IJM Gulu: The Beginning of Justice for Catherine

Catherine (second from left) with some of her children and grandchildren, all of whom rely on the widow for support.
Catherine (second from left) with some of her children and grandchildren, all of whom rely on the widow for support.
Catherine’s home was stolen from her by former LRA soldiers after violence forced her to temporarily flee it. Now IJM is advocating to get Catherine’s land back so she can return home.
Catherine’s home was stolen from her by former LRA soldiers after violence forced her to temporarily flee it. Now IJM is advocating to get Catherine’s land back so she can return home.

GULU, UGANDA – When IJM Gulu met Catherine in late 2012, her family of two children and four grandchildren was only eating one meal a day. It looked like her grandchildren were going to need to drop out of school, because she had no idea how she could keep paying their small school fees. She was desperate for help.

A Life Displaced by Violence, Replaced with Uncertainty 

Catherine is a widow who shares a story like many other women in Gulu, a war-torn region in Northern Uganda where the violence of Joseph Kony's militia group, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), made headlines for decades. Her husband was killed by soliders more than 20 years ago. She has been supporting her children – and now their children – on her own ever since.

In 1995, Catherine and her young family fled their home in Gulu because of the increasing violence and insurgency started by Kony's LRA. For nearly a decade and a half, she made a new life in an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp. Like many other refugees fleeing the same violence, they eked out a simple living. They had enough to eat and the children went to the small school in the crowded camp.

In 2009, as the violence died down in northern Uganda, everyone was told it was now safe to go back home. The temporary camp where they had built a life was closed, and the fragile existence Catherine had patched together was uprooted once again.

The men started threatening violence, wielding knives, spears and machetes – terrifying reminders of their power in the community. She went back to Gulu, but she discovered that former LRA soliders were now living in her home. And they refused to give it back to her. In an attempt to placate the widow, they gave Catherine a tiny piece of the land her husband had owned. It was not large enough to plant anything, so Catherine tried to stand up for herself. She said that is when the men started threatening violence, wielding knives, spears and machetes – terrifying reminders of their power in the community.

When her little house then mysteriously burned to the ground, Catherine believed these men were to blame – and that their threats were growing more serious.

Displaced once again, Catherine move into a small hut on her relatives' land. She farmed a tiny bit of that land, selling some of the crops in the market and sharing some with her family. It was never enough. Since leaving the IDP camp, her children have been in and out of school, only able to go when there is money to pay the school fees.

The Beginning of Justice

Catherine's is one of the first cases IJM has taken on in Gulu since opening our newest field office there in 2012. The road to get her home has been filled with obstacles and unexpected turns, but IJM lawyers have built a strong case for Catherine's claim to her land. Social workers have made sure that Catherine has enough food, a way to earn an income and a safe place to stay while the case develops. Her school-aged children and grandchildren are back in school.

On May 13, 2013, IJM helped local police arrest the eight men who threatened Catherine – a landmark victory for her entire community. Last month, on May 13, 2013, IJM celebrated a breakthrough in Catherine's case. For Catherine, it was a glimpse of hope she had nearly given up: Eight of the men who allegedly seized her land and threatened her with violence were arrested and imprisoned. They remain in custody in Gulu, facing charges of aggravated robbery. It was an incredible milestone in a long journey toward justice for Catherine, but it was also a landmark for her entire community.

"There are so many widows like Catherine in Gulu. It's a place ravaged by war and forgotten by so many," says Eva Kadi, IJM Gulu Director, adding, "But it's a part of my country, and it's a place where justice can reign. This fight will not be easy, but thankfully, we are not walking alone."