Life was supposed to get easier for Grace Achara after she escaped the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) - but
Marc Ellison has long reported on the post-war plight of former child soldiers in Uganda. But he wanted to find an innovative format through which to tell their stories. Alongside Ugandan artist Christian Mafigiri, he developed a 2.0 version of the traditional comic-book format. Of it, he says:
"There is a notion that comic books are a realm only for fictional characters with superhuman powers, bedecked with cape and colourful costume. But while there\'s an absence of archetypal superheroes in this graphic novel, it is full of tales of four brave young women like Grace, struggling to overcome decades of war and abuse, and who are heroes in their own right. The format empowers each woman, allowing them to tell their own story alongside the journalist's and artist's interpretations."
the war is only half her story.
Abducted as a child, she spent more than half of her life in the Ugandan bush with the LRA. During that time, she was raped and forced to kill. But since returning home last year, the former child soldier must now battle poverty and stigmatisation.
"I was just 16 when I killed for the first time," she says.
The man had been sentenced to death for trying to escape the armed group, and Grace was chosen as his executioner.
"I covered his eyes first with a dirty rag," she recalls. "I used a wooden club to do the job.
"It only took a minute."
Being intimately familiar with the penalty for escaping, Grace admits that there are now moments when she wonders if the risk was worth it.
Thanks to the infamous KONY 2012 campaign, many now know that Joseph Kony's rebel army abducted more than 30,000 children - a quarter of them girls - to fuel a two decade-long fight against President Yoweri Museveni's government. We have heard how these boys and girls - some as young as six - were beaten, raped and forced to loot and kill.
But, having interviewed more than 40 female ex-combatants since 2011, I can tell you that is not the whole story.
The single biggest misconception surrounding Ugandan child soldiers is that their struggles end once they manage to escape the LRA.
|Grace Achara spent more than half of her life in the Ugandan bush with the Lord's Resistance Army [Marc Ellison/Al Jazeera]|
Grace was only 14 when she was torn away from her family. It was 1999.
"I awoke to find a torch pointing in my face," she says. "The dreadlocked soldiers cocked their guns and told us to get out of bed.
"They asked me where my parents were, but I found out later they had already fled."
A heavy sack of grain was tied to her back, and for days she was forced to march. They marched all the way to neighbouring Sudan, where the LRA had training camps, and where those who had abducted Grace joined up with other battalions.
The first few days were the hardest, she says.
Grace missed her home, her family, her school friends.
She was given as a wife to a one-legged commander and, along with the other new recruits, given a crash course in military tactics.
She considered trying to escape, and even contemplated suicide.
But then her husband, who was much older than her and, she says, abusive towards her, had been killed in a skirmish with the Ugandan army.
Shortly after, she met Simon, a commander from a different platoon who was also from Uganda and had been abducted as a teenager.
"I think it was God who brought us together," she says.
"He told me he would take care of me until the end," she says. "And we've been together for 10 years now.
"For the first time in years, I was truly happy."
But then things fell apart in the middle of 2014, when they were in Central African Republic (CAR), one of the countries in which the LRA has operated in an effort to avoid capture.
Simon was accused of helping another LRA soldier to plot his escape, and told he would have to stand trial.
"I knew what that meant," says Grace. "And I didn't want him to be beaten to death."
Grace recalls how, inside their small, cramped tent in CAR, their knees had touched as she whispered conspiratorially of her own escape plan.
She had already stockpiled enough cassava to feed them, and their four children, for a few days, she explained to her husband.
Unable to read his face in the dark, she was unsure how he would react. But, early the next morning, after most of the LRA fighters had gone out on patrol, they left with their children.
They walked until dusk when they were intercepted by members of the Seleka armed group, an alliance of Central African rebel groups.
Seleka wanted Simon to stay and fight for them, but he refused. So they kept the family imprisoned for a few weeks before calling the US military. Grace and her family were returned to Uganda. It had been 16 years since she had last seen her homeland.
Going back home
Separated from her husband, who was sent to a reception centre for men, Grace and her children were dropped off at the red cast-iron gates of the Gulu Support the Children Organisation (GUSCO) in Gulu.
Established in 1994, the local non-governmental organisation (NGO) created a reception centre to offer healthcare, help tracing lost family, trauma counselling, and extensive vocational skills training programmes to aid not only the returnees' rehabilitation, but their reintegration into their old communities.
Thousands of women and children have passed through their doors.
Today the centre is quiet and empty; classrooms sit idle, the swings rust, and the merry-go-round has become entangled in weeds.
Grace - unlike the thousands of ex-combatants who returned before her - has been doubly disadvantaged: not only a victim of abduction, she is also a victim, it seems, of unfortunate timing.
Since the LRA was chased out of northern Uganda in 2006, and the initial flood of returnees has now reduced to a trickle, governmental and humanitarian funding has dried up.
As the dollars have been cut back, so too have the much-needed services that returnees so desperately need.
Many women who returned either during the war or in its immediate aftermath say they received up to six months of psycho-social support and were also taught a trade, after missing out on a proper education.
Grace was at GUSCO for a week before being asked to leave.
Most also received an amnesty package consisting of approximately $100 and household supplies.
Grace received a mattress, a blanket and a mosquito net.
But Lucy Lapoti, a senior resettlement officer with the Ugandan government's Amnesty Commission, says that Grace was lucky to get even a week at GUSCO.
No funding, no help
|The biggest misconception surrounding Ugandan child soldiers is that their struggles end following their escape from LRA [Marc Ellison/Al Jazeera]|
The commission implements the country's 2000 Amnesty Act which aids the demobilisation and reintegration of returnees.
"I know some people only stayed for three days because now the centre has financial constraints," she says.
Lapoti, who personally reviewed Grace's case when she returned in September 2014, says she should have stayed at GUSCO for at least three months.
"I've assessed her and she's not very good," she says. "She is not very strong and she still has a bush mind.
"But she came at a time when there was no funding. If she had come 10 years ago, I think she would have been very OK," Lapoti says.
A shifting war
However, James Ocitti, a social worker at GUSCO, says that the geographic shift in the conflict, and not funding, is the reason why ex-combatants now stay at the reception centre for less time than they used to.
"The war with the LRA is now a little bit far from Uganda [in Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo], and we have partners there on the ground [who start the returnees' rehabilitation process]," he says.
"So by the time they come to the reception centre it's not like we are starting from the beginning."
Ocitti says that in their initial assessments they often find that returnees have taken three to four months to get to GUSCO, which reduces the length of time they have to stay at the centre for.
"For the past two years we have also been providing income-generating activity training for women," he adds. "We go to their community, train them in how to run a business, and then give them some start-up capital."
Ocitti says 50 female returnees will soon be visiting GUSCO to begin a month-long training session.
Perhaps Grace is one of them, he suggests optimistically.
But Grace says that while GUSCO staff promised to follow up with her to organise training, that was more than a year ago - and she's still waiting.
And she is not alone.
A number of other recent returnees say that they also have not been called for training. Another says that their training programme was cut short owing to limited funding.
"I didn't feel so good because many other people have benefited from their help, so why didn't I?" Grace asks.
"I also passed through the same conditions as earlier returnees," she says. "So it was GUSCO's responsibility to ensure that my kids and I were supported in the same way.
"Because it is not easy to start a life without anything."
|Organisations such as GUSCO offered healthcare, family tracing, trauma counselling, and vocational training to returnees. But as the number of returnees has dwindled, the centre has largely fallen out of use - despite the fact that many are still in desperate need of the services it offered [Marc Ellison/Al Jazeera]|
When Grace and Simon were reunited, she says she was warmly received by his parents in Kitgum, the municipality from which he comes. But she was unprepared for the stigmatisation they would encounter in the broader community.
"Icako en kiti ni [You still have the character of a violent rebel]," she says her neighbours would mutter to her at the borehole.
"Icako en kiti ni," she says the women would whisper to her at the market.
And soon the stigma was passed down to her children.
"One day I heard children in the next compound screaming and crying," Grace recalls.
Her oldest son had got into a fight with a neighbour's child.
"Your kids are of the bush," the other mother said. "They will try and kill my children."
Words quickly turned to actions and, when their neighbours started to kill their chickens, Grace and Simon knew it was time to move on.
Grace says that it was only on the day that she left GUSCO that she was casually forewarned that she might encounter some ill-feeling from a community that had been terrorised by the LRA during the war.
"I felt so sad because I didn't go to the bush voluntarily," says Grace. "Their words hurt me but I just try and ignore it because that is how the world is.
"Maybe that is what God has planned for me, simple as that."
Simon and Grace moved south to Nwoya district, where no one knows of their past.
Now, at least, they live in peace. But still they find it hard to survive.
"I asked GUSCO, 'What will I do without your help? How will I support my children?'" says Grace.
Her husband inherited some land but it's only enough for subsistence farming, and after years of physical abuse in the bush, Grace often has to take breaks from digging in the garden.
Ironically, in the absence of help from GUSCO and an education, it is a skill that Grace learned in the bush that now helps her to support her family.
When she can afford the ingredients, she makes waragi - a potent Ugandan brew made from yeast, sugar, water, groundnut paste and tea leaves.
She sells the bubbling tea-coloured concoction, fermented overnight, at the local trading centre.
|Grace and her family survive off a skill she learned in the bush - preparing waragi, a potent Ugandan brew made from yeast, sugar, water, groundnut paste and tea leaves [Marc Ellison/ Al Jazeera]|
In a month, if she's lucky, she can make a profit of 50,000 Ugandan shillings (about $19).
"But now it's the rainy season and not so many people come to the market to buy from me," she says. "I don’t know what will happen to us."
Grace has been supported by a new NGO called Pathways To Peace.
The founder, David Ocitti, a former child soldier himself, says he does not want others to go through the trauma he endured when he returned from the bush.
"When I first came out in 2002, like Grace, I didn't go through any rehabilitation centre," he says.
Ocitti says he just wanted to resume a normal life, to go back to school.
"But when I went back, my classmates left the front desk for me because I was 'from the jungle'," he recalls. "They thought I was a killer, they thought I was violent, but that's not who I am."
Ocitti is critical of how many NGOs have withdrawn from the country, and how much humanitarian funding has been cut.
"The guns have been silent in northern Uganda for many years but the war is still going on.
"Kony is still abducting people in Central African Republic, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in South Sudan, and there is still a need for a continued presence of NGOs on the ground."
The figures appear to back up his claims.
More than 80 people returned home in just one month in 2014 to a system that appears ill-funded to help them have even a slim chance at successful reintegration.
And, despite the reach of the KONY 2012 campaign, which arguably prompted further military assistance from the US government to bring the LRA leader to heel, abductions continue unabated.
According to the LRA Crisis Tracker, a social web platform that follows the attacks and other activities perpetrated by the LRA, the group abducted more than 300 civilians in 2015.
And rather than declining, the number of returnees remains consistent.
Some 348 returnees made their way home in the first half of 2015.
Ocitti wants Pathways To Peace to not only ensure that there are services available to those who will return in future months, but to also focus on what they want to do with their new lives.
This is a veiled criticism of many reception centres and NGOs, which often taught tailoring as the de facto trade for female returnees.
And it is true - throw a ball of yarn in a northern Ugandan market place and you will hit a returnee.
"No attention was given actually to what each individual wanted to do with their life," says Ocitti. "Before their abduction they had a dream and we shouldn't impose our ideas for their lives on them."
He points to Grace's burgeoning waragi business as an example of a positive skill that came out of her suffering.
"Maybe even those who are still in the jungle will say I can make waragi better than her," Ocitti says. "It shows them they have a purpose to go home, they have a means of life, they are not wasted."
This research was conducted with the support of the 'Innovation in Development Reporting Grant' programme of the European Journalism Centre, financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.