Girls Wielding Guns Against LRA Rebels
The name Arrow Group is synonymous with men but Sarah Adeke, 23, and Grace Arimo, 28, sit in their offices in Soroti. Underneath their desks, they are stepping on rifles. Adeke is a secretary while Arimo is a nurse.
Once a spontaneous community alarm was raised to defend their motherland from the marauding rebels of the LRA mid last year, they quickly enrolled into the civil militia popularly referred to as the Arrow Boys/Group. The group is currently fighting LRA in Teso in eastern Uganda. Today, Adeke is the group's secretary while Arimo is a nurse administering medicine to her wounded colleagues. "We suffered in the hands of the Karimojong warriors to the extent of loosing all our cows. My mother struggled to re-stock the cows we have today. I didn't want to loose them again," Adeke says.
Conditions in the force are not good, going hungry at times, humiliation from the very civilians one is protecting, but to them, that is all right compared to succumbing to the LRA massacres. As though taught by the same teacher, the two like their sister colleagues now in the frontline in the LRA hot beds of Tubur, Olwelai, Odudui, Katine, Murungatuny, Orungo and Damasco bordering Lango and Acholi region say, they joined the Arrow Group to salvage their families from the LRA attacks.
"I like my job, perhaps, because nobody forced me. We are ready to fight the LRA as long as they continue to disturb Teso. We are ever ready for them. My weapon is here," Adeke says with confidence while pointing at a gun placed under her computer stand. A sixth born in a family of 10, Adeke at a tender age watched the 1987-1993 infamous Teso insurgency. When it was all over, literally all the family's source of livelihood was gone. A repeat is what she called a bitter pill to swallow.
"I had just completed a secretarial course in Mbale when I heard that the LRA had entered Teso. I dashed back home in Ngora and found everybody on the run. My mother was confused because she did not know where to keep her nine hard-earned cows. Two of my younger brothers were also missing from home," Adeke narrates. "I stayed for a few days and decided to head to Soroti to register with the local authorities and fight. I knew my brothers were either dead, abducted or had joined the Arrow. I never consulted any of my parents. I was convinced it was the only way to rescue the already bad situation."
Asked what her mother's reaction was when she learnt about her decision to fight the LRA, Adeke laughed sarcastically and said, "She is a born again Christian who likes praying all the time. When the three of us disappeared all of a sudden, mommy prayed for our lives."
Like Adeke, Arimo did not consult her parents. To many mothers, leaving a child behind and picking a gun to defend the people is crazy. They would prefer to die with their children in the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. Not with Arimo. A mother of two, life lost meaning as people helplessly ran to all directions for dear life. "I felt it was better to join the Arrow and get killed by the bullet than to be cut, cooked and eaten by the LRA. The way the LRA kills its victims is brutal and barbaric. I looked at my mother and children and I had no option but to leave them behind."
Arimo, the only nursing aid the group relies on, has no time to visit her children regularly. Life amidst men has cut Arimo and the other Arrow girls from public life. Their conscience constantly prepares them to receive negative criticism from women outside the force. "We sometimes hear fellow women calling us prostitutes. When they see us in company of male soldiers, they think all of them are our sexual partners," she says adding that, the Arrow Boys do not force any woman into a relationship.
She says most of the Arrow Boys have wives in the camps, which wives support the group with food, clothing and other basics. "I used to fear soldiers for sexual harassment but I have confirmed, sex is by choice." But not all the civil population looks at them as prostitutes. The district planner, Soroti, Martin Wabwire, says world over women play the greatest role in security concerns. "With community policing and security, it's not an issue of saying men alone."
Like his district planner, the Deputy Chief Administrative Officer, Soroti, Felix Esoke shares the view. "When insecurity broke out here, it was everybody's concern woman or man." Formerly, a nursing aid in Serere sub-county in Soroti, Arimo with the backing from sub-county authorities that also volunteered first aid drugs for the treatment of the Arrow Boys, was on recruitment elevated her to her current post.
Her major challenge is inability to afford the daily basics. "These days, we have one meal per day. If only they could start paying us our salaries regularly. When salaries delay, we incur debts and by the time it's paid the debts would have accumulated." She says their work is purely voluntary to save the land. Humanitarian organisations, which distribute food in the IDP camps, ignore the group. Robert Adiama Ekaju, in charge of Arrow Group intelligence Counter Research says women in combatants require money because of their specific needs. "The money they are getting, sh60, 000 is not enough to help them meet their daily needs.
He says there are ten women who volunteered to fight the LRA. He says of the 10, only two girls are working in administration in Soroti. "In all the 10 battalions, there are women fighting. Most of them who joined at the same time with the boys in June last year have not withdrawn from fighting." He observes that military operation is so demanding because the group has to live to the societal expectation of their existence. "Having time for one's family is very difficult. It affects the Arrow girls just like the boys. Besides, only one arrow girl is married."
Despite their active role in boosting the work of the Arrow group, the Arrow girls are a forgotten lot. There is no mention of their existence among the about 10,000 young fighters. He explains the name Arrow Boys was arrived at because people did not expect the girls to be part of it. He says even when the girls were registered; the management of the Group did not consider revising the name because nobody including the girls who are fighting raised any complaint that they were being marginalised. "When we call them Arrow Boys, we actually know that the girls are part of it," Ekaju asserts.
Studies in America show that the lack of recognition of female soldiers has been the trends for years. No one knows how many women served as soldiers in the Civil War, but it is estimated that no fewer than 400 disguised themselves as men and performed the same duties as any soldier. Any woman in the ranks of either army would have been banished once detected, but some served as soldiers without their sex ever being known.
Source: New Vision (Kampala), May 11 2004
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