October 9, 2016 marks 20 years since the Lord’s Resistance Army abducted 139 school girls from St. Mary’s College in Aboke, Northern Uganda. The rebels raided the Catholic girls’ boarding school, ransacking the school clinic, attempted to burn down some of the buildings, and captured the girls, all between the ages of 15 and 17. 

Former abducted Ugandan girls from St. Mary's College in Aboke who returned from captivity by Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels walk with lit candles during a ceremony October 10, 2005 to commemorate the abduction day.

© 2005 Reuters

In a now-famous story, Sister Rachele Fassera, the school’s deputy headmistress, bravely followed the rebels into the bush, begging them to release the children and offered to take their place. Her courageous actions helped bring public attention to the Lord’s Resistance Army’s (LRA) practice of attacking schools and abducting children. The rebels let her leave with 109, but they insisted on keeping 30 as captives and wives for their fighters. The last girl finally escaped the LRA clutches in 2009, 12 years after she was abducted.

When Human Rights Watch spoke with some of the girls who managed to escape in May 1997, they wrote letters to tell the world of the conflict’s impact. “Many children are being killed and dying,” one young girl wrote. “I think that there will be almost no future generation... I would urge you to make the world know that children shouldn’t be involved in political affairs. We can never have peace of mind when there is killing and fighting all the time. It makes the atmospheric air polluted and gives us evil memories….”

Sadly, 20 years after the attack on St. Mary’s College, students, teachers, and schools remain on the frontline of most of today’s wars, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Ukraine. The LRA’s raid in Aboke bears scary similarities to those of Boko Haram on schools in Chibok and Damasak.

But there is some hope for progress. Over the past 16 months, 56 countries have joined a new international political commitment known as the Safe Schools Declaration. These countries not only agree to restore access to education faster when schools are attacked, they also agree to take steps to make it less likely students, teachers, and schools are attacked in the first place. This includes a commitment to investigate and prosecute war crimes involving schools. And they agree to minimize the use of schools for military purposes, such as for barracks or bases, so as to not convert schools into targets for attack.

All countries, including Uganda, should endorse the Safe Schools Declaration and implement its practical recommendations in order to finally consign such attacks to history, and allow children to go to school in safety no matter where in the world they might live.

It is high time for the wishes of the Aboke girls 20 year ago to come true.