Having survived life as a sex slave, a daring escape from her captors, and a grueling journey across land and sea, Nakout is stopped in her tracks in northern Greece.
Nakout Sylvia cannot remember her birthday. The memory was lost somewhere in the lawless borderlands of central Africa, where she was held captive in the bush by the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), one of Africa’s most feared and brutal ‘rebel’ gangs.
Her temporary travel documents say she was born on 01/01/1979, but the date is arbitrary. A national of South Sudan, she thinks she is 35, or 36.
She was, for 12 years, a sex-slave.
As each year passed there was nothing to celebrate.
“Maybe when I settle, I will celebrate it,” she said, her eyes twinkling.
As things stand, her hope of a new life, settlement, and a birthday party to mark it are as remote as the violent patch of scrub and jungle shared by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, and Central African Republic (CAR) where she survived for so long.
Travel restrictions introduced by the Balkan countries on November 19 mean that northern Europe, a favored destination for migrants and refugees, is no longer accessible to people like Nakout.
Nakout wanted to settle in Germany or Sweden, like so many others, but her best option may be to apply for asylum in Greece. According to the new policy implemented by Slovenia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYRoM), Serbia, and Croatia, only those fleeing wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan are allowed to pass through.
The 26-year-old war in Somalia, and the new conflicts gripping Yemen, South Sudan, Libya, and CAR, don’t qualify.
“Every person has the right to seek asylum, regardless of where they come from,” says Vincent Cochetel who heads the UNHCR’s Europe Bureau. “Asylum must be granted for those in need not just based on nationality. The only fair way to determine need is with individual screening, not profiling based on nationality.”
“I hope, in the future, I will go and look for my children.”
At the time of her interview, Nakout was one of many marooned in northern Greece, a few hundred meters from a freshly erected fence on the FYROM border, alongside hundreds of others fleeing conflicts and persecution from Myanmar to Morocco.
“First I want to get proper treatment. Proper health care,” she said, adding that she is HIV positive as a result of her ordeal. A short time later she decided to apply for asylum in Greece and rode a bus to Athens, where she hoped to find a safe, warm place to stay, access to medical and psychosocial care, and legal counseling.
“I hope, in the future, I will go and look for my children… I know I’ve not been a good mother because I failed to bring them up.”
Nakout grew up in southern Sudan, near Kapoeta, and later moved to northern Uganda, where she met her husband, Akollo.
She was snatched from her family home in Soroti, eastern Uganda, in October 2003. Three people were slaughtered. Akollo was among them.
After two days in a truck, she arrived in Garamba National Park in DR Congo. She was raped for three straight days, she said.
“Any man who wanted us could just come and ask us for sex.”
After a long pause, she resumed: “We could not… We could not deny…”
“We had to give them what they wanted. You sleep with four to five men in a day. We don’t bathe, we don’t eat… that’s how we were treated,” she said, sobbing slowly.
She never saw her two young children, Kuluo Joseph and Okuret Samuel, again.
“I’ve even stopped missing them because, until when do I keep missing them?”
This was the pattern of her life for the next 12 years, punctuated by a two-week period where she was too sick to have sex. She remembered that time with fondness.
Joseph Kony has led the LRA’s brutal guerrilla war across central Africa for almost 30 years, commanding a killing, maiming, and raping spree of rare and extreme cruelty.
Kony, a former choirboy who claims to be guided by spirits and to take instruction from God, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for 12 counts of crimes against humanity.
“Only to be raped to death, that is what I expected of my life.”
Shortly after arriving in DR Congo, Nakout and her fellow abductees met with “the big man.”
“Kony told us that if there is no sex, no life,” Nakout said.
Kony took one of her friends away and brought her back two days later. Then he picked another and finished with her after three days. Finally, it was Nakout’s turn.
“When they took me, I finished almost a week,” she said. “For me, I was like, ‘I am gone.’ Because at any time I was expecting to be killed. Only to be raped to death, that is what I expected of my life.”
By 2009 Nakout had fallen pregnant and given birth to a baby boy. The LRA named the child Joseph Kony because of his resilience in surviving the harsh conditions of the bush.
When he was four years old, the young Kony was taken away. She doesn’t know what happened to him.
It is impossible to verify much of Nakout’s account, but many details of her ordeal match those of established events within the LRA, such as the attack when she was abducted, the failed peace talks in 2008, and the death of a senior commander, Vincent Otti, in mysterious circumstances.
“When Vincent Otti died our lives were messed up because when he was there at least the big man could listen to him,” she said. “When Vincent Otti was killed, Kony became very rude, he could kill his own soldiers, he killed three of them even like we are sitting like this.”
In December 2014, Nakout made her unexpected and extraordinary escape.
She paid for her freedom with the only currency she knew: sex.
She was smuggled out of the camp in a grain bag by a merchant who supplied the camp with food and drugs.
“I was carried by three people into the car. Then when they put me in the car, they put me under some of those boxes. That’s how they drove me out of Garamba,” she said.
“I think that was God because that man was my Saviour.”
They traveled for three days across South Sudan and into Ethiopia, where the man gave her some dollars and hugged her three times.
“Even if that man used me, it was God. I say that. I think that was God because that man was my Saviour.”
She used the money to pay traffickers to deliver her, by a series of four different boats, including a cargo ship, all the way to Turkey, she said. The route of her six-week voyage is unclear because she traveled at night and was mostly hidden under cargo.
“We went in the sea. I don’t know where we were. Our first place to see people was Izmir,” she said, referring to a port on the west coast of Turkey.
She had to “befriend” more men to pay for her passage to Greece, across the Aegean Sea.
The boat’s motor broke and she was adrift for four days before the coastguard towed them to the Greek island of Samos, the shores of Europe.
“You see, God loves me,” she said, looking up and raising her palms to the sky. “God loves me most.”