Maria was a 17-year-old girl with big dreams for her future but her life changed drastically one night. She was sleeping in her grass thatched house with her family when the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) stormed her village and abducted her with her entire family. She watched in horror as her family members were brutally killed.
The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was a rebel group that operated in Northern Uganda and neighboring countries from the mid-1980s to the mid-2010s. Led by Joseph Kony, the LRA claimed to be fighting for the establishment of a theocratic government based on the Ten Commandments. During their decades-long insurgency, the LRA committed numerous human rights abuses, including massacres, abductions, and the forced recruitment of child soldiers. The conflict resulted in the displacement of millions of people and the deaths of tens of thousands. The war in Northern Uganda was a brutal and protracted conflict that had a devastating impact on the region. It left many communities in poverty and destroyed the social fabric of the affected areas. Though the LRA was eventually weakened and forced out of Uganda, the legacy of the conflict continues to be felt in the region to this day.
For the several months Maria was held captive, she witnessed many atrocities that give her nightmares to date. “The rebels used to shoot dead anyone who complained that they were tired of walking because we walked from Gulu district up to the South Sudan border for about 304km. My cousin, Apiyo was shot dead because her legs were swollen, her mother’s mouth and ears cut, we would be beaten for failing to cook on time. Life was tough, but by the grace of God I came out alive and lost my whole family unfortunately”. Maria narrates her ordeal.
“Then one day, I managed to escape during a shoot-out between the rebels and the Ugandan Army (UPDF). It’s at this point that my family members died because they were shot as they tried to also escape”. She adds.
Maria fled to Gulu city, hoping to start a new life but life in the city was not easy. Without a family or education, Maria was forced to turn to commercial sex work in order to survive.
Life as a sex worker was dangerous and unpredictable as she faced constant harassment and abuse from clients, and often had to deal with police harassment and arrest. But again, she found a way to survive, and she eventually became one of the most successful sex workers in the area.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The government imposed a lockdown and movement restrictions, which meant that Maria couldn’t meet her clients. She was left with no source of income, and she struggled to make ends meet.
Desperate to find a new way to support herself, Maria decided to start a fruit vending business. She had always loved fruit and knew a lot about it from her childhood in Paicho village. She started by selling fruit on the streets and quickly built up a loyal customer base. On a good note, her past didn’t affect the new business as few people knew about it. Her journey towards financial independence began when her remaining family refused to reintegrate her and knew that she had to find a way to support herself.
“My fruit delivery business was an instant hit with the local community as I offered fresh, locally sourced fruits that were delivered directly to my customers’ doors”. “My business is a success as am able to make enough money to support herself, am proud of what I have achieved” says Maria with beaming smiles on her face.
Maria is passionate about her business, and loves the independence and empowerment it has brought her. She is finally able to afford rent, groceries, and other basic needs, and no longer needs to rely on sex work. She is grateful for the new opportunity, and while she misses her former sex worker friends, she is happy with her new reality.
Maria’s story is a testament to the resilience and strength of the human spirit. Despite facing unimaginable challenges, she found a way to survive and thrive. And in doing so, she has become an inspiration to others.
This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Ruth Atim and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.