By The Hill Staff - 10/11/06 12:00 AM EDT
More than 30,000 children are thought to have been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda, a cultish group that claimed to want to create a government based on the Ten Commandments even as it ignored their tenets.
Grace Akallo was one of those children. She spent seven horrifying months in captivity, beaten and forced to beat others, until she escaped when Ugandan government soldiers attacked an LRA base where she was held.
Now 26, Akallo is a student at Gordon College near Boston and a spokeswoman for World Vision, a Christian relief group that has assisted former child soldiers of Uganda’s 20-year civil conflict. She was part of the Northern Uganda Lobbying Day held yesterday, where 600 activists and students met with congressional offices to encourage U.S. government support for a new ceasefire.
Akallo has a pretty, expressive face and long fingers which clasp softly in a handshake. She speaks in a quiet voice, but answers questions directly, even matter-of-factly, describing her hellish experience in clear, articulate sentences.
When she talks about her life since, a girlish laugh can sneak out, as when she relates meeting Sen. Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat, last spring near the shuttle under the Capitol.
“I heard about him before. I don’t really go crazy about great people,” she says, as her hands reflexively come up to her face in embarrassment. “But because I had just read his book, I go, ‘Oh, it’s you. I just read your book!’”
Akallo was just 15 in 1996 when LRA soldiers kidnapped her and 138 of her classmates at St. Mary’s College boarding school in northern Uganda. Most of the captives where soon released, but 30 students, including Akallo, were not.
The school was one of the few in the region, and she had begged her father to send her there. But the students lived under a near constant threat of LRA soldiers.
Akallo says she and her schoolmates often slept in the bush, hiding from the soldiers who used the cover of darkness to kidnap and brutalize villagers.
By then the rebel group, led by Joseph Kony, had lost much of its support among the local population of Acholi people, who had faced discrimination from the central government. So the LRA resorted to kidnapping children to serve as young, brainwashed soldiers.
The day Akallo was kidnapped, the students had stayed to sleep at the school.
“We were just dancing. We were just happy about Independence Day and being free from class,” she says. Soldiers shined flashlights in the school, searching for victims. Once they found the students, the soldiers threatened to throw bombs in the school unless a door was opened. Akallo was marched with the others in a nightgown and bare feet to an interior LRA camp.
After being abducted, the children were beaten. Young women like Akallo were given as wives to older men in the LRA. Often new recruits had to kidnap and kill others. Captives who were caught escaping were brutally killed.
“They never shoot captives,” Akallo says. “They beat them to death.”
At one point, after a long, dry march into southern Sudan, Akallo fainted. She was thought to be dead, and she awoke buried in a shallow grave.
“It gets to a point when you think, ‘If I survive now, the next day I’m not going to survive.’ It’s just minute-by-minute. It was not hour-by-hour.”
A month later, as Akallo began to lose hope that she would ever see her family again, Ugandan forces attacked the rebel base where she was held. In the chaos, she was able to escape. She lived for three days on soil and leaves in a desperate struggle to safety. Villagers eventually discovered her and others and returned them to the safety of Ugandan government soldiers.
Eventually, Akallo went back to her school, by then protected by the government. She said she cried constantly for her former classmates to be rescued. Some classmates returned pregnant or with kids. Some had been infected with HIV. Five died in captivity. Two are still being held, she says.
Even with the protection of government soldiers, Akallo says her remaining school days were “so scary.”
She eventually graduated and moved to Ugandan Christian University near the capital, Kampala.
Now Akallo is a 26-year-old communications student on scholarship to Gordon College in Boston. And she is a witness to the conflict and an advocate for international support for a ceasefire now in affect.
She says the United States and the rest of the international community need to do more to ensure the peace agreement is reached.
“How do we be sure that if they sign a peace agreement it will work out because there is no one to hold them accountable?” she asks.
Akallo says telling her story is physically exhausting. But she hasn’t shied away from it, in hopes of building international support for ending the conflict. She has spoken before a conference sponsored by Amnesty International. That led to an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show in 2004.
And she has also testified about her ordeal before the House International Relations subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations last April.
Akallo asked the U.S. government to pressure the Sudanese government to stop supporting the LRA, and to provide financial and emotional support for former captives. Often they are ostracized when they return to their community, she says.
Akallo will return to Boston and her classes today. After graduating she wants to work for a year, and then go to graduate school to study international relations and conflict resolution.
Besides her brief meeting with Obama, Akallo remains refreshingly unaffected by her celebrity.
“People ask me about Oprah. ‘What do you think about her?’ I don’t think I’m thinking about Oprah, I’m thinking of something else,” she laughs. She means helping fellow victims and her own, brighter future.