Heart of forgiveness: Ugandan women once child soldiers now lead peace

“… I noticed… not a single woman or religious nun was able to give a voice [during peace week]. They didn’t even invite one! When we’re talking about peace building, I expected them to say, ‘Let’s take some of these women who were deeply affected by this conflict to give their voice, to find out how they are involved in peace building, what their roles are.'”
– Sr. Rosemary Nyirumbe

Editor’s Note: There are so many untold stories of hope throughout the world. Sadly, ‘Good News’, is seldom the focus of national newspapers and international magazines. I remember once the Anglican Bishop of Gibraltar came to Dublin to give the Christmas Truce Lecture on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was a beautifully framed, researched and inspirational message about the impromptu truce that broke out along the Western Front on Christmas Eve 1914. Despite having been informed, not one newspaper thought his visit and message worthy of coverage.

Later that evening, I was driving the Bishop to a Christmas Truce concert on the south side of Dublin. We were reflecting on the lack of interest. The Bishop laughed uproariously when I said to him, “The sad reality is, if I were to stop the car now, drag you outside and clobber you, it would be all over the papers and television in Ireland and Britain tomorrow.” One can see the headlines: ‘Archbishop of Canterbury’s Special Envoy to Dublin viciously attacked by thug.’

Yet, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Special Envoy did come to Ireland with a timely and inspirational message but he was ignored.

All of this highlights why we Christians must seek to be proclaimers of the Good News in both word and deed. And more specifically in deed: ‘Proclaim the Gospel. If necessary, use words’.

Below is a truly inspirational ‘Good News’ story of the work of religious sisters in Uganda with women and children who are recovering from the trauma of war.  It is written by Melanie Lidman, Middle East and Africa correspondent for Global Sisters Report, a project of the National Catholic Reporter.

As Pope Francis reminded the world to pray for peace on January 1st, Sr. Rosemary Nyirumbe hopes the message of the women of northern Uganda will reach forgotten corners of the world where conflicts are just beginning to fade and wounds are still fresh. Sr. Rosemary is overseeing the creation of the Transformative Peace Education curriculum, part of a partnership with the University of Oklahoma that gives survivors, not academics, responsibility for designing the program.


On a sunny day last January, the St. Monica’s Vocational School for Girls in Gulu, Uganda, was full to bursting. More than 5,000 people covered every inch of the verdant campus, celebrating the Gulu Episcopal Provincial Annual Peace Prayer Week, which culminated Jan. 13, 2017, with a celebratory Mass.

“May each heart not promote violence! May each mouth not promote violence!” The words of Msgr. John Baptist Odama, archbishop of Gulu, echoed across the school grounds.

Two decades ago, Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army stormed St. Monica’s with guns firing, searching for children they could coerce to be new soldiers. But on this day in January 2017, the bullet holes that still pepper the ceiling of the classrooms were contrasted against thousands of people outside, clasping their hands in a prayer for peace.

Sr. Rosemary Nyirumbe, displaying some of the famous “pop-top bags” made by students and graduates of St. Monica’s school, was frustrated that no women were invited to speak at the 2017 Peace Week, so she took matters into her own hands. The pop-top bags are sold around the world and help provide a living for students and graduates of St. Monica’s Vocational School for Girls in Gulu, Uganda. (GSR photo / Melanie Lidman)

Sitting among the crowd was Sr. Rosemary Nyirumbe, the former director of St. Monica’s school.

“I was very observant, and one thing I noticed was that not a single woman or religious nun was able to give a voice [during peace week],” said Nyirumbe. “They didn’t even invite one! When we’re talking about peace building, I expected them to say, ‘Let’s take some of these women who were deeply affected by this conflict to give their voice, to find out how they are involved in peace building, what their roles are.'”

As a result of the male-dominated peace week, Nyirumbe decided to gather some women in Gulu to create their own peace forum. “We women should give a voice to ourselves, why are we waiting for other people?” she asked.

Pope Francis marked World Day of Peace on January 1st by offering a vision for a more peaceful world in the coming year, a message Nyirumbe hopes women will take to heart.

Sr. Nyirumbe is also overseeing an effort to write a women-specific “peace curriculum” with survivors from northern Uganda’s years of terror. The curriculum will use real-life examples and methods that have helped women in Gulu, teaching women in other post-conflict areas how to find peace both within themselves and within their communities.

Sr. Nyirumbe says peace building requires a two-pronged approach: Women must achieve financial independence through both formal schooling and practical skills training; these lead them to a sense of empowerment well beyond subsistence survival. Then the real healing can begin. The women must forgive themselves and find calmness within before they can turn outward and begin to heal the rifts in their society, she says.

Bullet holes in the ceiling

Workers at the St. Monica Restaurant, which is open to the public, prepare lunch. Many of the employees of St. Monica’s are former soldiers and the work has helped them reintegrate into the community. (GSR photo / Melanie Lidman)

St. Monica’s, like much of northern Uganda, still bears the physical scars of the years of unrest. Starting in 1989, more than 30,000 children, both boys and girls, were kidnapped in northern Uganda and forced to commit atrocities against their own villages in the 25-year war led by Kony.

Kony, a self-described prophet bent on overthrowing Uganda’s long-time president, Yoweri Museveni, instructed his followers to kidnap children as young as 8, brainwash them and force them to burn down homes and rape and kill their neighbours. The violence displaced more than 2.5 million people in northern Uganda and left 100,000 people dead.

Children called “night commuters” crowded into the hallways of St. Monica’s each evening, walking miles each day to have a safe space to sleep, hiding from the kidnappers.

The Lord’s Resistance Army eventually crumbled into disarray as the kidnapped children escaped, and the war petered to a halt. The International Criminal Court issued a warrant for Kony in 2005, and the Ugandan government attempted to negotiate for peace starting in 2008. President Barack Obama sent special forces troops in 2012 to try to capture Kony in cooperation with the Ugandan army. The US Department of Defence spent $780 million over six years in pursuit of Kony, though the operation ended last spring without Kony’s capture.
Weakened to only a few hundred fighters, Kony withdrew from northern Uganda years ago and is now believed to be in hiding in the Central African Republic, Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As the conflict ended and the kidnapped children emerged from the bush, they had to return to the same villages they had pillaged. Many communities shunned the returnees, because the children’s presence was a reminder of the things they did and people they killed, a reminder of impossible loss. The process of reconciliation, some of which uses religious leaders to conduct traditional tribal forgiveness ceremonies, is ongoing.

Girls faced an even greater challenge than boys in the process of rebuilding a life after the conflict. Many girls were forcibly “married” to rebel army commanders, and they returned to their village with young children. The girls had barely completed elementary school and were now single mothers with no education or social support because their families shunned them.

When the first waves of female returnees came back home, the Sacred Heart of Jesus sisters, who have run St. Monica’s since 1982, adapted their vocational program for young mothers. They started a nursery school and kindergarten so mothers could study, and they offered literacy programs for girls who had left school so early they could not read. They incorporated therapy into their traditional vocational training in agriculture, weaving, catering and tailoring.
More than 1,500 girls and women have graduated from the various courses, which range from three months to two years.

Sr. Rosemary said it was a change for the sisters to begin to accept unmarried mothers to study at the school. “But we said, ‘Where is our compassion? Where is our care? Our care is to embrace both the mother and the child,’ ” she said.

As the years passed, many of St. Monica graduates have found success: They started their own stores, began to reconcile with their family and neighbours, got married, had more children. “You can see a girl 10 years ago, she was so miserable, deeply traumatized, and I see her now very beautiful and well dressed,” said Sr Rosemary. “I see these people have walked through their own pain, they took ownership and they are totally transformed.”

Josephine Amena in the storage room where maize is kept. “I always tell my fellow ladies, ‘Stand firm, there are problems all over the world, there is nowhere where people aren’t suffering,’ ” she said. (GSR photo / Melanie Lidman)

Once Sr. Rosemary, who gives speeches and interviews about St. Monica’s around the world, ran into one of her graduates in Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa airport. The graduate was returning from a women’s conference in Egypt, where she was an invited speaker. “She wasn’t [formally] educated, but she’s getting that freedom to go out and talk in the name of others,” says Sr. Rosemary.

A group of St. Monica’s alumni started the Women’s Network, an independent group of women who offer small-scale bank loans and emotional support.

Josephine Amena, a graduate of St. Monica’s who now works at the school, is one of the members of the group and said the financial independence she gained after learning to sew has allowed her to “stand firm.”

“Sometimes I’ll be defeated, but [after my training] I won’t need to go begging to people,” she said.

Amena accompanied Sr. Nyirumbe to Washington, D.C., in 2016 for the National Prayer Breakfast and spoke to a breakout session. Instead of focusing on the difficulties, her kidnapping and survival in Kony’s army, or her family’s rejection when she returned home, Josephine Amena prefers to talk about prayer.

“I told them that God has relieved me from the bush to continue with life,” she said.

Amena relied heavily on her prayer group, made up of both ex-soldiers and civilian victims of terror, to help her find inner peace. “I always tell my fellow ladies, ‘Stand firm, there are problems all over the world; there is nowhere where people aren’t suffering. Even if I’m sleeping hungry, wherever I go, when you have that peace of heart you’re not alone,’ ” said Amena. “Peace starts from the inside, and then you have more outside.”

How do you teach peace?

“You cannot teach peace,” said Sr. Rosemary. “You have to lead and see it done practically. The people who suffered so much are the very ones who can become teachers of peace.”

Sr. Rosemary is overseeing the creation of the Transformative Peace Education curriculum, part of a partnership with the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Peace and Development. There are already many blueprints for peace education curriculums across the world. But Sr. Rosemary Nyirumbe is giving the survivors, not academics, the responsibility for designing the program.

“We’re involving people who went through that past and they can tell the story using their own example,” said Sr. Nyirumbe.

One lesson they plan to include in the curriculum is a photo project where the women create three photos that represent their past, present and future.

Josephine Amena, who now works at the school, is one of the members of the Women’s Network, a women’s group started by St. Monica’s graduates. (GSR photo / Melanie Lidman)

“Pictures and storytelling are very good for these women,” said Rosemary. “It encourages them not exactly to forget the painful past but to remember it and be able to talk about it now, and keep it as a point of reference to teach their children. To say to them, ‘This is what we went through so I will take care of you and I won’t let you go through this,’ ” she said.

Sr. Rosemary Nyirumbe said she remembers hearing traditional stories from her mother, including the stories about two brothers from the Luo tribe who kept fighting. To this day, she still hears her mother’s voice echoing in her ear with the moral of that story, warning her never to take revenge. “It is women who can tell these stories effectively to the children, who can say, ‘You must break the cycle of violence.’ Children spend so much time with their mothers,” she said.

Sr. Nirumbe says many women are cowed by their culture or lack of education.
“Education will liberate these women from their servitude, from their psychological slavery, from their psychological torture and mental torture because they cannot speak about the past. I know there are many things that hold them as captives, and one of them is lack of education. Once they are able to write and speak and communicate, they are no longer living in that prison.”

Pennies and peace

The curriculum will give women around the world practical tools for emerging from trauma and conflict toward personal healing and then doing peace-making on a larger scale.

First, there’s the practical part of making peace, which is making money. More than anything, these women know you can’t pray on an empty stomach. In conflict areas beset by widespread poverty, the first thing is to ensure the women have a way to survive.

Women gather to collect the week’s savings and update the ledger book under the mango tree for their saving and internal lending community, or SILC. (Melanie Lidman)

Amena and her friends, assisted by St. Monica’s, created small groups of “table banking,” or informal micro loan groups in their communities, to set up small businesses or shops using the skills they learned at St. Monica’s.

“You should always try to save a little money, because the world is like a ball,” said Amena, and you never know which way fate will roll. “If you think, ‘people will help me out,’ that is out. You have to stand firm and say, ‘What I’m doing is not only for my benefit but also for my children.'”

Then comes the emotional work.

Amena said in the early years, after her family rejected her and she was struggling to survive as a single mom, people often told her to forget the past and move forward. “But I’ve seen these things with my own eyes,” she said.

Instead, it took years of counselling and community prayer groups to address the trauma she went through and begin to heal. There is a pattern towards healing, one Amena and her friends will try to crystalize into part of the peace curriculum.

“Forgiving people is part of it, you must have a heart of forgiveness,” she said. One aspect of that forgiveness also focuses internally.

“You must have peace of mind, peace of heart, peace of body,” said Amena. “In families where there is no peace, life will be hard. People will be quarrelling all the time. When you have peace of mind, it also helps the family to live in peace.”

It, too, is important to create a community of people dedicated towards the same goal of healing.

“When life becomes hard, you can say, ‘I have no one,’ it can be hard to share or ask for help,” said Amena. “I live and work with these people, and when I’m stuck with life they understand.”

Sr. Rosemary Nyirumbe and the University of Oklahoma believe that people around the world will also learn and understand, gaining insight from the lessons these women have gleaned.

“We are working with them, but we are making them become the advocates,” says Rosemary. “They should find other women and say, ‘If we can do this, then you can reach it, too.’ “

Uganda now hosts more than a million South Sudanese refugees, who have been through their own traumas and need the same support and assistance.

“Someone can’t come and tell you to have peace in your heart and mind,” said Amena. “It depends on the way you live with people, what you do to people, and the life you’re going through.”

Sr Rosemary hopes the message of the women of northern Uganda will reach forgotten corners of the world where conflicts are just beginning to fade and wounds are still fresh.

“Peace is not just the absence of war, it’s also the peace of the heart,” she says. “And if we can get people to start living and feeling from their heart that they’re in peace, then development can start taking place. Without this, we will work in vain.”

Melanie Lidman
National Catholic Reporter