The sky was bright the evening Eunice met Bosco in the forests of southern Sudan. The year was 1996, and Eunice had recently been kidnapped by rebels who called themselves the Lord’s Resistance Army. The LRA was in its prime at the time, able to raid villages in Uganda’s north and abduct children. Eunice, a thoughtful 15-year-old girl with closely cropped hair and inquisitive eyes, was visiting her older sister at school when rebels surrounded the building and took all of the students. “We had no idea they were coming,” Eunice told me.
The girls were forced to trek through the bush of northern Uganda for two weeks, cooking, doing laundry and fetching water for the men. Eventually they stopped in an area of tall grass and thick, looming trees. More men, including LRA leader Joseph Kony, were assembled. “I was so scared and there was nowhere to run. They were everywhere,” Eunice said. The men began plucking girls from the group. A boy named Bosco appeared in front of Eunice. He was wearing rain boots, a green military uniform and a matching cap over his bushy Afro.
One of the men nudged Bosco towards Eunice, and told him, “This will be your wife.”
Eunice was still wearing her best black cotton skirt and white blouse. Her sister had just died in a military ambush on the rebels; death, she thought, would make more sense than what was happening to her right now. “We felt that maybe our time had come,” she said.
“You’re blessed that you’ve come to me. We thought that you girls might refuse us. You’ll be OK,” Bosco told her. Kidnapped himself three years prior, Bosco was 19. He had felt himself become hardened to the killings his superiors commanded him to conduct, he said. When he first saw Eunice, he immediately had fantasies of a new family that would replace the siblings and mother he had been forced to leave behind. “She was beautiful,” he recalled.
Eunice was repulsed: “I thought, I have no interest in this man. How will I get to know him when I absolutely do not want to be with him?” He led her to what would be their “marital home”: a fragile bush hut constructed of tree branches with a tarp laid on top. When she refused to sleep with him, he raped her.
Eunice and Bosco now call home a modest hut that sits on land owned by Bosco’s family, a sheet of green covered in beans, cassava, corn and banana trees. Their village lies just outside the bustling northern Ugandan town of Gulu. I was introduced to the couple last summer through the Refugee Law Project, a Ugandan organisation preserving the testimonies of war survivors, many of whom are suffering from untreated post-traumatic stress.
The day I first met them we sat outside on small wooden chairs. Heavy clouds hovered above us; it was the height of the rainy season. As we talked, Eunice and Bosco, who have been here for five years, told me how much they revelled in the tranquillity of the place. Both farmers, they work in the fields in the morning, go to church on Sundays and play with their children – three daughters and two sons, the youngest of whom is two months. But Bosco, now a quiet, lanky 34-year-old with an easy smile, still worries.
“When I first returned, some of the neighbours said behind my back that I have killed a lot of people,” Bosco recalled. “They said the government of Uganda is very stupid; instead of killing me, they rescued me.” In 2000, as part of its peace plan, the Uganda government set up a blanket amnesty for rebels who escaped or surrendered. Not long after, Bosco returned home. And, like many of his comrades, he did not come alone. He brought his “bush wife” Eunice.
Eunice and Bosco are one of several known couples that decided to reunite once freed from the LRA. Many probably exist throughout the north. As the Ugandan government’s hunt for the LRA stretches on – Uganda has been forced to suspend its search in Central African Republic due to a recent coup there – rebels have been sending home their bush wives and children, armed with letters instructing their families to take the women in. When, or if, the men escape, the young mothers agree to marry them with surprising frequency.
Families across the north have told me how they watched with dismay as their daughters chose to reunite with the men to whom they were assigned. Though the soldiers, not just their bush wives, were abducted as children, their actions were, in countless cases, appalling. While the LRA no longer operates in northern Uganda, communities are struggling with its aftermath. The returned couples serve as daily reminders of people’s frustration with the viewed lack of accountability for what has happened to them.
Santo Lazech, an official at the Acholi Cultural Institution, a traditional authority of the Acholi people (who populate most of the north), told me that the unions were “disheartening.” “They defeat my understanding of family and love,” he said. “Do the women not reflect back on the time of abduction? What about their feelings of humiliation and oppression?”
Eunice knows that many consider her relationship unthinkable – but she has learnt not to care. “I couldn’t imagine being with someone who had not faced the same conditions in the bush,” she said. She and Bosco both credit the other with surviving a devastating conflict – and want to be together to endure an increasingly difficult present.
“With Eunice, I believed that we could begin a new family,” Bosco recalled thinking when they met. “She was the first person in the bush I wanted to love.”
The months following their first night together were strained. Like the other men, Bosco usually slept outside to guard their hut, either in the bush of southern Sudan or northern Uganda. Inside, Eunice, depressed and afraid, lay on a grass mat longing for home. Even as Bosco continued to force her to sleep with him – he told me he did so to please his commander – he set about finding ways to win her trust. When LRA leaders asked her to participate on looting or abduction trips, Bosco would lie and say that he had ordered her to perform other tasks. He shielded her in battle. And during periods when most in the camp had little to eat, he managed to rustle up water and bread to surprise her.
“I would tell him my fears and he would encourage me,” Eunice recalled of their first years. “I started feeling free with him because I thought he was the only one who could help me.”
Bosco had much in common with Eunice. Both grew up near Gulu. Both felt abandoned by their fathers. Eunice’s father did nothing to support his mother. Bosco’s father had two wives and often left his family to fend for themselves. “He pretended that he loved us but he didn’t really,” Bosco recalled.
Like Eunice, Bosco was taken when he was just 15. “I was so worried that at any time, any day, the rebels could come for me,” he said. They finally did one night, filling the compound of his extended family. They took more than 40 children who, they said, were at a good age to be trained. Bosco was beaten and given a heavy gun to carry. His older brother was killed.
Bosco and Eunice came to see their fellow soldiers as replacement families for the ones they had lost. Bosco had an almost childish attachment to Eunice; it was as if she were an old playmate – someone who would help him to erase the painful past. By the time Eunice and Bosco had their first child – four years after she was given to him – they were spending as much time together as they possibly could. “We were happy to have each other because we thought we were all we had left,” Eunice recalled. “We didn’t fear death because we knew it was inevitable.” Kony reassured his child soldiers that they would rule Uganda one day. The couple imagined a life full of food and comforts once Bosco was a rich government minister.
But three years after the birth of their first child, Eunice confessed to Bosco that she still thought about what it would be like to go home. He admitted that he had been thinking about it, too. A radio station in Gulu broadcast messages from rebels who’d escaped or surrendered announcing that it was safe to return; LRA commanders would angrily turn the radio off, saying that the messages had been recorded before the army executed the returnees.
Bosco was unsure what to believe but he had seen other men let their wives escape. Eunice was pregnant again, and having difficulty carrying their son, a gun and cooking supplies as they fought and fled the Ugandan army. One morning, he finally helped Eunice leave while gathering firewood. “The plan was that Eunice would escape and then go to a rehabilitation centre, and then our children would go to school,” he recalled.
Bosco told her the name of his home village, wished her well and guarded the route she took into the forest. “If they had found out I had freed her, the others would have followed her and killed her,” Bosco said. With her baby on her back, food strapped to her stomach and a jerry can of water on her head, Eunice walked away from the camp and didn’t stop walking until night fell.
Three months passed before a familiar voice appeared on the radio. It was Eunice, telling him that she was safe in Gulu with their son. When LRA commanders asked Bosco how she escaped, he told them that she had wandered out of his sight during battle. They believed him.
After a fitful night in the forest, Eunice and her son had come upon people working in a garden. They dropped her and the child at the army barracks in Gulu. After a few weeks at a rehabilitation centre she heard that her mother was alive and went to find her. Her mother was overjoyed to see her daughter and grandchild.
Bosco’s mother had also heard Eunice on the radio. She sought her out. “She asked me, ‘Is my son really alive?’” Eunice recalled. “I told her that he would try to follow me, and she asked if I was sure that I would wait for him. I told her I would. I had his children and I believed he was coming. I did ask myself, if I had not had a child with him, would I still wait? I was having nightmares. I needed someone who understood what I had been through, and I was praying that he would come back and that we would be together.”
It was early 2005 when Bosco showed up at the home of Eunice’s mother, Margaret. By then, Eunice had been back for more than a year. They hugged deeply. Bosco asked Eunice’s mother if she would allow Eunice to join him in his village. Margaret refused. She blamed him for all the misery Eunice endured. Later, she agreed to let Eunice marry Bosco if he paid a dowry. Eunice was furious. In an explosion of anger, she burnt down her hut on her mother’s compound. “I was so happy to see him and had been afraid that he would not come back,” Eunice told me. “I thought of him most of the time, particularly when the children were sick and I needed his help.” The prospect of losing him again was terrifying. The next day, Margaret let them leave. “Her mother said, ‘To hell with them,’” Bosco recalled.
Evelyn Lapat, a former counsellor at a rehab centre, has helped many young women returned from the bush. Lapat herself was abducted for about three months in 1997. “Some of the women decided to go back to men who had once beat and raped them,” Lapat told me. “They asked me, ‘When our children grow up, they will want to know their father, so why not go back to him now? What can I do?’ It was a rhetorical question; they had made up their minds.” When the women and their children reached her centre, the men’s families would find them and offer to take care of them.
Many of these young women had had little schooling before they were abducted; their employment prospects were bleak. Trained at the rehab centres as tailors, they set up shop in markets only to find no business. Customers whispered that they were dwogocenpaco (“come back home”) and avoided their tables. Even if the women’s families were able to house them, they often didn’t want their children around. With rebels as fathers, the children were supposedly cursed with toxic spirits. Going back to their bush husbands appeared to be the best and only option.
But not all women even had this. Kenneth Oketta, prime minister of the Acholi Cultural Institution, told me that he had seen numerous instances where women tried to find their bush husbands after they joined the Ugandan army. But when the women came to the barracks, the men said that they wanted a new life. “These single mothers without family support are traumatised,” Oketta said. “They have to rent somewhere in town or live like a refugee. Survival here means access to land, which is family land.”
“He has wasted me,” the women told Lapat. For the most part, she said, they went back to their bush husbands not out of love, but because they felt ruined. Indeed, women like Eunice, who say they genuinely love their bush husbands, are rare.
The women’s psychological dependence on the men became entangled with the Acholi value of belonging to clans. When a couple has children, the man’s clan becomes responsible for the care of the woman and the children. “They may not be happy or in love but they have clear consciences that they are taking care of their children,” Lapat said.
Ida, now in her early thirties, also chose to live with her bush husband. At 14, she was assigned to Michael, a commander who was also abducted as a child, and had two children while in captivity. He let her escape in 2004. Ida did not recall her time with him fondly. But when he returned a year later, she rushed to see him. Now she lives with him and says they have begun to understand each other. She feels that she has made the right decision for her children. She even told me that she loved him but then later admitted, “I cannot say anything about love because I don’t know the meaning of love.”
Another of Michael’s wives in the bush, Jacqueline, resides in Gulu, where Ida also settled. A hairstylist with dyed spiky hair, she told me, “I’ve told him not to come where I am, and that he can’t see my child. When I see him on the road, I refuse to greet him. I was so young and he treated me so badly.” She loved fiercely the child she had with Michael, but reluctantly let him live with her grandmother. Her parents and new partner, who helped her move on, refused to accept the son of a rebel.
“My relationship was very good with my wives; if I got injured, they were the ones taking care of me. They never left me,” Michael told me. He acknowledged, though, that their loyalty was partly out of fear of him. A tall man who wears tinted glasses over a missing eye (he lost it fighting), he spoke in terms of practicalities rather than emotions. “I was abducted, Ida was also abducted. We had to be together in order to survive in the bush.”
Often the bonds that tie or divide these couples are much more difficult to explain. Pamela Anena, 28, is a willowy singer who was abducted at 13 and assigned as wife to one of Kony’s bodyguards. She spent nearly two years in captivity. While she resented him for corrupting her childhood, she empathised with him. After she escaped and made it to a rehabilitation centre, his family made regular visits to see her. The bodyguard eventually died in battle, but Anena told me, “I would have considered being with him if he had come to my home to ask my parents.”
To Eunice and Bosco’s surprise, Eunice’s mother came to apologise a few months later. The couple, who had been living in a refugee camp, finally moved into a hut of their own. But by then, Bosco was drinking. The farming was gruelling and he was having severe stomach and chest pains. Then there were the challenges of feeding his children – their second child, a girl, had been born – and paying their school fees.
Eunice assumed that he was drinking out of frustration with their son. The little boy was having seizure-like spells, and they thought he was suffering from trauma. Bosco would bark orders at her, behaviour that reminded her of the rages he would fly into when they lived in the bush. “I was not happy either – but he chose to drink,” Eunice recalled, crying for the first time during our interview sessions. “It hurt me so much.”
His relatives intervened and eventually Bosco began to reduce his reliance on alcohol. He started to receive counselling from a local organisation, and carpentry training from another. Eunice tried to push down the memories of the bush and quell her doubts about Bosco. Nearly all of the women she knew who had escaped were with their rebel husbands. “I wanted to be with him, to be happy in our marriage,” she told me.
It was not easy to join community groups that might have provided support. Eunice and Bosco both wished they had undergone a proper mato oput or reconciliation ceremony or– a ritual guided by elders that brings victims and perpetrators together in a process of confession, compensation and forgiveness. Instead they had merely gone through a welcoming ceremony. Resentments lingered.
When their son became sick, neighbours complained they had brought back evil. People would stop Bosco and ask if he was the one who killed the son, or daughter, or brother of a community member. He would tell them that he had not killed anyone from the area but they refused to accept his answer. “I could tell from their moods that they did not believe me,” Bosco recalled. Later he admitted to me that when he was first abducted, he might have killed residents from around here but he just could not remember.
Last year, Uganda rescinded its amnesty programme, rendering the status of LRA fighters who have recently returned home unclear. Returnees have to be turned over to the Directorate of Public Prosecutions for possible referral to a War Crimes Court after the government decided, in agreement with western allies, that high-ranking LRA officers should be punished. While the government is unlikely to prosecute ordinary soldiers, the shift has raised tensions brewing just beneath the surface. The fighters and ex-bush wives who settled near the people they may have once harmed are, like Eunice and Bosco, increasingly tormented by their former communities.
“Amnesty was not as popular as it once was, now that people have to live with ex-fighters,” Oketta told me. “It looks at peace only. If there was community reconciliation, a truth-telling forum, people could bring cases and say ‘Mr so-and-so abducted her and up to now we have not seen her. Yet here he is walking free. Can he not tell us where she is?’ Then community leaders can come in and reconcile them. But now everyone is left on their own, and feelings are smouldering.”
Bosco and Eunice are still nervous about their place in the community. “I really want to be free, to move anywhere I want, but I’m very suspicious that if I have to go to the people I used to know, they will not be happy to see me,” Bosco said. “And always, I’m suspicious that anything can happen to me.” He tells his children to come home immediately after they finish school. He limits his social interactions and errands to church (he and Eunice have become born-again Christians) and the trading centre.
He cannot stop thinking about a friend he had in the bush. When his friend escaped, he initially stayed in a refugee camp, where he was harassed because he had been forced to kill a person in the community the refugees came from. One night, a group of people came and burnt down his hut; his wife and children burnt to death and he was shot with a bow and arrow. Bosco had nightmares about the people he killed; they would tell him that it was their turn to kill him now. “I think there are many people who could be planning revenge on me,” he said simply.
Eunice wants to rent an apartment in town where people would know nothing of their background. “I don’t know how we will all live together since the war has still not ended,” she said. “If fighting resumes here, we could be identified as people who were once in the bush. And then what would happen to us?”
Alexis Okeowo is a journalist based in Lagos, Nigeria.
To comment on this article, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published