During nearly two decades of civil war in northern Uganda, an estimated 30,000 children have been abducted by rebels and forced to fight or become sex slaves. This week, a congressional subcommittee heard testimony from one young Ugandan woman who was kidnapped and trained to kill, but, miraculously, escaped and survived to tell her story.
Ten years ago, Grace Akallo, then 15, was an ordinary student, attending a girl's boarding school in northern Uganda.
But, one day, all that changed. "In October 1996, the Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, attacked Saint Mary's College, Aboke, in Apac District in northern Uganda. They abducted 139 girls, including myself," she said.
Although, the rebels eventually released 109 of the students, Akallo and 29 other girls were forcibly marched into southern Sudan. There, she said the rebels had bases that were run and protected by forces allied with the government of Sudan. And it was at one of those bases, Grace Akallo says, that she learned how to be a rebel. "I and the other girls captured with me were trained to assemble and disassemble, clean and use guns. We were used as slave labor by the LRA and Sudanese government soldiers. We were forcibly given to senior LRA commanders as so-called 'wives'," she said.
She was held against her will for seven months. During that time, she witnessed the brutal murder of two children who had tried to escape. But Akallo says she prayed to God constantly and looked for any opportunity to regain her freedom. "One night, we were forced to raid a village. I fainted from thirst. I woke up hours later, buried alive in a shallow grave. The Ugandan soldiers attacked a base of the Lord's Resistance Army, allowing me a chance to escape. I walked for three days, living on soil and leaves before I found another group of children who had also escaped. I persuaded eight of them to join me , and we eventually found a group of villagers who took care of us, before helping us to connect with the Uganda army to return home," she said.
Ms. Akallo is now 26 years old and studying communications at Gorden College in Boston in the United States. She spoke of behalf of World Vision at the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Right and International Operations along with officials from other international relief groups and the U.S. State Department.
Subcommittee Chairman Chris Smith, a Republican congressman from New Jersey, opened the hearing by detailing the horrendous impact of Uganda's civil war, including the displacement of almost two million people.
The LRA, a cult-like movement which has devastated northern Uganda for 19 years operating from bases in the Sudan, is notorious for killing and maiming children. The International Criminal Court in The Hague has issued arrest warrants for five members of the LRA, including Kony.
Congressman Smith said it was the children of Uganda who are suffering the most, noting that half of the two million displaced persons are children under the age of 15.
Smith told the committee the Ugandan government has clearly been unable to end this war, either through peaceful or military means, and so the atrocities continue. "As in Uganda, children are used by governments or government-supported militias and rebel forces such as the LRA. They desperately need our help. To that end, I and some of my colleagues in the House and Senate are planning to shortly introduce legislation to address the issue of child soldiers. This legislation condemns the conscription, forced recruitment or use of children by governments of paramilitaries in hostilities and urges the U.S. government to lead efforts to enforce existing international standards to end this horrendous human rights abuse," he said.
If passed, the legislation would deny United States military assistance to seven of the 26 nations believed to use children in their forces, among them, Burundi, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Paraguay, Sudan and Uganda.
As for former child soldier Grace Akallo, she says the best way to help traumatized children is making sure they receive an education, something, she says, represents hope for a better future.