With the help of Erin Baines’s careful and knowledgeable editing and pertinent contextualization, Evelyn Amony has written a remarkable memoir entitled I Am Evelyn Amony: reclaiming my life from the Lord’s Resistance Army. Throughout the book there is a forceful narrative agency that is rare among works where outsiders present and edit the life histories of former child soldiers. The account is as painful as it is revealing. Amony’s story is one of “choiceless choices,” to borrow an illustrious phrase from Holocaust researcher Lawrence L. Langer: of bare life and brutal death; of being abducted into rebel ranks and forced, at a very young age, to become the wife of Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. As Baines notes, it is “a book of truths according to Evelyn as she lived them."
Much has been written on the war in northern Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army by academics, journalists, commentators and activists. A growing number of Ugandans themselves have analyzed the war from academic, journalistic, and activist angles. A number of outsiders have facilitated the writing of various life history accounts on the war. Yet Amony’s account is unique. Baines opens the book with a historical and resourceful background to the conflict which gives needed context to the story that follows. Baines also describes the lengthy and careful process that made possible Amony’s written account. And it was not an easy war story to put on paper. “Evelyn began to depend on the very persons who were the cause of all her pain. Kony would save Evelyn’s life on numerous occasions, literally jumping into a river to rescue her from drowning. When she felt that she could no longer continue to walk, it was Kony who encouraged her to keep going, lessened her load, and prevented others from inflicting harm."
Even if it was a difficult story to pen down, the result is an acutely honest and personal story of gain and loss that avoids denying the humanity of the perpetrators, and one that also outlines the everyday inner workings of the Lord’s Resistance Army. “My children can read now,” Amony tells Baines in a brief interview that prefaces the actual story. “Some of these things I also cannot tell them verbally. It is easier for my children to read and learn about how I was abducted and all that I went through, how I conceived and gave birth to my daughters. They can then ask me for clarifications. If I were to narrate this verbally to my daughters, it would be too hearthbreaking.”
Together with When the Walking Defeats You—the forthcoming book written by Ledio Cakaj, which is an equally novel and well-researched life history account of a male Lord’s Resistance Army soldier—I am Evelyn Amony is a must read; a refusal of the simplistic and stigmatizing black-and-white narrative that still haunts the world as a consequence of Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 campaign. You will read crying, and you will not stop crying when Amony tries to return to a normal life, because her life continues to be extremely challenging and utterly painful, even in times of so-called peace. Amony’s life after the return from the bush is a poignant illustration of what scholars have called “negative peace;” what I have described as a life with bad surroundings. “The silence of guns does not mean peace,” as one of my Ugandan informants told me. Paradoxically, there was no way for Amony to escape the war she had escaped from. If war is painful, so is everyday life with sickly children in abject poverty on the margins of society. To capture this war-peace continuum, Amony and Baines have cleverly added an epilogue and a chapter that presents a selection of Amony’s diary entries recorded some four years after her return from the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Amony’s name means “a period of war.” In 1982 (or perhaps 1983) she was born into war, even if the war at that time had not yet reached her village in northern Uganda. She was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army in 1994. In late 1997, at the age of fourteen, she gave birth to her first child, Bakita. Joseph Kony is the father. During this period, I arrived in northern Uganda for the first time to do research for my PhD thesis in anthropology. All kinds of memories of mine resurfaced as I read, and this inspired me go back to my own fieldwork notebooks, to revisit interviews with people like Amony, that is, ordinary Ugandans who were forced to live unaccountable lives in war and displacement. In truly inspiring ways Amony’s profound book unsettles my own understanding of the war in northern Uganda.
In 2000, Amony gave birth to her second child, Winnie, and I was again back in Uganda for more research. War escalated and my notebooks and media files report of daily clashes between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan military, all over northern Uganda. I visited Agoro in December 1999, when things were still calm despite worrisome developments. Agoro is a mountainous and breathtakingly beautiful place bordering South Sudan, and when the Lord’s Resistance Army launched new and deadly attacks from their bases in South Sudan, Agoro Hills was one of their preferred points of entry, difficult for the Ugandan army to seal off. The army had planted many landmines all over those hills, and in people’s homesteads. I remember looking at the beauty of Agoro Hills, knowing that the Lord’s Resistance Army was hiding somewhere behind them on the other side of the border. And it was somewhere there, behind those hills, that Amony was staying sometime after giving birth to Winnie.
In the months that followed, her rebel unit would constantly move from place to place in an effort to regroup and escape continuous army attacks. In March 2002, the Ugandan army launched a massive military offensive called “Operation Iron Fist” against rebel bases in South Sudan. It was a period when both rebels and army suffered immensely, along with local civilian populations. The campaign also brought renewed fighting to northern Uganda, which eventually spread to the eastern part of the country. Amony’s account offers new light to this horrible period of the war. Winnie disappeared without traces in the renewed chaos. Amony’s account also sheds light on the infighting and tensions that have existed within the rebel high command over the years, as well as to tensions within Joseph Kony’s extended family.
In 2005, as Amony’s rebel unit was moving around in rural northern Uganda, pursued by the army and under constant bombardment, she gave birth to her third child, Grace. She was captured by the Ugandan army only ten days after Grace’s birth. Amony’s final battle with Ugandan troops is a sad illustration of this dirty war. In an effort to run away from the pursuing Ugandan soldiers, Amony realized that her friends were no longer with her: “When I turned back to look behind me, I saw that Margaret had fallen down and that she had been shot.” Bakita, Amony’s first-born, had also fallen, as had Odongo, a male rebel. Paralyzed with fear, Amony froze:
“As I stood in the clearing, one of the soldiers started to shoot at me rapidly. I raised my newborn baby above my head to surrender. The bullets passed on either side of me; one passed straight through my skirt. He continued shooting despite my surrender. Another bullet just missed my neck, burning me. The soldier shooting at me moved closer and closer to me. When I did not fall, he lowered his gun and studied me. He came up to me, and as he inspected me he finally said, ‘You, woman, you are very lucky, that medicine that you have tied on your body must be strong. And for that reason, you will not die.’”
More army soldiers arrived at the scene, and they soon found the fallen rebels. “As we began to move together toward their defense we came across Odongo, who had also been shot but was still alive. One of the Ugandan soldiers just raised his gun and shot him again, cursing him for making people’s children suffer in the bush and for raping other people’s children … He then turned and shot Margaret in the leg."
A few months later, when Amony, her children and comrades had been transported to Gulu town, I again arrived for more fieldwork. The International Criminal Court had unsealed the arrest warrants of the rebel leadership and this added a new dimension to the war. It was soon confirmed that the Lord’s Resistance Army leaders had issued a counterorder: humanitarian aid workers and expatriates should leave northern Uganda, or they would be killed. Attacks on Westerners and other non-Ugandans increased. So when I tried to do more fieldwork under these new circumstances, Amony on her side struggled to adjust to her new life situation. Peace talks commenced in 2006 and no less than six times did Amony visit the rebel leadership at their bases in northeastern Congo. Again she was subjected to choiceless choices—it can hardly be argued that she went their own her own free will. Kony pressured her to remain with him, and it was only thanks to Vincent Otti, at the time Kony’s deputy (eventually executed on Kony’s orders), that she managed to escape back to Uganda. Over the years that followed, Amony continued the hard work to reclaim her life. When people finally stopped referring to her as “Kony’s wife” all the time, Amony’s efforts in life became easier, sparking a growing sense of self-confidence.
I am Evelyn Amony is a troubling and at the same time essential read. And it is rewarding. The crushing vulnerability of people who live with war also entails nuances of expectation and desire. On November 29, 2009, she writes in the diary chapter that balances her war experience, “We truly danced in Kampala."
I Am Evelyn Amony: Reclaiming My Life from the Lord’s Resistance Army is published by University of Wisconsin Press, 2015.
Sverker Finnström is Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Uppsala University, working with the Engaging Vulnerability research program. He has written the award-winning monograph Living with Bad Surroundings: war, history, and everyday moments in northern Uganda (Duke U Press, 2008) and the anthology Virtual War and Magical Death: technologies and imaginaries for terror and killing (Duke U Press, 2013, with Neil L. Whitehead). At the moment, he is writing an article on secret drinking associations, insult, and the fun of being drunk in the midst of ongoing war. He is also working on a second monograph, tentatively titled War Travels: in and out of northern Uganda.