Uganda's Plight Pressed on Capitol Hill

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Donning yellow and orange T-shirts, 700 activists from across the country pressed legislators and Capitol Hill staffers yesterday on the need for high-level American involvement to bring peace to northern Uganda, a region that has experienced wartime atrocities, abductions of children and widespread displacement for more than 20 years.

Among the participants was Grace Akallo, 25, a former Ugandan child soldier, kidnapped from her dormitory by rebels along with 139 other girls 10 years ago. Yesterday, she recalled her ordeal.

"They crashed the dorm windows with rifle butts and threatened to hurl a bomb at us," she said. "We first hid under our beds, pretending not to be there. They could see us, they said, and forced their way in with their guns. Tied together with rope, the girls marched all night."

Akallo said she was held for seven months by the followers of Joseph Kony, the messianic and charismatic founder of the Lord's Resistance Army. During that time, she was forced to walk for miles, subsisting on leaves and sorghum. At a rebel base in southern Sudan, she was trained to handle guns and was ordered to steal food at gunpoint. "We were raped, all of us," she said. Five of her friends were killed and two are still there, she said, adding, "I don't know if they are alive."

Akallo escaped when Ugandan troops attacked, and she returned home the following April. She went on to study at a university in Kampala and then transferred last year to Gordon College, in Wenham, Mass., as a communications senior.

"As a major donor country, the U.S. has a responsibility to take part in the peace talks so the signatories of any agreement are held responsible," Akallo said of a fragile truce negotiated in July, followed by talks involving the rebels and the Sudanese and Ugandan governments. "If left alone, I am not so sure they will honor the agreement," she said.

A number of nonprofit civic groups participated in the two-day gathering in Washington, which included a symposium Monday. The participants included Physicians for Human Rights, Africa Faith and World Vision, as well as policy experts from the International Crisis Group, mediation specialists from the Carter Center, and policy advisers from Oxfam America, Refugees International, the International Rescue Committee, the Brookings Institution and Mercy Corps.

"The peace process is held by a very thin thread," said Julian Atim, 26, a physician working on health care in northern Uganda.

"The United States is a house of power. The warring sides keep threatening to quit the talks and keep holding up conditions," she said. "The rebels have caused suffering. We are sick of them," added Atim, who lost both parents to AIDS.

She said she returned to the 100-bed hospital in Anaka, which she had first visited as a student, because of what she saw there -- patients forced to walk for a day to reach medical care, others dying in refugee camps, and a facility with intermittent water and electricity that lacked basic equipment.

"I think a deal is possible, but it won't happen unless the U.S. engages," said John Prendergast, a senior adviser to the International Crisis Group who has served in past U.S. administrations. "It is very important to send an envoy to Juba to bring U.S. leverage to the process," he said, referring to the town in southern Sudan where the talks are being held. He said Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni "needs a partner for peace and the only partner he finds desirable is the United States."

"The absence of the Bush administration from the talks is condemning millions of northern Ugandans to a fate little better than death in the endless IDP [internally displaced persons] camps," Prendergast said. "For a few pennies and a little diplomatic energy, the Bush administration could help bring peace to northern Uganda."

Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) said he was going to call Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to ask her to send an envoy to the Uganda peace talks. Smith has also introduced legislation that would impose sanctions against governments and rebel groups that use child soldiers. It also would provide more psychological services for children recovering from forced soldiering.

Kony and four of his top lieutenants are wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. They are charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during a dark and vicious 20-year conflict in which rebels hacked off the lips, ears and breasts of their victims. About 25,000 children were abducted and forced to become child soldiers or sex slaves, while 2 million people remain displaced.

On Monday, speaking on his country's 44th anniversary of independence from the British, Museveni charged that Kony and his lieutenants were dragging their feet in the peace process talks in Juba to avoid the war crimes tribunal. Earlier this year, the tribunal urged Uganda, Sudan and Congo to turn over rebel suspects.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company