Ugandan recalls stolen childhood

ABOKE, Uganda — Five days after she was abducted in the night from her Catholic boarding school, Charlotte Awino learned how to kill. She was 14.

The girl she killed, who was even younger than she was, had tried to escape from the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group that had kidnapped thousands of Ugandan children. The rebels ordered Charlotte and 29 other schoolgirls to execute her.

They refused. The rebels beat them with guns and machetes, and gave the order again. This time, they obeyed.

“They told us to gather stones and beat her to death,” Charlotte recalled, her voice quivering. “If you wanted to live, you did it.”

She lived in servitude for the next eight years, until she escaped last July.

Charlotte Awino is one of hundreds who were kidnapped as children and are returning home after years in captivity. A rebel amnesty program and new attacks by the Ugandan army have changed the shape of the 18-year civil war between the LRA and Uganda’s government.

More than 25,000 children have been abducted — half of them in the past two years — during the war in Uganda, but their plight has received far less attention than the humanitarian tragedy in neighboring Sudan. The United Nations has gotten less than half of the humanitarian aid it has requested for northern Uganda, and the UN Children’s Fund has received only a fifth of what it needs.

Tall and shy, Awino, now 22, speaks softly as she recalls the day when the rebels raided St. Mary’s College, a convent school run by Italian nuns in the tiny northern village of Aboke. Fast asleep, she woke to banging on the door of her dormitory shortly after midnight on Oct. 10, 1996. Then windows shattered. The rebels were inside.

They ordered 139 girls, ages 13 to 17, to tie one another’s hands. They marched them through the rain, across the green lawn, and out the front gate.

Armed boys not much older than the girls whipped them like cattle. Many had been abducted themselves, but they now swore allegiance to the LRA, more out of fear than loyalty.

One courageous nun, Sister Rachele Fassera, followed the group, and before they crossed into Sudan, she confronted the rebel commander. She dropped to her knees and begged him to release the girls.

Moved, he chose the 30 prettiest girls and surrendered the rest.

“If you still keep insisting, we’ll kill the 30, and you can take back their corpses,” Awino recalled the commander telling the nun.

Three weeks later, Awino and her best friend, Jessica, were forced to “marry” a rebel commander who was as old as their grandfathers.

“We were slaves to one master. We had to obey his every wish,” Awino said. “If you were lucky, you were beaten only twice a week.”

Every day, Awino was ordered to dig for vegetables. She became pregnant at 16, and again at 18. She survived on prayers and memories from a happier past. She and Jessica took care of each other.

Less than a year after her daughter was abducted, Angelina Atyam, Charlotte’s mother — the cofounder of the Concerned Parents Association and Uganda’s best-known advocate for the kidnapped children — met with an LRA commander. The rebel leader said Charlotte would be released if Atyam ended her campaign, which had galvanized the nation.

Atyam said no.

“It was a difficult choice, but it was worth it,” Atyam recalled in her office in the town of Lira, about 15 miles from Aboke. “Not that I had a desire to sacrifice my daughter for others. But we are a family. Can you choose a family member and say kill this one, and leave this one alive? You can’t.”

Every day was a reminder of the choice she’d made not to bargain for her daughter’s release.

“Whenever food was ready at the table, we wondered what the children are eating. Whenever it was raining, we wondered if our children were covered for the night,” Atyam said.

Awino said she understood her mother’s choice. “I don’t feel any hatred toward her,” she said.

Her best friend, Jessica, was killed in an attack earlier this year. Awino was luckier. The attacks created so much disarray in her unit that she was able to sneak away. She returned with her children to Uganda, where she was reunited with her mother.

“When she saw me from a distance, she put her baby down and ran to meet me, and we screamed,” Atyam said, her voice choking with emotion. “For quite some time, we couldn’t speak, we couldn’t talk. I could only cry.”

Awino now lives with her mother in a tiny, dark house. She changed the name of her 2-year-old son from Otti, after an LRA commander. Now, he’s called Miracle.

The Lord’s Resistance Army is a shadowy religious cult that says it is Christian and has fought an 18-year-old civil war to topple the Ugandan government of President Yoweri Museveni.

Led by a religious militant named Joseph Kony, the LRA wants to replace Museveni with a government based on the Ten Commandments. It has abducted more than 25,000 Ugandan children over the past two decades and pressed them into its guerrilla forces as soldiers and sex slaves. Sudan is widely believed to have backed the LRA in response to Uganda’s alleged support of southern rebels fighting the Sudanese regime.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Detroit Free Press, USA
Oct. 14, 2004
Sudarsan Raghaven, Free Press Foreign Correspondent

Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday October 14, 2004.
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