I Was Fourteen When I Found Out What Human Trafficking Means

Publication

Mar 14, 2019

By Agnes Igoye

This is how old I was when the Lord’s Resistance Army raided my home village in Eastern Uganda. As a teenager, I was quickly cast aside for sexual exploitation by the LRA Commanders in charge of triage. They wanted virgins, the younger the girl, the better.

I narrowly escaped them by following a crowd, a mass movement of bodies that got itself wrapped in a cloud of dust, and was later able to join my family. Earlier my parents had gotten into an argument. My father wanted to remain behind as the rebels closed in but he had asked my mother to flee with us children. She refused, insisting we should all stay and die together if need be, anything but leave my father alone.

It all changed when, from a distance, my father saw rebels dragging young girls away from their homes. He then realised what danger we were in and we escaped in the moment. We took advantage of the rebels’ distraction as they scrambled around our property. If we had delayed our run by even a few minutes, it would have been too late. Fleeing was an excruciating decision for my father who had to leave behind his own 100 years-old father. To get away from his captors, my grandfather tried to climb a mango tree, but he fell and broke both his hips. Laughing, the rebels decided not to kill him but rather to leave him to die a slow and painful death. My grandfather first survived the ordeal and was confined to a wheel chair, but he later died of his injuries.

It was a treacherous journey that we took on foot, sometimes walking through the bushes to avoid being detected by the rebels. I can’t say how much distance we covered but we walked all day and arrived at the Catholic Mission at night. Along the way, I lost sight of some members of my family. Thankfully everyone made it to the Mission, an internally displaced people’s camp where I ended up going to primary school. In less than a year though, my parents, who were teachers by profession, obtained a transfer to a school in the capital city Kampala.

We moved there as a family, we had lost all our material possessions, but all of us were alive! My early experiences had left me with a burning passion to fight against the trafficking of human beings.

So, when the right time came, I started working as a guard on the Kenya border with the Immigration Service of Uganda and contributed to the arrest of a particularly cruel fugitive LRA commander. This man had kidnapped children in Northern Uganda, killed villagers and forced survivors to cook and eat human flesh. My colleagues and myself also rescued girls, some of whom were infamous LRA leader Joseph Kony’s countless sex slaves. Kony, who was known for his sexual exploitation of children, also built an army of 66000 children soldiers.

After a while, I started feeling that working against human trafficking required an in-depth understanding of the reasons that both compelled and allowed it. My quest for knowledge and skills started becoming more urgent. Thanks to a fellowship I joined the University of Minnesota to specialize in Human Trafficking, Policy and Prevention. There, I also joined the Clinton Global Initiative with an anti-human-trafficking project in which I committed to train a thousand law enforcement officers. It also involved creating general awareness and building a rehabilitation centre for survivors of human trafficking in Uganda.

For years, back in Uganda, I had rescued survivors of human trafficking sheltering them in my own home, simply because there was no other facilities available. I could not afford rehabilitation services, only shelter and to share whatever food I had. My house was a temporal arrangement as I looked for other solutions.

One of such survivors, Assya* was a girl who had been genitally mutilated as a child and was married off before she had even healed. When she escaped her abusive marriage, her parents were furious. In their view, she had brought shame to the family.  One night, her mother hit her when she refused to return to her abusive husband, but Assya managed to run away. Using a phone number I had shared during awareness campaigns, she called me at midnight. I took her into the home I shared with my mother and sister.

Despite our efforts to make her feel comfortable, Assya was self-conscious that she might be invading our space. I searched for a rehabilitation centre to take her in but she left a couple of days after she arrived, giving me no time to help her out. This experience broke my heart. I never saw her again or found out what happened to her but this story fuelled my determination to build The Dream Revival Centre for Survivors.

It has not been an easy ride. Most of our victims have confronted the likes of LRA. Please note that the LRA which is Uganda rebel group is different from Boko Haram which is Nigeria based terrorist group. Financing the Dream Revival Centre was also a problem that required creative thinking. I came up with a plan to save money from my student stipend while studying at the University. I always knew where free food was served around campus so I could save my food money. When I finally had $1000 set aside, I laid the foundation stone for the Dream Revival Centre, it was in 2011.

After a while, construction stalled for five years due to lack of resources.  But the world came and helped as I was awarded a cash prize of $ 50,000 that allowed me to complete the construction of the Centre and turn it into a full residential facility for survivors of human trafficking.

It has a current capacity of sixteen beds with room for expansion.   It offers shelter to female survivors as well as access to all our range of services and support systems. We help victims rebuild their confidence and emotional wellbeing. We encourage them to revive their dreams. We provide comprehensive health care: the physical, psychological, and emotional needs are all attended to as well as social services support to help them become independent, fully functioning adults.

In 2013, I founded The Huts for Peace program, a community driven, self-help initiative by women who have been displaced, tortured, and subjected to gender-based violence by the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Using locally available materials, the women have so far constructed huts in two villages and provided care to over 120 children. The Huts attract community volunteers including men which greatly supports the process of peace and reconciliation, leading to collective economic empowerment. I further donated an ox-plough to facilitate agriculture.

Women feeding their families from the sale of produce are spreading a message of peace and self-sufficiency which greatly helps to reduce the stigma against victims in these communities.

My work onward has been concentrated on raising awareness. But this is precisely what I do when I contribute to teach my Introductory child protection Harvard course. Or when I speak at world events, in all continents and major cities or at Universities or Summits. I give visibility to human behaviour at its darkest so we can attend to our flaws and raise the bar of what it means to be a human. And the rights you might expect to enjoy as such.  Like not being broken then sold for sex or forced labour before you turn fourteen.

Among other projects I have worked with community theatre artists, to empower front-line actors in communities to counter child trafficking. Since its founding, the Campaign has now reached over 70,331 people through Theatre awareness campaigns, school and door to door outreach. We also have documentary screening of children and community members telling their own stories. We have since launched six counter trafficking school clubs, at the request of students we had performed for.

The campaign also supported the Salama School for the blind children to share stories about child trafficking in their communities. In August 2018, three hundred children with disability directly participated in the campaign at Uganda national theatre, representing fifteen schools around Uganda.

In 2017, I was invited by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK, as one of counter trafficking experts to train parliamentarians.  My project ‘End child trafficking’ is sited as a best practice and I contributed to a handbook- Legislating against Modern Slavery, Human Trafficking and Forced Labour, a practical guide to support Parliamentarians and clerks across the fifty-three Commonwealth Countries.

To all the children including fourteen years-old out there who are displaced, or have been trafficked. Don’t lose hope. You could be walking or in a caravan, on the seas, driven by tides. You are fleeing due to reasons beyond your control. But Don’t lose Hope. Even when those you would expect to help you are turning their back instead. Be creative and have a willingness to stay alive. At some point in my displacement, I recall running into the forest many times a day to pick up fishes that birds dropped as they fed their chicks. That kept me alive.

If you are in a refugee camp, take advantage of every opportunity to study- there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Whoever knew that my fourteen years old self, so prematurely acquainted with the most evil of all deeds, human trafficking, would rise to take advantage of so many different platforms to speak in the name of all survivors, in your name indeed if you are reading this.

One day, this could be you too.