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Knight Ridder News Service October 04, 2004

After eight years, an escape from slavery

By Sudarsan Raghavan

ABOKE, UgandaFive days after she was abducted in the night from her Roman Catholic boarding school, Charlotte Awino learned how to kill. She was 14.

The girl she killed, who was even younger than Awino, had tried to escape from the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group that had snatched thousands of Ugandan children. The rebels ordered Awino and 29 other schoolgirls to execute her.

At first they refused. But the rebels beat them with guns and machetes, and gave the order again. This time, the girls obeyed.

"They told us to gather stones and beat her to death," Awino recalled, her voice quivering. "If you wanted to live, you did it."

She lived in servitude for the next eight years until she escaped in July.

Awino is one of hundreds of people kidnapped as children who are returning home after years in captivity. An amnesty for rebels and new attacks by the Ugandan army have changed the shape of the 18-year civil war between the Resistance Army and the government.

More than 25,000 children have been abducted, half of them in the past two years, during the war, but their plight has received far less attention than the humanitarian crisis in neighboring Sudan. The United Nations has received less than half of the humanitarian aid it requested for northern Uganda. The United Nations Children's Fund has received a fifth of what it needs.

Tall and shy, Awino, 22, speaks softly as she recalls the day the rebels raided St. Mary's College, a prestigious convent school run by Italian nuns in the tiny northern village of Aboke. Fast asleep, she woke to banging on the door of her dormitory shortly after midnight Oct. 10, 1996. Then windows shattered. The rebels were inside.

They ordered 139 girls, ages 13 to 17, to tie one another's hands. They marched them through the rain across the green lawn sprinkled with white rosebushes and purple bougainvillea trees and out the front gate.

Armed boys not much older than the girls whipped them like cattle. Many had been abducted themselves, but they now swore allegiance to the rebels, more out of fear than loyalty.

One courageous nun, Sister Rachele Fassera, followed the group. Before they crossed into Sudan, she confronted the rebel commander. She dropped to her knees and begged him to release the girls.

Moved, he selected the 30 prettiest girls and surrendered the rest.

"If you still keep insisting, we'll kill the 30, and you can take back their corpses," Awino recalled the commander telling the nun.

Three weeks later, Awino and her best friend, Jessica, were forced to "marry" a rebel commander as old as their grandfathers.

"We were slaves to one master. We had to obey his every wish," Awino said. "If you were lucky, you were beaten only twice a week."

Every day, Awino was ordered to dig for wild vegetables with her bare hands. She became pregnant at 16 and again at 18. She survived on daily prayers and memories from a happier past. She and Jessica took care of each other.

"As young as we were, we missed our parents more than anything," Awino said, turning her eyes away.

Less than a year after her daughter was abducted, Angelina Atyam, Uganda's best-known advocate for the kidnapped children, met with a rebel commander. He said Awino would be released if Atyam ended her campaign, which had galvanized the nation.

Atyam said no and continued her campaign to free all the children.

She spoke about her daughter and Uganda's other missing children in front of the United Nations Security Council and with Hillary Rodham Clinton, then America's first lady. Atyam denounced Uganda's military confrontation with the Resistance Army, knowing that war would only endanger the abducted children.

"It was a difficult choice, but it was worth it," Atyam recalled from her office in the town of Lira, about 15 miles from Aboke. "Not that I had a desire to sacrifice my daughter for others. But we are a family. Can you choose a family member and say, 'Kill this one, and leave this one alive'? You can't."

Every day was a reminder of the choice she had made.

"Whenever food was ready at the table, we wondered what the children are eating. Whenever it was raining, we wondered if our children were covered for the night," Atyam said. "When we heard stories of air raids and bombardments, we wondered, 'Did they die yesterday? Are they dying now?' "

Awino said she understood her mother's choice. "I don't feel any hatred towards her," she said.

Her friend Jessica was killed in an attack this year. Awino was luckier. The attacks created so much disarray in her unit that she was able to sneak away. She returned with her children to Uganda, where she was reunited with her mother.

"When she saw me from a distance, she put her baby down and ran to meet me, and we screamed," Angelina Atyam said, her voice choking with emotion. "For quite some time, we couldn't speak; we couldn't talk. I could only cry."

Awino now lives with her mother in a tiny, dark house with a "Jesus" sticker on the living-room door. At her mother's urging, she changed the name of her 2-year-old son from Otti, after a rebel commander. Now he's called Miracle.


Uganda in brief

• About 26.4 million people live in the east African nation, which is slightly smaller than Oregon. AIDS and civil war have taken their toll: The average life expectancy is 45. The official national language is English, reflecting Uganda's former status as a British colony.

• Civil unrest has plagued northern Uganda for more than 20 years as the government battles two main rebel groups, the Lord's Resistance Army and the Allied Democratic Forces, for control of territory and natural resources. The rebel bases are across the border in Sudan.

• In February, members of the Resistance Army killed more than 200 unarmed civilians at a refugee camp, hacking them, shooting them or burning them alive. In July, the LRA massacred 100 people at a village just across the border in southern Sudan. The rebels typically attack civilians for food and to kidnap children.

• More than a million people in northern Uganda have been moved to protective camps because of the fighting and kidnappings and have been unable to plant their crops, leading to widespread hunger.

Sources: CIA World Factbook online, globalsecurity.org, The Associated Press

Copyright 2004, Knight Ridder News Service