Angelina Atyam, a Ugandan activist honored by Human Rights Watch in 1997, was recently reunited with her daughter Charlotte, eight years after Charlotte was abducted by rebels in Northern Uganda.
I am not the only mother to lose my daughter in Northern Uganda’s conflict. Charlotte is only one of more than 25,000 children abducted by the LRA over the last 18 years for use as soldiers, laborers and sexual slaves. They are frequently beaten and forced to carry out raids, burn houses, kill civilians and abduct other children. Children who refuse or try to escape are killed, typically by other children who face death themselves if they fail to carry out their commanders’ orders.
For years, parents were afraid to speak about their stolen children for fear of rebel reprisals. But after Charlotte’s abduction, I could not keep silent. I began to speak out and, together with other parents, sought international attention to our crisis. We went to President Bill Clinton, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to appeal for their help in gaining the release of our children.
Our campaigning did not escape the notice of the LRA. Several years ago, the LRA sent me a message, saying that they would release Charlotte if I would end my activism on behalf of the abducted children. I agonized. I wanted my daughter back so desperately. But I refused. I would not feel right in my heart if I had my daughter and other people were still missing their children.
Last month, a miracle finally happened. After more than seven years of captivity, Charlotte managed to escape. Running with her youngest child, she encountered a group of villagers, who took her to the local authorities. The Ugandan army helped reunite her with her older son, now five, who had been separated from her last month during a Ugandan army attack on the LRA.
I have never felt such joy as when I saw my daughter again, and met my grandchildren for the very first time. Although I had never lost hope for Charlotte’s safe return, I could scarcely believe it when I was finally able to embrace her again. My joy is bittersweet, however. I can’t forget that thousands of other children are still in captivity while their parents anxiously wait. My daughter tells me she feels “incomplete” knowing that so many of her friends have been left behind.
Every day, more children are taken. Abductions have increased sharply in the last two years as fighting between the LRA and the Ugandan army has escalated. UNICEF estimates that since June 2002, more than 12,000 children have been abducted into the LRA ranks.
The threat of abduction has made children throughout the north fear for their safety. Each night, children walk miles from their homes to sleep in larger towns and villages, hoping to avoid abduction. They seek refuge on verandas, at bus stations and on church grounds before returning home again each morning. These “night commuters” are estimated to number more than 40,000.
Uganda’s president has sent conflicting messages about the war, promising negotiations with the LRA while simultaneously vowing to wipe them out. Ugandan military campaigns against the LRA seem to have only escalated the conflict, and people in the north have grown increasingly bitter from the army’s failure to protect the civilian population and particularly the children targeted by the LRA.
We need help to end this human rights crisis. The Sudanese government, which for years supported the LRA, should pressure the LRA to release immediately all its captive children. The United States and Britain, Uganda’s largest donors, should use their influence with the Museveni government to insist on stronger protections for the civilian population. The United Nations should establish a stronger presence to monitor and document human right abuses by both parties to the conflict.
I am overjoyed to have my daughter home. But I cannot rest until all of the other captive children have been reunited with their parents as well. The war in Northern Uganda is a war on children. The world should not look away.
After Charlotte’s abduction, Angelina began to mobilize other parents to speak out about the abductions. As a leader of the Concerned Parents Association, Angelina raised the plight of the abducted children with world leaders, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. At Human Rights Watch’s invitation, Angelina has visited the United States and Europe several times to speak to representatives of the U.S. government, the United Nations, the European Union, the European Parliament and other policy-makers.
After Angelina’s years of work on behalf of abducted children, HRW rejoices that she and Charlotte have finally been reunited and that Angelina has been able to meet her grandsons for the first time. Charlotte now plans to return to school; Angelina will continue her activism on behalf of the thousands of children who remain in LRA captivity.