Photography by Jonathan Timmes
Victoria Nyanjura gazes out into a humid, sundrenched summer day in Washington, D.C., as she begins to talk about the night that changed everything.
It was October 9, 1996, and Nyanjura was a 14-year-old student at St. Mary’s College in Aboke, a village in war-torn northern Uganda. After an abbreviated Independence Day celebration of dinner and dancing — cut short amidst rumors of approaching rebels and the frantic attempts of the school sisters to get protection from government soldiers — she and the other students had gone to sleep, the clear night and bright stars bearing no ill portent.
At first, when she heard the sound of breaking glass and shouts to open the doors, Nyanjura thought she was dreaming. But the students who had been sleeping near her were already hiding when soldiers of the Lord’s Resistance Army, many not much older than their targets, began prying at the walls to get around the barred windows and threatening the girls with a grenade if they didn’t let them in.
During the invasion, Nyanjura and 138 other girls, including one of her sisters, were tied together in small groups and forced through the hole the fighters had cut in the perimeter fence. St. Mary’s had been a place of pride for Nyanjura, who grew up in a Catholic farming family in a small village some 50 miles to the west. An Italian priest had recommended her for admission — and now she was being abducted into a sadistic, armed cult of personality led by the notorious Joseph Kony.
As the girls were marched away, a dual chase of sorts ensued: A government helicopter and other army forces pursued the column into the bush, occasionally opening fire; farther back, an Italian nun named Sister Rachele Fassera went after the soldiers as well, desperate to rescue her pupils.
The army relented before Sister Rachele did. After she caught up with the LRA, she managed to secure an audience with a commander, but he refused to release all his captives. Drawing in the sand — as journalist Els De Temmerman tells the story in her book, Aboke Girls — the commander said 30 girls would stay. Jesus had chosen Twelve Apostles, the rebels explained to the kidnapped children; likewise, they had selected 30 “angels” for themselves.
Nyanjura’s story could have ended there, lost in the brutal undertow of postcolonial history, shifting political alliances and millenarian madness.
But it didn’t. Instead, nearly 23 years after being abducted by the LRA and 15 years after escaping from it, Nyanjura is now a graduate student in Notre Dame’s peace studies program — telling her story while sitting inside a glass-enclosed conference room in D.C.’s Dupont Circle, where she spent her summer as an intern at a nongovernmental organization.
“I have a voice,” she says.
The contours of hope changed for Nyanjura the longer she was held by the LRA. The rosaries she at first recited to herself as she and her classmates endlessly walked and camped and dodged bullets and were beaten and raped by their captors morphed into prayers for a quick death. After the Aboke girls were assigned as wives for the rebel commanders — “I can never forget that picture,” she says — and Nyanjura bore two children, a boy and girl, she simply hoped the same bullet would claim them all.
Until her abduction, the LRA had not been the boogeyman for Nyanjura that it had been for much of her country. Its activities to that point were concentrated farther north than her childhood village of Atura, and it wasn’t until she started at St. Mary’s that she heard about the bloodshed and kidnappings fueled by the messianic leadership of Joseph Kony.
Kony had emerged among a handful of rebel leaders after Yoweri Museveni helped overthrow both Idi Amin and Milton Obote in the early 1980s and was sworn in as Uganda’s president, an office Museveni has since held for 33 years. Birthed from a mix of tribal, economic and political divisions, the continuing unrest in the north gave Kony an opening. Using abductions and a mixture of violent repercussions for civilians — cutting off the hands of those who fought against him, the lips of those who called for help and the legs of those riding bicycles — he built a fluctuating group of followers, many of them kidnapped children, who answered to his prophetic declarations.
“We are fighting for God’s Ten Commandments,” Kony once told reporters. “We are fighting to eradicate evil.”
His staying power had less to do with the Ten Commandments than with realpolitik. With Museveni supporting the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in its fight for the independence of what in 2011 would become the neighboring country of South Sudan, the LRA became a useful counterweight for Sudan’s regime. That quid pro quo explains why Nyanjura spent about five years in Sudan, imprisoned in a camp as a prize of the Aboke raid.
The LRA’s position in Sudan eventually soured, however, as international pressure took a toll that was multiplied by increased scrutiny in the post-9/11 world. The Sudanese government blessed a new Ugandan military offensive against LRA bases in 2002.
As the LRA’s position grew increasingly unstable, Nyanjura found her chance to escape. A planned rebel attack near a highway on May 28, 2004, went awry as it encountered more government soldiers than expected. When more rebels joined in as reinforcements, Nyanjura scooped up her toddlers and ran off with a fellow captive who knew the area, the dark night and a serendipitous rainstorm covering their tracks. She took comfort in the finality of her choice: The next day, depending on who found them, would either bring rescue or death.
They waited until dawn before heading out of the wilderness and back onto the highway, hoping that a visible approach would alert government troops that they were unarmed and not interested in fighting. The idea worked. The escapees were discovered and taken to a barracks for interrogation, but any suspicion disappeared when Nyanjura’s companion told the soldiers she was from Aboke.
Four days later, Nyanjura was on her way back to a home she thought she’d never see again. Only then did she discover that her sister had been in the group of St. Mary’s girls released on that first night.
“I was resurrected,” she says.
It took some time before Nyanjura felt comfortable enough to raise her hand. It finally happened nine years later when she was attending a national conference on war victims in Kampala.
She was in some ways luckier than many other women who had escaped. Despite the reality of their imprisonment, rebel “wives” were often viewed as collaborators and bad omens. Some had been rejected by their families, and some had no families left at all.
Yet when she was driven back to her home, Nyanjura saw weeping villagers lining the road and waving tree branches. A catechist and choir prayed. Neighbors and relatives came close and touched her, needing the tactile confirmation that it was really her.
But even celebratory attention made her uncomfortable. Stray comments and questions about her mental condition felt invasive, and a lingering sense of hopelessness — plus the difficulty of believing that she was finally safe — led her to find private places where she could break down and cry.
Within a week, Nyanjura decided that going back to school was a potential salve. Leaving her children in the care of her family, she eventually went farther away from home than Aboke, to a Catholic school in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, some 150 miles to the south. A priest there made sure she was boarded with six other girls who had been LRA captives. In public, they kept the past to themselves. While alone together, they would share their stories and wipe away each other’s tears.
A semblance of peace and normalcy started to grow through the slow passage of time and a gradual return to prayer. And while Nyanjura was a student at Kyambogo University, she found herself willing to speak up during that 2013 conference discussion about the compensation and amnesty offered to former LRA abductees, a policy that implied their complicity with Kony’s rebellion. She told the panelists how the money was insufficient for the long-term challenges the women faced, and how many had signed the amnesty offer simply because they couldn’t read or write, not because they had willingly participated in violence. (Nyanjura had refused to sign.) The moment was an inciting incident for her in finding a new purpose.
“God continued to bless some of us at the expense of others,” she says, “so it’s good to give back.”
In 2014, Nyanjura met Lindsay McClain Opiyo ’14M.A. at the Justice and Reconciliation Project, a Ugandan organization working to secure a reparations fund from the parliament for the health and resettlement needs of war-affected women and children.
“I came to rely on and highly respect Victoria’s nuanced analysis of very complex situations involving programming and advocacy with war-affected women and children,” Opiyo says. “Victoria repeatedly shared with me her dreams and aspirations to continue her studies and do even more for women and children in Uganda.”
Opiyo, who supervised Nyanjura for a second time while she interned this summer at Generations For Peace, a Jordan-based nongovernmental organization, encouraged her to apply to Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs. There, Opiyo said, she could embrace a “mutually beneficial” relationship. Other students could learn from Nyanjura’s background and insight, while Nyanjura could get formal training in peace studies and hone her communications, partnership and fundraising skills.
“I feel I am really placed in a good position,” Nyanjura says. “(Notre Dame) has really created a big space for me.”
While adjusting to life in South Bend is not without its challenges, Nyanjura brings the sort of experience that can wrestle with peace and development theories, says Professor Susan St. Ville, director of the international peace studies concentration in Keough’s graduate program.
“She is just such a model of resilience,” St. Ville says. “She’s seen the worst you can imagine but she is able to value the opportunities. . . . It’s the optimism that always strikes me.”
In 2017, the United States and Uganda officially called off the search for Joseph Kony, who seemed to have disappeared with his dwindling group into the Central African Republic. The head of U.S. Africa Command labeled him “irrelevant.”
Kony’s fate is less important to Nyanjura than what is done to address the suffering he caused. For her, continuing to support victimized women — and their children, who are growing up in a society wary of their rebel fathers’ influence — takes priority over military victory.
“You can’t just move on,” she says. “Women are really facing it all.”
She has always been wary of socially and psychologically trapping her children, “Adom,” 18, and “Faith,” 16, into perceiving themselves through the cracked lens of the circumstances of their births. She admits to having “always tried to keep them away from the reality,” to protect them from the label of “Kony children.” Whenever she went away to school or work, her kids would stay with one of her sisters, crying when they said goodbye.
“It is the dream of every parent to have a bright future for their children, but the journey is never easy,” she says. “It was a great sacrifice.”
Nyanjura plans to air her past with her children this December when she returns to Uganda, although her son has heard rumors and watched some of her speeches on the internet. He confirmed with her the outline of her experience; that longer talk is yet to come.
“I think they will understand. Of course, they will break down, but they will understand,” she says. “I’m also prepared for anything that could happen after I tell them.”
People have asked her, Nyanjura says, if she loves them. The answer has always been yes. “Irrespective of the condition, I love them and always want them to have the best,” she says.
She is not sure whether she will return to Uganda after finishing her degree, or if her work lies elsewhere. A true “home” has been elusive since her childhood was stolen and driven into a clear October night at the point of a gun. The setting, however, matters less than the chance to help victims raise their hands and find their voices, like she did.
“I have to shape the future,” she says. “It’s my duty.”
Liam Farrell is a writer who lives in Maryland.