Benedeta’s hands lay broad and calloused across her granddaughter’s little belly, telling much more of her story than her shy voice ever would.
Spidery wrinkles show us Benedeta the Matriarch, the resilient widow who raised up nine children and 20 grandchildren largely on her own.
Her strong and able fingers give us Benedeta the Provider — the tireless worker feeding and sheltering her family on this dry patch of Ugandan farmland. Eking out a life in poverty with years spent dragging a heavy wooden hoe.
But the tenderness in her hands reveals Benedeta the Giver, the selfless spirit comforting each grandbaby around her, who would do anything to see them succeed.
This is a woman tried and tested by life’s struggles.
Called upon to be brave as she led her family out of a war zone. Pushed to her limits along a terrifying journey since then. Who nearly lost it all — her home, her land, her family’s feeble security — to a swell of violence like our team has rarely seen.
But this is a woman who feels triumphant now. Because, for the first time in 20 years, she can rest knowing her family is safe.
Grandma Benedeta can recall the panic that drove her family to flee in 1996, when Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army waged war ever closer to her cassava fields. She remembers leading her children on foot through the scrubby brush to a makeshift camp where, alongside thousands of other refugees, they would struggle day-to-day for the next 12 years.
Even when the violence subsided and others moved home, Benedeta clung to the camp’s meager security.
“I feared before I left the camp,” she told us. “I feared the LRA soldiers would come back and attack me on my land. I was so afraid I waited six months after many others had already returned.”
Cautiously at first, Benedeta moved her family back to their 20 acres and surveyed the disrepair. Her fields lay fallow. Thatched roofs had fallen in patches. Rebuilding would take great effort, but she finally began to hope again, to believe they were safe at last.
But a new threat was waiting just beyond her boundary lines, poised to take it all away.
Just six months after Benedeta resettled, a group of men boldly claimed her small patch of farmland as their own. Much of the land in Northern Uganda was left in dispute after Kony left, but this conflict was motivated more by power and greed.
To these men, Benedeta was only a widow — poorer and weaker than they were. They built homes on her garden and hurled insults if she tried to resist. They believed she would be easily subdued.
But Benedeta knew this threat wasn’t just about her own survival. Her whole family’s future depended on it. This was their food and shelter, their money for school fees and medicine. The land was everything.
“My children and grandchildren were still so young.
Without my land, I would not be able to raise them
without a way of farming for food or money.”
As Benedeta refused to go, angry threats grew more sinister, and men skulked around her boundary with machetes in hand. Her crops were hacked down and her progress destroyed. Her two youngest sons, Ayella and Otto, were attacked with spears when they tried to farm again.
This attack, above all others, drove Benedeta to action. “Attacking my sons was a direct attack against my life,” she said. “They are my life.”
She hurriedly begged her case before Local Council leaders. They stood up for her, but the bullies kept on. She appealed to higher officials and they sided with her, but the bullies simply ignored the commands to leave.
Instead, they threatened to kill Benedeta if she stayed.
As hard as Benedeta struggled, there was nothing she could do to stop these men. No one left, she thought, to protect her. Other families in Northern Uganda were beginning to thrive again — but her family was left hungry and homeless as they abandoned their land out of fear.
For Benedeta — the matriarch, the provider, the giver — failing her family this way was misery. She confessed, “I had lost all hope.”
When we met Benedeta, she was hiding in a dusty village, completely terrified. Her family had been chased from home once again. In her mind it was the final flight.
“I was so scared,” she told us softly.
“I was fearing for the worst.”
Our team at International Justice Mission partners with local authorities to protect the poor from violence, bring criminals to justice, and help the justice system regain strength.
Our local lawyers, investigators, social workers and activists have been defending widows in Uganda since 2004 (and in the north since 2012). We’ve helped hundreds of families like Benedeta’s return home safely.
We took on Benedeta’s case, but it did little to dampen the arrogance of these men. In Gulu, the laws designed to protect the weak haven’t been enforced in years. So Benedeta’s tormentors decided to test our resolve: They came after IJM staff.
One hot June day, these men abducted three of Benedeta’s relatives and plotted to trap and burn the IJM car as we came to help. Fortunately, our investigators discovered the ambush just in time. (“We were all terrified,” one investigator said later.)
We rallied the police, rescued the family and arrested 17 men waiting with rusty spears and machetes. Those men are standing trial today.
Benedeta’s story reminds us of the hard truth we’re learning around the world. A widow like her can struggle tirelessly, but up against bullies and criminals she cannot hope to see her family rise out of poverty.
Newer tools, cleaner water and better education could certainly help her family. But they can’t address what’s keeping her poor. They can’t stop the hands of violence.
More and more, we’re seeing how effective law enforcement can actually reduce violence and make people like Benedeta safe enough to thrive. Lasting change like this will be an ongoing struggle in Northern Uganda, but it’s already made an impact for Benedeta. It’s already restoring her hope.
For the first time in nearly 20 years, Benedeta feels safe in her home. She knows the police and other authorities can help her. And, even though the trial against her attackers will take time, she’s already dreaming of what this new life could hold.
“My greatest joy right now is I can sleep without fear.
I can finally farm without fear of being attacked in the fields.”
Being safe unlocks all the great dreams Benedeta’s kept for her family.
As her new cassava crops mature, she’ll put her 20 grandkids back in school and help her sons get vocational training. They’ll improve the thatch-roofed houses and try new plants to farm.
Her family will have a firmer footing for the future, and this is the most important thing for Grandma Benedeta — matriarch, provider and giver. It’s what she wanted all along.
Many more people like Benedeta are waiting for a defender. You can be part of the solution to violence — keeping families safe and helping them thrive.
International Justice Mission is a global organization protecting the poor from violence throughout the developing world. We partner with local authorities to rescue victims, bring criminals to justice, restore survivors and strengthen justice systems. Learn more about our work at IJM.org.
Story by Scott Adams. Photography by Quinn Neely.