A Mother’s Bitter Choice: Telling Kidnappers No

The New York Times, Jan. 25, 2003
http://www.nytimes.com/
By MARC LACEY

K[ALA, Uganda — Lord’s Resistance Army, a quasi-religious movement that has wreaked havoc in northern Uganda for almost 20 years, trying to topple the government of President Yoweri Museveni.

The deputy headmistress of St. Mary’s, an Italian nun named Sister Rachele Fassera, managed to secure the release of 109 of the girls by following the rebels into the bush. But not Charlotte.

Mrs. Atyam was determined to get her daughter back. So unrelenting was she that it did not take long before she emerged as one of the country’s leading peace advocates, spearheading a crusade on behalf of parents who have watched some 26,000 children fall prey to rebel abductions since the war began in the 1980’s.

She bonded with other parents, and soon simply getting her daughter back was not enough.

Months after the abduction, Mrs. Atyam met with two rebels outside town, and they offered her a deal: the rebels would release Charlotte, then 16, if her outspoken mother would stay quiet.

Mrs. Atyam faced a choice. She could accept the deal and, if the notoriously unreliable rebels followed through, live happily with Charlotte. Or she could stick to her convictions and demand that the rebels release all of the 30 schoolgirls they continued to hold.

“I told them that the minimum they could do was give back the 30 girls,” Mrs. Atyam said. “I said one will not do, even if she’s my daughter. Some people said I was crazy, but all those children became my children.”

Seven years later, some still question her stand. Now Mrs. Atyam believes that Charlotte may be the very last abductee to be released, an attempt by the rebels to spite her.

“You can imagine other mothers being completely hysterical and angry and spiteful, but that’s not Angelina,” said Mary Diaz, executive director of the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, in New York, which has worked with Mrs. Atyam for years. “She’s focused on getting these children out.”

Today, as co-founder and chairwoman of the Concerned Parents Association, Mrs. Atyam has traveled the world recounting her daughter’s plight, as she did in an interview this week in the garden of a Kampala hotel.

Warm and extraordinarily expressive, even as she carries herself with serene dignity, Mrs. Atyam visited Washington in 1998 to meet Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was then first lady. When Secretary of State Colin L. Powell traveled to Uganda in 2001, Mrs. Atyam met with his wife, Alma. Last fall, she addressed the Security Council of the United Nations, telling the gathered diplomats about Charlotte and the many other children missing in Uganda’s war.

Mrs. Atyam, 56, is a midwife by profession, born in the village of Bobi in northern Uganda. Her husband, George, from a nearby town, runs a Coca-Cola distribution depot. The couple has five other children, ages 14 to 29, at home in Lira. The home is not far from the boarding school where Charlotte was taken, or from the rebels’ strongholds. “I know she’s not very far from us, and that is very frustrating.”

Since the abduction, Mrs. Atyam has become much more protective of the five children still at home. Her two eldest daughters disagreed with her decision at the time, but came to accept their mother’s choice after meeting many of the other families who had also lost children to the rebels. Her husband was supportive, she said.

While Mrs. Atyam, too, has grown more comfortable with the decision, she said it still haunted her. She wonders, and worries, whether Charlotte will understand if — Mrs. Atyam prefers the word when — her daughter is released.

Some time back, Mrs. Atyam became hopeful that she would. Another girl, who had escaped the rebels, told Mrs. Atyam that Charlotte had tried to organize an escape for all the girls of the boarding school. The effort failed, the girl said, and Charlotte was beaten 200 times.

“She didn’t just run away alone,” Mrs. Atyam said.

Over the years Mrs. Atyam has heard other snippets about Charlotte’s life from other escapees, the latest word, simply that her daughter was still alive, coming just two weeks ago.

The children of the boarding school, those who have escaped say, are guarded extra closely by rebels who have been ordered to kill them if they try to flee.

Like all the abducted girls, Charlotte was assigned to a rebel commander shortly after her abduction, Mrs. Atyam has been told. The ceremony is considered marriage among the rebels, but Mrs. Atyam considers it nothing other than an induction into sexual slavery.

Mrs. Atyam said she learned that Charlotte was impregnated and nearly died while giving birth to a little boy. Another child, whose sex Mrs. Atyam does not know, came later.

To endure the long ordeal, Mrs. Atyam clings to her many memories of her daughter. “There are certain things I used to take for granted about Charlotte,” she said. “Whenever I was not well, she would come over asking, `Can I make for you some tea?’ And she would already have the tea in her hands.”

Mrs. Atyam’s husband sometimes does not understand why his wife remains so hopeful that Charlotte will return. Every Oct. 10, the parents of the boarding school hold a ceremony to note the passing of another year without their children. At every meal, Mrs. Atyam leaves an empty chair just in case each day might be the day Charlotte comes home.

“He has his own way of grieving,” Mrs. Atyam said of her husband. “He doesn’t want to talk about it. Sometimes I wash my daughter’s clothes and hang them out and he yells at me. I say, `Do you know she’s dead?’ “

Mrs. Atyam has a meeting coming up with President Museveni, and she plans to press him on the military campaign against the rebels that the president opened last year. Since the operation began, fighting has intensified and abductions have reached a high of hundreds a month.

“I want to raise the same question I’ve raised again and again,” Mrs. Atyam said. “Can’t we try another solution? We’ve used bullets for so many years, and it hasn’t worked. And these bullets the government is firing don’t have eyes and can’t tell a real rebel from an abducted child.”

Joseph Kony, the leader of the rebels, has endlessly frustrated the government. For years, he has waged guerrilla attacks on villages, abducting children not only for sexual bondage but also to reinforce his ranks. Many of those who have been taken are held for just weeks or months, and then freed. But countless others, like Charlotte, have all but disappeared.

Mr. Kony says he is fighting for Uganda to base its government on the Ten Commandments. Mrs. Atyam, a religious woman herself, considers the rebels’ claims absurd. While she blames Mr. Kony personally for her seven years without Charlotte, Mrs. Atyam also said she was willing to forgive him.

“I wish he was never born,” she said. “He has caused me so much heartache. Not just for me. So many parents have suffered because of him. Still, we’d offer him unconditional forgiveness if we got our children back.”

That moment of reunion is one she still dreams about. She closed her eyes in the interview, threw her head back and beamed with joy as she imagined it.

The dream goes like this, she said. Charlotte arrives at the front door, with her two young children in tow. Mrs. Atyam rushes forward with her arms outstretched and hugs them.

“We won’t talk,” she said. “I’ll just embrace her and the children, all three of them. I don’t know how I’ll get my arms around all of them, but I will. We’ll just keep quiet for some time, and then I’ll thank God.”

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