Columnists > Voices
Ronald Odongo

The long defeat

The tomb is empty but stones too large to roll away confront us still

Issue: "The schools that Arne built," April 11, 2009

Catherine Ajok alighted from a plane in Uganda last month as nearly reborn as a woman can be in this life. She looked haggard, older than her 26 years, but able to smile in the tempered way of one dead brought back to life.

Catherine could be one of the women approaching the tomb on Easter morning murmuring, "Who will roll away the stone for us?" For they knew that it was too large to handle.

Catherine is the last of the Aboke schoolgirls to be set free by either death or escape from Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). If you had been Catherine these last 13 years you might believe that death and captivity are nearly the same. Kony, a cult leader bent on taking over Uganda to make the Ten Commandments the law of the land, has been running a brutal guerrilla war for almost 20 years. Catherine and her schoolmates, aged 12 and 13, were asleep on the night of Oct. 10, 1996, when LRA soldiers broke into St. Mary's, a boarding school in northern Uganda. The soldiers rounded up 139 girls at gunpoint, tied them together, and herded them into the darkness.

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An Italian nun, Sister Rachele Fassera, took all the money she could find from the school office and headed into the bush after her students. She reached the rebels and was able to barter for the return of 109 girls, but even after offering herself in their place, the rebels refused to release the remaining 30.

Catherine cries now recalling the moment Sister Rachele departed with the freed girls and the soldiers took her and the others to rebel camps where they were divided among commanders. At that moment, she said, she dedicated her captivity to God.

"We were beaten, tortured, and taught to kill. Through brainwashing and abuse, we were made to believe that the rebel leader, Joseph Kony, was a disciple of God who possessed supernatural powers," she recalled upon her return. The girls would be forced to cross the turbulent Nile headwaters and live in armed camps in Congo and Sudan where they often were so near death several mistakenly were buried alive. Catherine became one of Kony's dozens of wives, and she returned home with a 21-month-old boy named Happy she says he fathered.

Where is this victory o'er the grave when 13-year-old girls are defiled in the death camps of the world today? Let us skip to the happy ending, the winner's circle, the finished work, the empty tomb. There we are tempted to forget the chaos, injustice, abuse, sorrow, and stench of death weighing on the women headed to Christ's grave, weighing on us still. Like the Aboke girls' our hope is that Christ was born, walked our world, died as a sacrifice, and is alive. To practice that hope we make common cause less with the world's winners and more with its losers, practicing what aid pioneer and physician Paul Farmer calls "the long defeat." It's what Sister Rachele, parents, church leaders, countless others have done since the Aboke girls became international symbols for thousands of children kidnapped and abused in Uganda.

Eventually all Aboke girls but Catherine escaped; five were killed. Then last December Kony got wind of an attack coming from Ugandan forces on his camp in Congo, and he ordered out her and others. With bombs falling, she became separated from her group and "wandered in the wilderness for days and nights all by myself and the baby." She came face to face with a lion and escaped. She and Happy survived on groundnuts and scavenged for water. Congolese soldiers tracked and found her at gunpoint, then turned her over to the Ugandan army. On March 15 she was reunited with her family at a ceremony attended by President Yoweri Museveni and watched by the nation.

"Just know it has been God that saw me through the 13 years. But I went through a lot that has put a heavy weight of pain in my heart," Catherine said.

"And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover" (Mark 16:17-18).

-For further reading see Girl Soldier by Faith J. H. McDonnell and Grace Akallo, and Aboke Girls by Els De Temmerman

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