The Ugandan home that Angela Atim grew up in was a house of prayer. She remembers how “every visitor would be welcomed with prayer”. It was her mother’s strong Christian faith that gave her strength when she was widowed early in Angela’s childhood. Along with her three natural siblings, Angela was raised with two adopted siblings who her mother received into her home.
For years the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has stalked the landscape of North Uganda and its neighbouring countries, invoking terror at the brutality of their actions. The LRA is a quasi-religious rebel army which has opposed the Ugandan government for the past three decades, led by the infamous cult leader Joseph Kony.
Angela was well aware of the threat they posed and their long-standing use of abductees as child soldiers. Since 1990, over 10,000 children are estimated to have been kidnapped by the LRA and forced into combat.
In the midst of this conflict in the mid-90s, Angela was attending St Mary’s College in Aboke. The all-girls school in North Uganda was run by a religious order with Sister Rachele Fassera, an Italian nun, as the head teacher.
Angela loved the school and the structure it provided. This stability, along with her faith-filled upbringing, made her believe that she’d be protected from any threat from the LRA. “I always thought that I wouldn’t be abducted with other girls. I thought, ‘I come from a family who pray.’ My mother would always say, ‘I put you under the cross of Jesus who will protect you.’ I believed that God was always protecting me.”
The abduction on the 10th October 1996 was not totally unexpected. Angela remembers, “We had heard several times that the rebels were coming for the school. Several times our headmistress took the students to the teachers’ quarters [for safety].” But on that day – Independence Day in Uganda – the pupils were left vulnerable. It had been decided that, despite the rumours of a possible kidnapping, the government soldiers stationed at the school would not continue their patrols overnight.
That morning, the girls went to their school chapel for worship. The priest prayed for the rebels and for God’s protection over the school – little did he know that there were rebels already hiding inside the chapel. As the evening after the celebrations passed, several students thought they saw movement in the trees surrounding the school. Fear spread and the girls were wide awake in their dormitories. Suddenly they heard “footsteps moving fast”, and the next moment the rebels’ guns were aiming through the dorm windows as the girls scrambled to hide under their beds. “They told us to open the door or they would blow up the dormitory, but we didn’t want to open the doors. People were crying and they then started breaking the windows. We were screaming and shouting but they said, ‘If you shout we will bomb the place.’”
The dormitory door was made of metal, and despite their efforts, the rebels couldn’t open it from the outside. They shouted to the girls, “This is now an order, you have to open the door!”
“I remember a girl coming up and saying, ‘I am going to open the door.’ I felt so bad. I was the only prefect in that dorm and the sisters would say, ‘As a prefect you are supposed to be a role model, a guide.’ So I got the courage and went to the girl and said, ‘I’ll do it with you.’” As the girls opened the door the rebels pushed their way in. Some looted the dormitory while others tied the hands of the girls, beating them, saying, “If you try to escape we will kill you.”
A desperate prayer
As they led the girls off the school campus through the wood, one of the rebels picked Angela out and told her he was going to kill her. In the face of abject terror, Angela prayed a desperate prayer, “God, I believe in you. I have seen things happen at home when my parents pray and fast and here I am about to be killed. If you want me to know that you are there, then I won’t be killed.”
It was then that one of the commanders of the group was called and told that Angela mustn’t be killed. Her life had been spared. Angela started repenting, “God, I am sorry, I know that you are alive. This is because of my hunger, my tiredness, my weakness.”
The kidnapping made international news because of the brave actions of the girls’ head teacher. The Italian nun managed to follow the group of rebels and captured girls. Using money she had carried with her, she managed to negotiate for the majority of the girls to be released. Unfortunately for Angela, she was among the 30 or so who were left behind, still held by the militants.
Life as a captive
The international attention Sister Fassera’s action created meant that the LRA rebels knew the government were keen to locate and free the captives. Consequently, the girls were regularly moved “from one place to another”. When they were kept stationary it was to carry out manual labour such as digging at the various LRA camps. Once a task was completed they were “continuously” moved on to the next location. The girls were used as carriers, doing the back-breaking work of transporting luggage, food and the ammunition supplies necessary for war.
Because of the constant travelling through thick woods in Uganda, South Sudan and Sudan it was near impossible to keep their bearings. The girls “decided that we could not escape”. Angela remembers how as they travelled “there would be skeletons and they would tell us, ‘See, these are people who tried to escape and they died because of thirst and hunger.’ So it was really threatening to try and escape.”
Meanwhile, the teenagers were regularly sexually assaulted and raped, a method often used by the LRA to instil terror in their victims. The rebels would tell the girls, “So what that I did it? You deserve it.” Children were conceived through such assaults and the girls had no choice but to carry the babies to full term because they were threatened with death if they tried to end the pregnancy.
Childbirth can be difficult at the best of times but the experiences of the kidnapped girls were harrowing. Sometimes mothers were forced to give birth while on the move. Delivering the babies safely was near impossible. Some girls died during their labour, as did some of the children. Angela remembers how those who survived “were moving covered in blood, the children were not washed…it is really just God’s mercy for these children to be alive”.
A daring escape
The girls were often weak from a lack of food, forced to eat a diet of leaves and raw sugar cane. Every day Angela would desperately pray, “Lord, I want to leave this place.” After six years of abuse and repeated rapes at the hands of her designated rebel commander, she made a daring escape.
In 2002 she managed to leave the camp with her friend’s 3-year-old daughter. She ran through the bush with the young girl tied to her back. She was eventually found by a group of Arab soldiers who hid her from her captors. When Angela was returned to the safety of her home, her family welcomed her. She says, “I was never rejected” – an experience which is sadly not always common for all the women who manage to find their way home.
Her faith today
Fifteen year later, the scar that still marks her life is that of fear. Angela says, “I don’t move at night, I fear everything, I don’t trust anyone.” But her faith has been a source of strength. Today, she works for a local project called Watye Ki Gen (We Have Hope) to document and support hundreds of Ugandan children born of rape who face stigma in their communities.
When Angela was in captivity she prayed and made a commitment to God: “If you let me escape I will serve you.” She describes her current work, supported by World Vision, as “the mission I was rescued for”.
Angela could be forgiven for wanting to resume the humdrum of normal life on her return home, but she has instead chosen to share her experiences at the United Nations to try to bring an end to the use of rape as a weapon of war. The nature of her work is difficult but her faith provides a strong foundation. She says, “I cry a lot, I laugh a lot. Balancing [that mix of emotions] is hard but with the help of God, every time I go back to pray there is comfort.”
For information on World Vision’swork with LRA victims, visit worldvision.org.uk