Minefields of intrusive trauma: Aboke abduction: haunting memories of paradise lost

John Otim, Ekkehard Doehring, Sabine Becker


Aboke Abduction 17 Years Later

One night as they slept a group of girls, aged between 12 and 16, were abducted from the campus of their elite school in a village 25 kilometers outside the northern city of Lira in Uganda.  For 4 brutal days they were frog marched through the bush into virtual slavery by the LRA, the rebel army that was marauding in the region.

Seventeen years on mystery surrounds the events of that night. Aboke and the stolen Angels remain an enigma. Aboke has become a byword whose mention elicits a mixture of sadness and admiration. Kathy Cook tells the story in her acclaimed work Stolen Angels: the Kidnapped Girls of Uganda.

The tragedy at Aboke produced Heroines and some examples of the goodness of the human heart. However when the tragedy was ongoing many turned their backs on Aboke. But there were others who gave all they could to secure the release and the safety of the girls, suddenly wrenched from a place that was as close to a paradise as could be.

Stacks of Articles and Wikipedia Entry

With own entry in the Wikipedia and a couple of books and numerous articles written around it that followed, Aboke and its stolen angels have become the stuff of history if not of legend. Today what has been achieved in damage limitation rehabilitation is largely the result of the efforts of the international community. A great deal more remains if the chasm inflicted by the scourge of intrusive trauma is to be overcome or at any rate minimized, at least for the sake of the victims and the communities in which they now live. Today many victims still live in a dazed world, unable to come to terms with the evil that overturned their world 17 years ago.

They are doing it to themselves!

Were the words, you heard more than a few times in the bustling city of Kampala at the time of the cruel crime! It was a regretful and deplorable but popular response to an appalling and outrageous act committed against young and innocent kids. To comprehend the sentiment, you needed to be familiar with the ethnic complexity of the country.

The old antagonism between the south and the north of the country is not yet a thing of the past. The government, the army, the civil service and most institutions of the state are led and manned by people from the south. Mahmood Mamdani, a leading academic teaching at Makerere University has written:

Fully 27 years after liberation that brought the present government to power, the north is still the site of ongoing military occupation

The north after twenty years of war lags behind the rest of the country.

For the adolescent girls the tragedy of the abduction could not have occurred at a worst time in their young lives. In the face of manifest rebel activities around the area, the action of government soldiers assigned to protect them told their own story.

If rebels come for you, the soldiers told the girls, run for your life! Do not depend on us to defend you, and don’t expect us, to die for you.

On the night of the attack heavily armed columns of rebels broke through the perimeters of the school unhindered and stormed the dormitories and carried the girls away.

That evening when word got to the school, that the rebels were on the prowl, authorities at the school were thrown in a dilemma. Should they or should they not vacate the schools at that late hour. If they did the rebels could easily have intercepted the girls. The school opted not to evacuate. What followed is common knowledge.

 With their hands tied behind their backs the girls were driven away like a bunch of cattle headed for a distant market. If their steps faltered and they slowed they were whipped mercilessly. The girls endured but in their minds they crossed themselves again and again in the familiar Catholic prayer of their faith.

Hail Mary Mother of God, full of grace, the Lord is with thee!

The rebels, who grew increasingly hostile by the hour as the day wore on sensed that their captives instead of being broken and subdued after all the beating, had withdrawn into a world of their own. The rebels could not tolerate this. They grew agitated and changed tactics and resorted to the crudity of verbal abuse.

Look at you, they call you angels and they say you are virgins! Of course we can see for ourselves just how fine you look. But watch, today you are in our hands. Tomorrow, as night follows day, you shall be virgins no more. We promise you.

Anniversary Commemoration October 10th 2013

On October 10th 2013 as the day broke St Mary’s College Aboke appeared every bit the paradise local folks say it is. But the school was in a somber mood as it marked the 17th anniversary of the abduction. Faculty, guests, students, parents, along with many of the victims assembled on the woodland campus. They marched to the tune of songs in a parade that suddenly came to a halt before the Shrine of the Abductees erected a few years ago at the heart of the school grounds.

More songs and prayers followed as the assembly paid tribute to the spirits of the Stolen Angels. Then it was time to remember Sister Rachele Fassera, at the time of the tragedy, Deputy Head of the school. No one did more. In the first moments of the tragedy Fassera threw caution to the winds, pursued the rebels, caught up with them, offered her own freedom in exchange for that of the girls, in the end secured the release of all but 30 out of the 139 girls.

In the weeks and months that followed Fassera fought ceaselessly for the freedom of the remaining 30. She carried the battle to doorsteps of the high and the mighty, including Pope John Paul who received her in holy audience, in the hope they would intervene,.

Now the long and eventful day was coming to an end. The sun was setting and the multiple rays of gold spread across the peaceful lawns steadily grew longer. It was time to leave and we left. But our hearts remained at Aboke with the Stolen Angels.