Uganda Mother Pleads for Abducted Children

A mother looks to world leaders and the international human-rights community to rescue her kidnapped daughter, one of hundreds of thousands of child soldiers caught up in a worldwide epidemic.

A mother looks to world leaders and the international human-rights community to rescue her kidnapped daughter, one of hundreds of thousands of child soldiers caught up in a worldwide epidemic. Angelina Atyam's nightmare began in October 1996. Her fourth child Charlotte, then 14, was dragged from bed in the middle of the night by soldiers belonging to a quasi-religious "liberation army" operating along the Ugandan-Sudanese border. She was marched at gunpoint to a remote area; over time she was beaten and raped. She became pregnant and gave birth under dangerously primitive conditions.

Years passed. Angelina Atyam knew where her daughter was and who was holding her, yet she could persuade nobody to go to her rescue.

Over the past 14 years, according to the Leadership Council on Children in Armed Conflict, a human rights coalition, an estimated 10,000 or more Ugandan children have been abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army, a cult-like rebel force sponsored by Sudan. At least 4,000 have escaped to tell harrowing tales of brutality at the hands of the LRA, but most of the children are either dead or still captive.

Charlotte Atyam, along with 138 of her classmates, was kidnapped from Saint Mary's College, a Catholic girls' school in northern Uganda near the Sudanese boarder. Since then, according to escaped abductees, she has been forced to work for a rebel officer and has given birth to a baby boy named Rubangakene, a name that means God Alone.

For Angelina Atyam, a nurse-midwife from Lira, Uganda, that name carries a message from her stolen daughter. "It is God alone who knows what to do," explained the mother of six in a soft voice that belies her determination. She was interviewed in New York City in late April, where she was about to address a meeting sponsored by the Women's Commission on Refugee Women and Children.

Spurred by her daughter's plight, Angelina Atyam founded the Concerned Parents Association, an organization that has conducted an international campaign to pressure the rebel army and Sudan to free the abducted children. She has received sympathetic hearings in personal meetings with leaders around the world, including William and Hillary Clinton, as well as a human rights award from the United Nations. But so far, no one has marshaled the political will to force Sudan to free the children.

Atyam had a moment of optimism last December, when, partly due to pressure from the international community, Sudan and Uganda agreed to stop supporting each other's rebels and exchange the abducted children for prisoners of war being held in Uganda. But only a few children have been turned over to Ugandan authorities, and most of these had either escaped on their own or been abandoned, critically ill, in a hospital following an outbreak of cholera in the rebel force.

"We got a raw deal," said Atyam.

Human rights groups estimate that there are 300,000 child soldiersworldwide. Like growing numbers of paramilitary groups, the Lord's Resistance Army learned that children make attractive military recruits. They are quick to learn and more obedient than adults. With the advent of light weaponry, they can wreak just as much havoc. When these child soldiers are girls, they are often also forced into domestic and sexual service.

Such use of children by the military convinces Atyam that human values have gone seriously awry. "In the past, in Africa, generally," she explained, "when people went to war, the vulnerable groups, the weak ones, the crippled, they were never touched. Children, especially girls, were never taken to battlefronts. It was an abomination. Today," she added, "adults have become the first enemies of children."

In addition to the rebel kidnappings, Atyam points to an upsurge in reports of domestic child abuse in Uganda, as traditional culture collapses under the pressures of decades of local wars and a ballooning AIDS epidemic. "Children are not safe in their own homes. And, we, the adults, send our children to fight wars because they are dispensable. We have turned against the very gift of God."

Atyam emphasized that she and the other parents of abducted children are not seeking revenge on their children's captors. "The Concerned Parents have already given their unconditional forgiveness to the rebels," she said. "For the sake of the living children, we are willing to give up our rights to justice if they can only give back the children."

With thousands of Ugandan children enslaved, Angelina Atyam could be forgiven for resenting the recent international publicity given to the troubles of a single child, Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez. Atyam does not see it that way. "A child is a child," she said. "I see my daughter in every child whose rights are being abused."

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