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Angelina Atyam, chair of the Concerned Parents Association, spoke about child abductions in northern Uganda with Renzo Pami, a staff person of Amnesty International, in New York City. Doug Hostetter

Angelina Atyam, chair of the Concerned Parents Association, spoke about child abductions in northern Uganda with Renzo Pami, a staff person of Amnesty International, in New York City. Doug Hostetter

A mother advocates on behalf of Uganda's abducted children

Tim Shenk
August 7, 2008

AKRON, Pa. – Angelina Atyam speaks from experience when describing the human toll of the long-running conflict in northern Uganda: her daughter, Charlotte, was abducted at the age of 14 and held captive for nearly eight years by a rebel group called the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

Atyam tells how LRA soldiers raided her daughter's Catholic boarding school at night and abducted 139 girls, most of whom were in their early teens. An Italian nun and a Ugandan teacher raced after the rebels and pleaded with an LRA commander to release the girls. He agreed to free 109 girls but kept 30 as captives, and Charlotte was among them.

Charlotte's abduction in 1996 transformed Atyam, a nurse-midwife and mother of six, into an international advocate for children in northern Uganda. Her family's experiences are part of a national tragedy – for more than a decade, the LRA abducted tens of thousands of northern Ugandan children to serve as soldiers, forced laborers and "wives" to LRA commanders.

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) supports an organization that Atyam helped found, the Concerned Parents Association, to assist families affected by child abductions and bring international attention to their plight. MCC provides the Concerned Parents Association with financial support, and two MCC workers, Ben and Holly Porter of Denver, Colo., have served as technical advisers to the organization over the past three years.

In April, May and June, MCC sponsored Atyam to speak in churches and other venues in Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia, attend the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at Eastern Mennonite University and meet with representatives of human rights organizations and aid agencies in Washington, D.C., and New York City.

Atyam spoke at the Central Africa Policy Forum in New York about the need for a peaceful resolution to Uganda's conflict with the LRA. While the LRA has withdrawn to remote areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo, hundreds of young people are believed to remain in captivity with the LRA, and it continues to be seen as a threat by Uganda and neighboring countries. According to a Ugandan newspaper, governments in the region are considering a military strike against the LRA.

However, Atyam opposes attacks on the LRA because the group includes many people who were abducted as children.

"Let us think about forgiving," Atyam says. "Because if we don't forgive these rebels, we are signing the death warrants of our own children."

Kirk Harris, a program associate for MCC's United Nations Office, says he thinks Atyam's message was well received by humanitarian organizations that lobby the U.N.

"There was a lot of interest in what Angelina had to say as someone who had lived the experience and could speak credibly and authentically about it," Harris says.

Atyam began her advocacy work by sharing her story with other parents in the villages and towns of northern Uganda. After Charlotte was abducted, she and other parents started the Concerned Parents Association to form a network of families of abducted children throughout northern Uganda.

At the time, families on the front lines of the conflict were afraid to speak out when their children were abducted for fear of reprisals from the LRA, Atyam says. Other families hid their children after they escaped from the LRA because their communities would view them as former combatants and blame them for the LRA's atrocities.

Atyam and three other parents from the Concerned Parents Association traveled throughout northern Uganda to share their stories and encourage others to do the same.

"We decided to be the voice for the voiceless, so we would go out on fact-finding missions," Atyam says. "So we could come back with very sad stories, bigger than our own."

Over time, the Concerned Parents Association worked with other organizations to document more than 24,000 abductions in northern Uganda and bring international attention to the crisis.

Because of Atyam's advocacy, she drew the attention of the LRA. Once, an LRA commander met with her and offered to release Charlotte if Atyam would cease her efforts on behalf of other abducted children. Atyam made the difficult decision to refuse.

"I told him one daughter is not enough because all the girls are my daughters," Atyam says.

Atyam continued to hope and pray for her daughter to escape, and her prayers were answered – in 2004, Charlotte sneaked away from her captors and came home. The girl who had been abducted at 14 years of age had become a young woman of 22 with two children of her own. Atyam took them into her home and began raising her grandchildren while her daughter returned to school to finish her education.

While Atyam has been reunited with her daughter, she continues her advocacy on behalf of all of northern Uganda's formerly abducted children.

"I saw the miracle of the living God and she escaped and came back," Atyam says. "But our slogan is that every child is my child. There are still a good number of children who have not come back, and their parents are still members of the Concerned Parents Association, and we would also love them to smile."