Woe-men’s Experience of War!
Mildred Barya, Uganda
June 11, 2003
"You tell us to be silent. That peace shall return to this land as soon as we learn to keep our mouths shut. Don’t talk about war. You will make it harder for the government. Woeman! How can we be silent when the ghosts of the slain cry out for retribution? How can I be silent when the image of my son torments me?" Amoko, one of the women in the displacement camp inquires.
People grumble when their patience is strained too far. When ‘reliable sources’ speak to the women in war zones, it’s hardly of any comfort. Women have been told that the government is looking into the matter. Every displaced woman will find a home. It’s seventeen years since the government started looking into the matter!
Several women have lived in camps in Northern Uganda since war began. Women whose normal lives were rudely interrupted by rebel activities seventeen years ago. How they cope is an everyday miracle. They have a challenge not only to survive, but also to raise children where basic needs are as scanty as grass on Mars. Because today is difficult, tomorrow is heavier, and a harder word to find in their vocabulary. These women ‘guard’ their lives, the children, and have to make provisions for some men who casually drop by, soldiers and civilians, wanting food, sex, love! How do they possibly make love in the war zone? Peeping into their lives, one is convinced that what they need is protection. A better life outside the camp. Medical care. A cover against Aids. The women laugh. Amoko laughs loudest. She laughs not to remember. She laughs in order not to cry. She has lost count of the many men she has slept with in this war zone. Men that she has willingly accepted, men who have raped her. She laughs because she does not understand the meaning of the word ‘protection.’
When the women go out of the camp looking for food, the men out there pounce on them. Sometimes the men have game birds, or rabbits. Sex is then put on the market scale. You either sleep with the man who holds life in his hand, or you and the other people that you left in the camp starve. Sex is as expensive as a whole meal. The exchange is done. The transaction completed. The cycle keeps repeating itself. The more you go out for food, the more it happens. Sometimes the men are younger than the woman’s sons. But there is no blanket of shame. It gets to a time when the women cease completely to care about age, morality and sex. Unless they are put under hypnosis, they even cease to feel that they’ve ever been raped. To think that their privacy has even been violated. They sense themselves becoming larger persons. Many substances fused into woman. Memory works according to sound. When they hear a gunshot, it is the intimacy between guns and men, the partnership between war and women.
What about the children? The women confess their apprehension when they look into the children’s eyes. Children that have become familiar with blood. Children that have known the times when the men creep into the camp at night. Tired. Hungry. And as always, sexed. The camp holds many lives. The men push the children aside and turn on the women. Sex is their weapon. Their therapy! The women of course become pregnant. Nine months down the road. Babies join the spaceless camp. Children fondle the babies practicing what the adults do. The women protest. They parade naked. Fallen breasts flat on their chests. The men see nothing in the protest. Nothing shooting. At night the men, too full of lust, go for the naked women. The women blame themselves for raising sons. Creation is challenged, new anarchy released.
The women no longer run at the sound of gunshots. At the sight of mutilated bodies on the streets, compound . . . littered all over. Instead, they watch huts and houses burn to cinders. And a surviving, homeless people in a pilgrimage to nowhere!
Death has become some kind of a pal. Women have picked amazing looking-glasses. They reason that death handsomely relieves them of the responsibility to live. Since living is hard, death is a soundboard. And that’s what keeps the women going. The familiarisation with death so in the end they have no fear. It is ironical how getting used to death becomes the very shield that maintains life. In war zones where one cannot afford a counsellor, a social worker, a psychologist, familiarising oneself with death is all there is to cure fear and insecurity.
The other comforting privilege is that these women talk. They cannot stay silent. They have found cohesion in their groups. They talk about their growing up process that is so different from their present life. These women have dreams. They do not promise each other that when war ends they will do this or that. They simply live the moment and claim that their future already began. They have nothing like ‘looking forward to . . .’ They simply live the day. If someone else’s husband brings a rabbit, fine. They live without hate. They talk of forgiveness as creators. They sit huddled together for warmth. Sometimes they sing. Redemption songs. The women in war zones have made a twist to new existence. They can easily convince you that where they are is heaven. Pity is not what they want. They challenge each other to imagine how life would be worse if they were in captivity or if they didn’t even have a camp to call a place of their own.
The women talk and the tongue does not disappoint them. It keeps them sane.
"How can we keep quiet and let our tongues swell in our cheeks for lack of freeness?"
The women in the camp are not terrified any more. There used to be terror when war had just began. When they felt that war was a betrayal and the rebel activities nothing but desperate skirmishes. Then they dreaded the sight of neighbours. They worried about their own sons who would come home and go straight to bed without a word. The sight of uniformed men, civilians, gave them stomach shakes. They have come a long way. They smile and tell you, "It’s good to be alive." Skinny women looking like ghosts, giving thanks that they are alive!
When you ask these women to see their wounds, they tell you that they have none. They get along in the camp, sharing torn cloths as sanitary towels for their menstruation. They warm the healing-tree leaves to relieve each other’s stomach ailments. There is no other gospel. There is no other pulpit that gives a message of love and care better than this displacement camp.
The women have faith that one day, war will be truly over. Gone will be the monotony of pain. And then they will need another long time to adjust and adapt to the period where there won’t be sound of gunshots, rebel activities and promises from the government.
Mildred Barya is a member of Femrite, the Ugandan women writers’ group.