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A Child's Hell in the Lord's Resistance Army

Grace Akallo
"The first thing, you're beaten. The beating is to initiate you into the army. The second thing, you're forced to kill someone," Grace Akallo told a House panel. (Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)

Grace's group was marched to southern Sudan, where rebels lived in bases protected by allies of the Sudanese government. The girls were taught to clean and dismantle guns. "The first thing, you're beaten. The beating is to initiate you into the army," Grace would testify more than a decade later, on another continent, in another world, in another life. "The second thing, you're forced to kill someone." She told the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations how she was forced to abduct other children: "The more you abduct, the more they give you a rank."

She said Joseph Kony uses "the spirit" to control his young brainwashed soldiers. "When you enter, they smear you with shea nut oil . . . they say that is protection." Then there is a ritual. "They tell you that, 'You do something, you dead. You think of escape, you dead . . . We already know your thoughts.' "

The older girls "became wives" to the men. "In Uganda, we don't say we were abused. There is no word for sex. It is not mentioned. They gave you as wives."

Escape was out of the question. "It's hard to hope."

One night, the children were ordered to invade a village. Grace remembers fainting from thirst, then waking up later in a shallow grave. She walked for three days, eating soil and leaves. She found another group of children who had escaped. "One wanted to kill me. I told them I am not going to die. I escaped from bullets." She persuaded them to join her. They started walking. Some villagers found them and turned them over to the Ugandan soldiers.

Grace was free.

Getting Normal Again

Grace found her family, then returned to St. Mary's to finish school, where Sister Rachelle was still teaching. She also began working as a counselor in a center Sister Rachelle had created for children who had escaped. Grace remembers one child in particular, Evelyn, whom the rebels had used as a shield. Evelyn had been shot in the mouth. "Most of the time, she would feel like her life was destroyed," Grace says. "I would tell her you never know how God works. She still had a future. I would relate my story to her. I told her I escaped and managed to go back to school and I am here to be with you. You can do that. You can become what you want even after going through the torture."

While studying at Uganda Christian University, near Kampala, Grace got a visa to travel to New York to visit Amnesty International. There, she met students who had gone on an exchange program to Uganda from Gordon College near Boston. "I asked them about the school and I applied and I got a scholarship." She is majoring in communications, but hopes to go to graduate school to study international relations and conflict resolution, and maybe someday travel back to Uganda to help the children. "I want to be part of the people struggling day and night to try to bring peace in the world," she told the subcommittee.

During her brief visit to the Hill, the child soldier turned activist lectures senators in hushed elevators and underground shuttles ferrying them to the Capitol. She is accompanied by earnest handlers. Star-struck, she shakes the hand of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and compliments him on his book. "I just finished writing a paper about you," she gushes.

Calm and poised, she urges members of Congress to use their influence to pressure the Ugandan government to end the war, to pressure the government of Sudan to stop supporting the Lord's Resistance Army.

At one point during her testimony, Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.) wanted to know more about survival, about how you ever fully escape war.

"How does a human being at any age, any sex, endure and live to tell about it?" Watson asked. "Do you feel they'll ever be normal again? You've learned to use a gun to kill. And I'm wondering how we could really impact on that. And I thought maybe since you've gone on with your education, you probably have insights that can help us as we try to help you and others like you."

Grace thanked her. "These children need love. These children need peace. These children need concrete futures. A matter of counseling a child for only six months doesn't help." Reclaiming a normal life takes more than that for a child no longer a soldier.

"I'm going back home. I'm going back to a community that does not accept me. I'm going back to a community where there's no food," Grace explains. "I'm going back to a community that's terrible. Like, I'm used to now getting food from the people forcibly, but I'm going home and I don't have food. Now, how do I get normal again?"

The day after her testifimony, Grace returns to the Hill to see Brownback, whom she met two years ago when he was on a fact-finding mission to Uganda. Brownback invites her to join him as he races to the Capitol to vote. Grace speaks bluntly as they head to the elevator. "The U.S. government needs to get the Ugandan government to talk peace," she says. "When they abduct you, they kill people. They force you to kill people when they try to escape."

Brownback excuses himself: "I need to go vote and I'll be right back."

Grace finds herself standing there patiently, in sandaled feet and proper dress, while barefoot children are being stolen in the night in Uganda. And the activist that she has become does what she once did as a soldier.

She waits.

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