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Uganda's Prayers for Missing Nigerian Girls

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Uganda's Prayers for Missing Nigerian Girls

File Photo: Members of the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram. (Agence France-Presse)

Entebbe, Uganda:  When Jane Kade saw a story on the news eight months ago about schoolgirls kidnapped by armed men from a boarding school on the other side of Africa, their plight resonated with her deeply.

"I had nightmares that night," the soft-spoken 25-year-old, who has shrivelled hands and a scar running up one arm, told AFP. "They are also suffering, like me."

Nearly two decades before Boko Haram abducted nearly 300 schoolgirls from the Nigerian town of Chibok, 139 other girls were snatched from St Mary's College secondary school in Aboke in northern Uganda.

And 11 years before #bringbackourgirls was trending on Twitter, about 16 others, including Kade, were taken from the Redeemer Children's Home and Orphanage in the northern town of Adjumani.

They fell into the hands of warlord Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels, a puritanical and ruthless militia whose leader has claimed to be a prophet.

Before she was kidnapped in June 2003, Kade, then 16, lived in Manyola village with her farmer parents, younger sister and brother. She had reached the final year of primary school and enjoyed singing.

But after her abduction, Kade's days became filled with cooking maize and beans for men who starved their captives.

Still afraid

She lugged heavy bags during the night as the rebels moved from place to place to avoid being caught. When they ordered Kade to kill her own friend, she refused. He punishment was to be shackled to a tree, doused in petrol and burned.

"I thought I would die," said Kade, who was helped and cleaned up by another hostage. "My life was miserable."

Nearly a year later, when heavy fighting erupted between the LRA and the Ugandan army, she escaped.

Freedom, however, proved bittersweet. First, Kade's left side of her body, mainly her arm and leg, was scarred. Then she discovered that her family had most likely been killed by the LRA.

During her six-month recovery in an Adjumani hospital, Kade met a friend of her mother's and went to live with her. But she never returned to school.

"I feared it because people would have abused me and called me a lemur (meaning 'lame' in the local dialect) because I'd lost some toes," said Kade. "It's hard to get used to normal life after captivity."

In 2011 a tailor friend in Entebbe, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) southwest of Kampala, suggested she move in with her.

Kade completed a diploma in design through the Entebbe-based NGO Mindset Development, and now sells the brightly coloured kitenge dresses and bags she makes at the markets. She is even planning to set up her own business back home in Adjumani.

"Even if I feel scared, it is still my home," said Kade, adding she often fears walking in the bush alone. "I think that I'm with the rebels, or they're coming to capture me."

She still wonders about the fate of her siblings, and the two Redeemer abductees who never returned home. And now she's praying for the 219 Nigerian schoolgirls who are still missing.

"Let them be strong," said Kade.

Kony at large

Grace Achan, one of the Ugandan schoolgirls kidnapped from St Mary's College Secondary School in 1996, is also thinking of the Nigeria's missing schoolgirls.

"When I was being held by the LRA it was my dream to go back to school," said Achan, taken when she was 15. She is now aged in her mid-30s.

Shortly after the raid, most of the St Mary's girls were released. But about 30 were held, the majority of them not escaping until 2004. Four were killed and one is still missing.

Some of those who did return are today medical, science and agricultural students; others are only finishing secondary school.

"The government is not helping us, we need school fees," said Consy Ogwal, Achan's mother, adding that 12 girls rely on Canadian-based NGO Children of Hope Uganda for this. After years of waiting, Uganda's Parliament in April voted to provide a gender sensitive reparations fund for Kony's victims.

The LRA was driven out of Uganda in 2006, but remains active in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Last month the United Nations said there had been a "steady increase" in abductions by the group -- with 432 people snatched so far this year.

'Needle in a haystack'

Kony is wanted by the International Criminal Court along with fellow top commanders on war crimes and crimes against humanity charges including murder, sexual slavery and for using child soldiers.

Kasper Agger, a field researcher at anti-genocide advocacy organisation The Enough Project, said the group had been weakened considerably since 100 US Special Forces personnel were deployed to central Africa in 2011. Their efforts were bolstered by an influx of troops and aircraft in March.

Kony is likely still alive but "playing the waiting game", Agger told AFP.

"If he can stay under the carpet, then one day the Americans will get tired and go home," he said, adding the situations in CAR and Nigeria may now be more of a priority for the US than the LRA.

"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack. Of course this mission can't go on forever, right?"


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