Ugandan Woman Speaks: ''I Was a Child Soldier''
Ugandan Woman Speaks: ''I Was a Child Soldier''
By Sonia Nettnin
On the night of October 10, 1996, rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army broke the windows of St. Mary’s College, in Aboke, Uganda. If the girls did not open the doors, the rebels threatened to throw bombs in the boarding school.
One girl unlocked the door. The soldiers showed their pangas (machetes). If the girls (more than 100) did not tie themselves with rope, then the rebels would use their pangas. The girls – bound by rope - walked all night . . . and so began their lives as child soldiers.
Akallo Grace Grall told her life experience as a child soldier, at Roosevelt University in Chicago. The event was sponsored by Roosevelt’s Women’s and Gender Studies Program and Amnesty International.
The soldiers made them walk until they reached a hut. The girls squatted the whole night. “We lost hope because sister (deputy headmistress) could not get us,” Grall said.
In the midst of crossfire with the Ugandan army, a 12-year-old girl tried to escape from the rebels. The rebels captured her again and told the other girls they had to kill her. Grall took a small stick and hit the girl on the bottom of her leg. The soldier hit Grall on the head. When she awoke, the girl was dead.
“They told us not to think of Uganda or school, just think about being soldiers,” Grall told the audience.
At some point, the deputy headmistress of the school caught up with the rebels and the girls. She pleaded with the commander to kill her and release the girls. Although they released over 100 students, Grall was one the 30 girls detained. “The terrorists hid behind bushes, beat us and kicked our buts with their boots,” she added.
Grall walked with a group to Sudan. They walked four days and nights. Her feet were so blistered; she covered them with banana leaves. “There was no flesh on the feet,” she said.
They were given guns. They learned to dismantle, clean and reassemble AK47s.
The LRA is based in Sudan. According to a Human Rights Watch Report, the Sudan Government supplies the LRA with food and arms. The LRA is against Uganda’s government, yet they attack civilians.
The girls were given to men. At 15, Grall became the fifth wife of a soldier. She did not give details about the marriage. No one asked her about this part of her traumatic experience.
“Sudan is a grave for human beings,” she said. “There’s no water, no food…we ate the soil…we lost hope of leaving.”
They fought with people in Sudan. It sounded like they fought with other rebel groups and civilians as well. She tried to shoot herself, but someone took her gun. When the rebels thought she was dead, they buried her with a group of people.
At first, she thought the people around her were sleeping. She dug herself out of the mass grave.
“Why has she resurrected?” Grall narrated what one rebel said. “The nun must be praying hard for her.” They threw her clothes back at her. “Be on standby,” they told her.
As a soldier, Grall dug trenches also. For six months, she lived through this horrid experience. It was now April 8th and the rebels were engaged in another battle. Grall could not run because her legs were full of blisters.
“People died and life seemed useless to me,” she said. Grall talked about the children around their dead mothers.
The following day, Grall sat under a tree from morning to night. “I felt something tell me to get up,” she said. She placed her luggage on her head and wrapped her AK47 on her side. “I checked to see if I was dead but I said ‘I think I’m alive,’” she said.
Fro three days, Grall hid deep in the bush of Sudan. She ate soil and leaves for survival. No water could be found. She found some boys and girls and told them she was going back to Uganda. She persuaded eight girls to go with her. Once they reached a river, they thought she was leading them to be killed.
“If you’re going to kill me, I die in the water,” she said. She jumped in the river and to this day, she does not know how she crossed the river . . . she does not know how to swim. They followed her, and then they threw away their guns.
On the way back home, some people found them, blindfolded the girls and tried to kill them. Their languages were different, so they could not understand each other, Grall said. Grall showed the audience how an elder man of the tribe outstretched his arms; as if both peoples reached the conclusion no one meant any harm. After this confrontation, Grall and the other girls stayed in the barracks of the Dinkas. Per an HRW report, Dinkas are a people who live in southern Sudan mostly. After two weeks, the girls were taken home by members Uganda’s government.
Grall attends Ugandan Christian University. She studies journalism and she wants to work in print media. “I want to study and help disadvantaged people,” she said. She expressed that over the last month; more than 200 people were killed by the rebels. The rebels burned the people and they are still taking children from the schools. Grall said the soldiers force them to kill their parents and forget about home. If they escape, the boys and girls live in fear - the rebels could come back for them.
When an audience member asked if she wanted to return to Uganda, she said:
“I am there as a light for my country and I must return to my country.”
Another audience member asked what she learned from this experience.
“Since I pass through this experience, I know God is in control of my future. I have learned to move on with life…I have to stand my ground…I have to do the work I am supposed to do,” she said.
Nancy Bothne, director of the Amnesty International Midwest Regional Office, shared some startling facts with the audience. Once a child is forced into the LRA, they are required to maim other children to stay in the group. Women and girls in armed conflict are abducted and gang raped by the rebels. They are used in combat as frontline soldiers, suicide missions, sent to find landmines, and used for domestic labor. Many girls are forces to provide sexual services and then married to an assigned solider. UNICEF reports show that the LRA has abducted 20,000 children.
AI made postcards available to people. They were addressed to President Yoweri Museveni, president of Uganda. The paragraph states “the UN Convention on the rights of the Child prohibits recruitment of children under the age of 15 for military activities. The DRC, Rwanda and Uganda have all ratified an Optional Protocol that increases the minimum age for soldiers to 18. Additionally, the use of child soldiers under 15 is recognized as a war crime and subject to prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC).”
For 18 years, Uganda has been at war. Over this past week, HRW has issued updates about war torn Sudan. HRW reports thousands of people in Sudan have been killed by militia groups. Moreover, one million civilians of Sudan have been displaced from their homes. The people are fleeing to Chad. In another HRW report, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights appointed a monitor for Sudan on Friday.
Most likely, child soldiers are involved in the fighting.
- Grall will appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show.