washingtonpost.com
A Child's Hell in the Lord's Resistance Army
Years After She Escaped Ugandan Rebels, Grace Akallo Fights to End a War

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 10, 2006

War is ugly.

Yet she is still beautiful, sitting there with her scarred cinnamon brown skin. Her lips shine with a natural gloss. Her legs are wounded and polished.

Her eyes flicker with a comprehension of having gone to hell and returned to this side.

And she is telling how she survived.

She is here to put a face on the war. Tell about the atrocities, cruel and brutal; recount the scenes of a war in northern Uganda, where rebels led by a madman steal sleeping children from their beds, because children are easier to brainwash. Tell of rebels who smear the children with oil, promising that the oil will protect them. That the bullets will bounce off the oil. And the children believe them. Then they force the children to kill or be killed.

Grace Akallo, once one of those children, is waiting in the office of Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who has requested to see her. The senator emerges from a meeting and introduces Grace, now 26, to a member of his entourage:

"The Lord's Resistance Army came in one night and took her into captivity."

"How long were you in captivity?" the man asks Grace.

"Seven months," Grace answers.

"Seven months," the man says. "Bless your heart and welcome to Washington."

She has come to Washington to get the U.S. government to do what it can to stop the war in northern Uganda, a 20-year-old war in which more than 30,000 children have been abducted, held in captivity and forced to fight in the Lord's Resistance Army.

The LRA, which wants to topple the Ugandan government and create a government based on the Ten Commandments as law, is led by Joseph Kony, who claims to represent the Acholi people. Except support among the Acholi has dwindled, and adults ceased to enlist in the LRA. But children were more easily manipulated. The LRA began snatching them from villages. Grace says children make up more than 80 percent of the LRA. They are subjected to a "spiritual initiation" and sometimes ordered to kill relatives or neighbors. Pretty girls are given to older commanders as wives; the others are often killed.

Grace tells her story with passion but also with a kind of disassociation from the horrors that she as an unwilling child soldier witnessed and endured. She, too, had to kill people. She remembers being ordered to beat a little girl, taking a small stick and hitting the girl's legs. And because she was not hitting hard enough, one of the rebel commanders took a stick and hit Grace in the back of the head: "You know the soft part where it hurts." She blacked out. And when she came to, the little girl was already dead.

An Uneasy Sleep

Many children who live in northern Uganda leave their villages every night and commute to town centers in search of safe places to sleep. They have been called "Invisible Children." On April 29, people across the United States marched in a "Night Commute" to shed light on the plight of children in northern Uganda. In Washington, about 1,200 people camped in a plaza down the street from the Capitol. They crept on the ground, drew pictures and wrote letters to President Bush to ask the U.S. government to appoint a peace negotiator in Uganda.

"We are sleeping here because the kids in Uganda have to sleep outside because they fear being abducted by the rebels," said Bobby Bailey, 24, a filmmaker and co-founder of Invisible Children, a group organized to help children in Uganda. "Me and a few other guys went to northern Uganda in 2003 and made this movie. What we found inspired us to make a difference."

The documentary was made by three white kids from San Diego who went to Africa in search of a story -- any story. At first, like excited frat boys, they filmed themselves -- killing a snake emerging from its hole, getting sick, dancing, marveling at the African landscape. Then one night, they stumbled upon children sleeping in a town square. "We were going to Sudan because of the genocide," says Bailey, "but our host took us to a refugee camp in northern Uganda. Then a vehicle gets bombed in front of us. We say, 'What's going on?' She says we are in the middle of a war. We say, 'What war?' Then she took us to the city and we saw thousands of kids sleeping, lying down with blankets without their parents."

Cameras rolling, they began asking the children questions. Why are you here?

One boy, maybe 10, his English like the clear, lyrical recitation of a horrible epic, told how his brother had been killed by the rebels. He began to sob. The camera remains trained on the child's face until intimacy becomes torment.

Stolen Children

Before she was abducted, Grace begged her father to send her to school, a privilege often reserved for boys in Uganda. She went to board at St. Mary's College, a convent run by Italian nuns in Aboke.

The school was an oasis in the midst of war -- during the day. At night, the students had to leave their beds to go into town to avoid being abducted by the rebels. When Sister Rachelle Fassera heard of rebel movements, she would warn the girls to get their blankets and head to the city center to sleep that night. "Every night, Sister would say, leave your books on your desk. Go to the dormitory and take only your blanket."

It was Independence Day. There were no classes. The girls were dancing. People were happy. Grace remembers someone saying, "Maybe this is the last time we will dance."

She remembers Sister Rachelle going out to find government soldiers to guard the dormitories that night. She returned with a promise of protection, but by midnight, no soldiers had arrived. The rebels attacked.

The rebels found the dormitory with the younger girls, and flashed lights through the windows. Grace remembers the beam freezing on the face of one girl, her eyes wide with fright. She heard a rebel shout: "They are there!"

The rebels demanded that the girls open the door, or they would throw bombs inside. One girl did, thinking it would give others a chance to escape.

In a moment of thick fear, the mind gets confused. Grace tried three times to change into a proper dress. Tried three times to slip on some shoes. But her mind would not engage her body to obey. She would spend the next seven months walking through the bush in a nightgown, barefoot.

"I was confused seeing the machete and seeing the gun. I thought I was going to die. My body went numb. I tried to put on that dress that would allow me to run."

The night of the abduction, Grace was 15. She would turn 16 in the bush with the rebels. The rebels made the girls tie themselves to a long rope. "It was not the time for tears. Girls were screaming."

The rebels marched 139 girls out of the school and into the darkness. They walked one night and one day, through the bush, following no road. The rebels did not realize Sister Rachelle was following their tracks.

When she found them, the nun fell on her knees and begged the rebels to let her girls go. "She was telling him, 'Take me and release the girls, or kill me and release my children.' '' The commander made her take off her habit. "The veil is very important to the sisters," Grace said. "She removed it because she wanted the girls rescued. She had money and medicine. I wish you had seen her. She was so desperate."

The rebels sat down on banana leaves and began dividing the girls into two groups. "If you looked scared, you are picked. If you looked confident, you are picked. We thought they would kill either group. The girls were trying to disfigure themselves so they would be left behind." Some girls hitched arms up, trying to look crippled. Grace tied her nightgown, hoping they would think she was pregnant and have no use for her.

Twenty-eight girls were chosen to sit in a separate place. "They chose 28, but they wanted 30. The guy came to me and he said, 'Didn't I select you?' I said, 'No, sir.' He took me to the leader of the big group. They said I would be an example to the others."

"Kill me!" Sister Rachelle shouted. "Don't kill her."

The nun knelt down before the commander. The commander told her, "I'm not a god. Get up." Then, 109 girls were chosen, freed to go with Sister Rachelle.

The girls left behind began to wail. Grace can still hear their screams: No, we would rather die than stay with these people.

The 30 girls left with the rebels were warned: If any one girl escaped, the 29 left behind would die.

For seven months, they were held captive.

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.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company