She wants her face to be seen. It’s not what you might expect—she’s not trying to get justice or retribution. Ester Abeja wants to show her face as a victim of gang rape, of abduction, of torture and daily violence, to be the image of a woman who has been forced to kill her own child and her own people. She wants to be acknowledged. She is a survivor of Uganda’s long-running war, but Abeja knows she is also a symbol.
When I first saw Abeja’s photo, I studied her oversized brown T-shirt, uneven hair, and mournful eyes. I wondered how a woman survives what she has and raises five children, one of whom is the product of her forced time in the bush with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). She has a 6-year-old boy who is the outcome of rape. Kids like hers are known as “Kony’s children,” after Joseph Kony, the LRA leader whose pseudo-religiosity has reportedly led him to feats of spirituality like covering himself with termites or spearing himself with the sun for days.
I came across Abeja’s story because of a Ugandan blogger named Rosebell Kagumire, who the U.S. Department of State recently nominated as an Internet Freedom Fellow. Kagumire wrote about Abeja after meeting her at a gynecological health screening in Lira, in northern Uganda, at the beginning of August. A Kampala-based nonprofit called Isis-Women’s International Cross Cultural Exchange (Isis-WICCE) will soon offer surgeries to 40 women to fix everything from uterine prolapse to fibroids to UTIs. Program ManagerHelen Kezie-Nwoha said her group screened more than 400 women in a few days; it was the first time most of them had seen a gynecologist in years—local hospitals have lain fallow from the 23-plus years of fighting, and are often staffed with only a midwife if anything. Abeja is suffering from uterine prolapse as a result of her multiple rapes. In her case, her uterus is hanging out of her vagina. Her surgery will cost about US$200, Kezie-Nwoha said.
“When they abducted me, I had my 1-year-old baby girl and the boy,” Abeja told Kagumire, explaining that rebels took her with only two of her six children. “A few kilometers away from home, they forced me to kill my child. I hit her head on the tree and she died.” After this, the rebels raped her. Abjea said she could not remember how many men there were but that there may have been 10 to 15. The men “pushed different objects” into her and cut her with machetes as she was attacked, she said.
Abeja showed Kagumire scars on her arms and thighs. She said she does not know what happened to her son.