The sounds of singing and drumming drifted out through the night despite the late hour. The wake had gathered dozens of neighbors together around an open fire to cry, wail, eat and drink til dawn – a final farewell to usher the old woman into the hands of God and the world of spirits. Tucked up in her bed in a hut nearby, the familiar songs had sung 16-year-old Marleine Solange Yagasaurma to sleep hours before.
Out beyond the last houses where the neatly swept courtyards gave way to thick underbrush and the inky blackness of the forest, men crouched with their guns and machetes, waiting. At a signal, they rose and walked calmly towards the firelight.
In March 2008, most residents of the town of Obo in southeastern Central African Republic had heard of the tongo-tongo – the local name for the Lord's Resistance Army, the much feared dread-locked foreigners who'd fought as mercenaries for Khartoum in its war against the south. Some had even learned from the traders, who plied the road east to the border on bicycles, of a number of recent attacks on villages in nearby Sudan. But southern Sudan had been unsettled for decades, and so another wave of unrest there was little cause for concern.
On that night in March, the LRA quickly rounded up the gathering of mourners then, methodically, went door to door, sometimes knocking, sometimes breaking in. By torchlight, the townspeople were lined up and roped together in a human train, the contents of their freshly looted homes piled high on their heads. Any resistance was dealt with swiftly and brutally, an example to others. Having scouted the area in the days before the raid, the rebels had placed teams at all the trail heads to sweep up anyone brave enough to make a run for it.
At the time, peace talks were underway in the southern Sudanese capital, Juba, but it was clear they were failing. And so, the LRA, under the command of Joseph Kony, was gearing up for the return to conflict that would inevitably follow. The raids into CAR were an expedition aimed at securing provisions – food, goods, but also humans.
In all, over a hundred people were taken that night, and the LRA would hit village after village along the 100 km stretch of road leading towards the Sudanese border. They never fired a shot.
Many of those abducted from Obo were released days later after hauling the rebels' loot south to temporary bases in Democratic Republic of Congo. But the children were kept.
The LRA has a long history of kidnapping. Adolescent boys are easily molded into killers through fear and psychological manipulation. And Kony rewards loyal commanders with gifts of young girls, who, in turn, bear the children that will one day grow up to perpetuate the macabre system.
Following the raid on Obo, LRA commanders carried out a triage of their hostages. Men were separated from women, young from old. A number of women recall being asked if they'd already given birth to children. Those who had were released.
Marleine Solange Yagasaurma's childhood ended that night in March 2008. Two and a half years later, she would return to Obo a woman – a baby in her arms. When we interviewed her, she'd been home just two weeks. This is her story.
"The tongo-tongo arrived in my neighborhood at 3 a.m. I heard them when they were forcing the door. They smashed it. I started to sit up and realized there was already a soldier standing over me. He grabbed my hand and said, 'Get up.' He told me to gather my clothes. Then he told me to go outside, where he tied me up with a rope.
"It was dark. But there were torches, and I saw that there were already many people there. They gave me something to carry on my head, and we left. They marched us to the crossroads that leads to the Sudanese border.
"They brought us into the bush and took us to their commander, who'd stayed behind. Then they started to divide us up between the men. At the time I didn't know that they were giving us to these men as their wives. They said, 'You, you go with this group. And you, you go with that group'.
"There were some Zandes [members of an ethnic group present in southeastern Central African Republic, northern Democratic Republic of Congo and parts of southern Sudan] already with them, and they were the ones who said we were being divided up to become the wives of these rebels. I started to cry, then I prayed to God. I thought to myself, 'If God wants to save me, He will save me. And I'll get out of here somehow. If God does not, then I will die here.' That is what I was thinking...I was 16 years old when that happened.
"It was the evening, and they just took me and said, 'You, you will sleep there tonight with that man'. I didn't speak their language then. I stayed with him.
"He was tall. He was no longer young, and he only had one eye. He would insult me, insult my parents, my mother. He said they didn't care about me anymore. He said even if my mother were there, he could kill me and she wouldn't say a word. Every day he would beat me, telling me he could kill me if he wanted to.
"I used to talk to the women who'd been kidnapped in Sudan long before. The other women there told me that it was part of (the rebels') tradition. That the men would abduct young girls by force and take them back home to be their wives. They told me it was an obligation. They said if I tried to fight it, I would lose. So I waited to see what would happen.
"My idea was to escape during an attack, during a raid on a village. That was the plan I had in mind.
"While I was with the rebels, I got pregnant. I wasn't happy. I didn't want to have a child with this evil man. But I didn't know how to prepare the drink that provokes a miscarriage... So I told myself it was the will of God. I'd never had a child before.
"He had always beaten me. But I told him I was pregnant, and he realized it was true. Their leader had told them not to beat their women when they were pregnant. So, from then on he was afraid to hit me. He was afraid of their law. For once things were calm. All I had to do was prepare the meals and do the washing.
"One day, while I was pregnant, we ran into the Ugandan army, and they began to shoot at us. That day we were on the run from the morning until night fell. I didn't have any strength left. I would run a bit then I had nothing left. The rebels asked, 'Why are you stopping?' And I said, 'I'm tired. I can't go any further.' They told me that I'd better start running, because if the Ugandan soldiers caught me, they'd kill me. So I gathered up my courage and kept running.
"I was with their leader's group the day I gave birth. It was my first child, so I didn't know what was happening. I started having pains in my pelvis and belly early in the morning. I was in labor for two days. I thanked God once it was over, but I wondered how I was going to march in the bush with that baby and what I was going to do if there was an attack.
"One day we were delegated to attack a road leading towards Sudan, to burn the vehicles on the road. They stopped a vehicle, burned it, and killed three people. There were sixteen LRA plus two of us girls. They'd looted the vehicle, and ten of them carried what they'd stolen back to their commander. Six stayed behind.
"Again, we came out on the road that led to Ezo, in Sudan. We were just outside the village, waiting to burn another vehicle, but, when it came close, we saw it was full of soldiers. They'd already seen us. We started to run. We heard gunshots behind us. One of the rebels was hit, and it broke his leg. So we had to carry him until night fell.
"During the night, we were attacked again. I said to the other girl that now was the time to escape. We were right next to the village. So we ran. I had my baby with me.
"The people took us in in the village. I still felt like I was in the bush, but they said we were saved."A Ugandan plane flew me home. I've been back for two weeks now. I was welcomed back by my family...so was my baby. But there are others who say, 'Why didn't she kill that child in the bush? That's the child of a tongo-tongo. Why did she bring it home with her?' They don't say it to my face, but others have heard these things and have come and told me."