by the LRA] and killed. Very ugly scenes, that if you've seen that you decide to stay with the LRA and not try to leave.
Was it hard to explain all this to relatives and friends?
Yes, when I first returned it was just so hard for me to respond to questions, I would just keep quiet. There were secrets I didn't want to tell anyone. And when I did start to tell my relatives they would start crying so much I would have to stop. But the process of writing the book gave me the courage to express myself and to tell the difficult stories I wouldn't have told. I've given copies to my father and my brothers and they are reading it, so I think they will be able to understand.
People also had a hard time understanding your relationship with Joseph Kony — the LRA's leader. On the one hand, he was among the men most responsible for your abduction and suffering. On the other hand, he was one of the people you came to depend on to survive.
In the beginning, just after I was abducted, I was taken to a certain place to be killed. And it was Kony that came and saved me and said I shouldn't be killed. Then another time, when I was drowning in a river, it was Kony who jumped into the water and pulled me out. So it is very hard to know if people can understand what I went through with regard to that relationship. Some of the ways in which I lived with him can be seen by people as me liking him. But I want people to understand that the times I had with him that were good were a way for me to remain alive and give me the opportunity someday to return home.
What has it been like for your children by Kony — your daughters Bakita, who is 19, and Grace, who is 11. (Her middle daughter, Winnie, disappeared during bombardment by the Ugandan military while Amony was still with the LRA and has never been found).
My children are not welcome in my village. Community members say to me: "Our children were abducted by the LRA. They were killed by the LRA. And now you bring LRA children here — Kony's kids here and we have to take care of his kids when he killed our own."
But clearly this is not your view.
These are your children. They came out of your body and you don't want to just let go of them, however much your family does not like them. So you find yourself torn between wanting to care for your children and the reaction of your family members.
How have you resolved this?
This is the reason I don't take my children back to my home village. Because they don't love my children. But I continue to go back there because that is our home. They can't tell me I can't go. But I don't want my children to deal with that.
Do you worry that your children will grow up feeling bad that they were the product of a forced marriage? Have you discussed it with them?
I am not yet ready to explain to my children that they are a product of a forced marriage. But my eldest she knows. She remembers some of the things. And she's read my book. And certain things she's told me make me feel she understands. After reading the book she told me she wants to study hard to become a lawyer and to advocate for the rights of other women who go through this experience.
You are in New York to meet with other survivors of these kinds of abductions along with people who work to help them recover. What are the lessons from your own journey that could benefit others?
The first stage is to get psycho-social counseling. Secondly, there is a need to stay very close to the people who are returning from the jungle — you shouldn't leave them to live on their own. Another important part of the process is for those who have gone through this to stay together in groups. When you can provide peer support to each other and just tell each other the stories about what you went through together, that's what makes you feel good.