September 9, 2020

Story: The Decision to Run

A quick decision to run changes the life of a young woman in Northern
Uganda. By Atim Onen.

Sometimes what’s best is what you can not see, hear or feel. But when you have an ear to your story, a story that definitely reveals something about you, it is worth sharing. I have no idea where my life would be right now, if I hadn’t made a run out of it at that precarious moment.

My name is Atim, daughter of Onen of Patuda clan in Gulu District in Northern Uganda. My refugee mother gave birth to me in the bush and continued walking before the rebels could capture her. Atim means ‘She who is born in the bush’. I lost both my parents in the conflicts between the government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony. I grew up hiding from the rebels who kidnapped children. They made boys into soldiers. They used girls for camp chores and as their bush-wives. It was a time when the nights were longer than usual. My dying father said he did not want me to remain here on this earth to suffer. It was then arranged with my relatives that when he passed on, I would be taken to live with one of my aunts in Kampala. It was in 1998. Then, in 2003 it was decided by the clan elders that I was becoming a woman and should be married.

Soon after, one dreadful day, my aunt got really ill and I was sent to buy some medicine. Her husband offered to give me a lift on his bicycle. On the way, he began to tell me that my aunt was going to die that frightened me. Then he asked me if my monthly circle had started. I said that I didn’t know. He asked rather rudely how could I not know. Then he added that later that evening, I should take his water for bathing and wait for him in the shelter near the house. I felt like I wanted to jump off from his bicycle and run far away from him. When I returned home, I told my aunt and my grandma what happened. To my astonishment, they both told me to just keep quiet and not tell anyone about it. I was puzzled and disappointed at their response. I refused to take the water for my uncle because something inside me was telling me that if I did, he was going to rape me. On learning that I didn’t take the water for bathing, my sick aunt became furious and threatened to beat me, an ungrateful orphan, for being disobedient.

At that moment a word came into my mind that changed my life: Run! I ran as fast as my legs could carry me not knowing where I was going or the repercussions of disobeying the adults who had looked after me, an ungrateful orphan. I felt the energy that connected me to the universe vibrate in my body. My body began shaking but I kept running in the dark. I did not know where I was going. All I knew was that I wanted to run and be far away from my aunt and her husband.

My feet were burning. My body was exhausted. It was nearing dawn. I just collapsed by the road side and waited. For what? For whom? I don’t know but I waited and I waited. I was in shock. I did not cry or felt hungry as the sun rose and then it was nearing lunch time. Suddenly, one of my distant relatives caught sight of me. She asked me why I was there? I tried to explain but the pain in my heart stopped my tongue. Words choked in my throat. Finally, I cried and I cried. She said she could not leave me there alone. I could come stay with her.

Some weeks later, one of my greataunts organized a meeting with the elders of my Patuda clan. They banished my uncle from coming to visit his wife. That was shameful in my culture. Such a man was ridiculed. Later, I heard he died of HIVAids. I could have been the victim of that incurable disease if I had lost that moment when I ran that changed my life and submitted to my uncle’s lust because of my obligation to my aunt, his wife, who fed me, an orphan.

When I visited my greataunt to thank her, she was very happy that I came. She lived alone. She asked me if I could read and write. I said yes, I had taught myself. Right away, without waiting another minute, she called out to a gentleman passing by and asked him to take me to the nearby primary school to get enrolled. At school, I actively participated in clubs. One of the clubs that best related to my life’s journey was called “Peace Club” because it was my intention to save girl children orphaned by war and all others who were broken because of conflicts.

Peace Club is the reason why I am the woman that I am today. My life’s journey through the Peace Club did not end here. I met many more wonderful people like Cecilie the Norwegian lady who heard my story and sponsored me to do a degree in Anthropology at Makerere University in Kampala. I met Dr. Sultan Somjee, an ethnographer, who has turned out to be my mentor who awakened my inner self. I wanted to go back to study Indigenous knowledge that we call Utu in Swahili or Ubuntu as they say in South Africa. It is the same reason why I am writing now. I wanted to study that because I saw the wisdom and justice in the elders’ judgement on my case, in the old way, when the modern society including my own educated people have become corrupt and immoral. Dr. Somjee started coaching me to develop my interest in Indigenous African Peace Traditions. I am working on it now. I have excelled and even published an article. He then made me the Keeper of Indigenous Knowledge at the Community Museum of Peace of the African Child Soldier so I can use my trauma to help others.

This responsibility of working for peace among the conflicted Acholi of Northern Uganda and Southern Sudan is my goal in life and a healing journey of many losses. I wouldn’t have achieved all this if I hadn’t run away from my caregivers. By running away from my relatives, I screamed out a loud alarm. I can now speak with courage and tell our people, especially men and my relatives, to look at themselves in the mirror and see what they do to orphaned girls during wars. It was that moment when I ran, and I ran, and I ran, up to today I don’t know where to, but I ran. That moment on the run changed my life. I realize that I can use the moment that changed my life to change the lives of others too.

This true story by Atim Onen was a finalist in our recent writing competition with the theme "The Moment My Life Changed." Follow us on Facebook and join our newsletter to receive invitations to future competitions.

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5 comments on “Story: The Decision to Run”

  1. I love the title for my story, “The Decision to Run.” It is not a good idea to run away from home, but when one feels the universe responding to one’s actions, one should cease their moment and later learn from it.
    I can’t wait to share my story with the world. Many you young women out there whose stories may be far touching than mine and do not have the opportunity that I have today. An hear to my story.
    I want to be able to speak for them through my story. And maybe one day, they too will proudly with their heads up have the courage to share their experiences.
    This is a most adventurous writing competition I have ever had and would love to explore more of it.
    Apwoyo matek tutwal 🙏 (Means; “Thank you so much 🙏)

    1. Thank you for sharing your story with us, Atim. Your conviction and courage resonate strong and true throughout. It reminded me of a beautiful middle grade fiction novel by Suzy Zail, I AM CHANGE, which reflects many of the atrocities and hopes you wrote about. Congratulations on telling your tale. Dimity Powell

  2. Powerful. I applaud your choice(s), your bravery, your resolution, and the path you have taken. I was in Northern Uganda in 1969, at Murchison Falls National Park. Your inner beauty echoes the beauty I saw in the Nile River topography.
    Bill Younglove

  3. A beautiful courageous story. The power of the human spirit when you think there's no escape but to run. You bravely turned your life around with the help of those who really cared for you.
    Thank you for sharing.
    Carole Ann Smith

  4. Dear Atim Onen,

    I got your article from a friend I sing with in the "Vancouver Swiss Choir". I am deeply touched by your terrible childhood experiences in Northern Uganda.
    Your work for peace among the conflicted Acholi is inspiering. Please let me know how I could be a small part of it from here in Canada?
    Kind regards, Rolf A. Brulhart

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