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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Former child soldier speaks out for those who can’t

Published: March 20, 2009
Section: News

CHild soldier: Grace Akallo spoke on Wednesday at the Heller school about her experiences as a child soldier in Uganda in 1996.<br /><i>PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

CHild soldier: Grace Akallo spoke on Wednesday at the Heller school about her experiences as a child soldier in Uganda in 1996.
PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

When Grace Akallo was 15 years-old she was handed a gun, taught how to assemble and clean it, but never how to fire. She was told that when she was hungry, she would figure out how to use the weapon.

This crash-course in the brutality of war came after Akallo was kidnapped from her school in Uganda in 1996 and forced to be a child soldier for the Ugandan rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Akallo, who spoke on Wednesday in the Heller School, did not spend much time talking about herself. Though she hinted at the brutality she witnessed, she used her platform to explain the plight of former child soldiers and delved a bit into Ugandan politics. She discussed how to help the children overcome the stigma, integrate back into society, and live as normal a life as possible.

Akallo recalled feeling “worthless” when she finally managed to escape from her captors during a battle. Akallo had to make her way back from Sudan to her home in Uganda. After her initial capture, 100 of the 130 girls were released, but Akallo and 29 other remained in captivity. The LRA forced 14 of those girls, including Akallo, on march to Sudan that lasted four days and four nights.

Akallo thought, “Sudan was the grave for me.”

Just last week, the second to last of the girls was released, 13 years after her capture in 1996. One girl remains, Miriam, whom Akallo called her “best friend.” The bond between the girls that were captured, forged in the Dormitories of the all-girls St. Mary’s College in Aboke town, Uganda, played a significant part in the group’s survival. They were, “kept together by the love we had for each other and the rebels took advantage of that. [They told us that] if one ran away, the others would be killed.”

Today, Akallo is at Clark College in Worcester, Mass. after having graduating from Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., which she transferred to from Uganda Christian University. Akallo, who is now married and is mother to a 16 month old baby, attributes her success to her education.

She recounted how school helped children build up self-esteem and put them in an environment that changed them. “You need to go to school to be recognized as something in Ugandan society, ” said Akallo, “school gives them a purpose.” She added that school provided a “different kind of counseling” that “goes along with love.”

Akallo began her speaking career after Amnesty International invited her to speak in New York City. She accepted the invitation knowing that someday, “one of these people would help.” She had not even told her parents the full extent of her story, but took the opportunity to “be the voice of my friends who could not talk.”

Sophia DeVito ’11 discovered Akallo at the New England Amnesty International Regional Conference and was able to contact Akallo directly. Brandeis’ Amnesty International club co-sponsored the event with the Gender Working Group from the Heller School.

Amnesty International and Akallo are both working to aid the passage of the Child Soldier Prevention Act (S. 1175 & H.R. 3028), which seeks to encourage governments to “disarm, demobilize, and rehabilitate child soldiers from government forces and government-supported militias,” according to Amnesty International’s website.

The act seeks to support those children who come out of these militias and armies with no support system. Akallo wants these children to have “something to hope for in the future.” She asked, “ Who is going to bring up the next generation if we don’t focus on this buried generation?”