Ugandan urges students to be ‘voice of the voiceless’

By Christine Graf
October 16, 2008

Staff photographer

A Uganda native visited Cabrini College students Monday, Oct. 6, to promote peace in her homeland by sharing stories of warfare and the success of her peacebuilding efforts in Uganda.

Sister Pauline Acayo, Catholic Relief Service peacebuilding officer for Uganda, is part of the Peace in Africa tour CRS is doing throughout the United States to educate people about conflict zones like Uganda.

“It is not easy to be a peacebuilder. Many times my life’s threatened,” Acayo said.

Uganda has been in a civil war since 1986. The war started with just one man, Joseph Kony, who wanted Uganda to be ruled by the Ten Commandments. After what he says was a mystical revelation, he began to gather a rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army to overthrow the Uganda government.

Kony did not have many followers and in order to create his army he began to raid villages at night capturing civilians to be part of their rebel group.

His followers killed the elderly and abducted children. Children of all ages were taken from their parents, boys forced to be rebel soldiers and girls sex slaves for older men.

“When they came they starting kidnapping young boys and girls, like boys and girls of 5 years. Remember when you were 5 years, 6 years, 7, 8,” Acayo said to the Cabrini students.

The LRA has tortured civilians by cutting off body parts, like arms, lips, ears, noses and the breast of women.

Atrocities like these are considered lucky, according to Acayo, because most of civilians are killed, some being burned alive in their houses.

Acayo was affected directly, as four of her brothers were kidnapped by the LRA, which resulted in the death of two. An uncle lost his mouth – cut out by the LRA because he refused to give up the location of Acayo hiding in the tall grass near the village.

“I could hear the rebels shouting to my uncle, ‘where is sister, where is she'” Acayo said. “We could hear my uncle crying but we could not come out of the grass.”

The Ten Commandments say don’t kill, love your neighbor as you love yourself Acayo said, stressing the fact that this is what the LRA believes, although they do the opposite.

“Over two million people were displaced from their homes and grouped together like animals in protective camps,” Acayo said. People being displaced from their homes and living in tight quarters has caused many health problems, due to lack of food, water and sanitary conditions. The spread of disease such as malaria and HIV/AIDS are common threats.

Since this war, much infrastructure has been destroyed including health centers, schools, roads and other social services and facilities. Those who are injured or sick have little chance of getting help and do not want to risk the travel because of abduction.

Acayo explains that although the government has soldiers around the protective camps they “are the first to run away, not even informing the people” when the rebels attack. Both [the government and LRA] are not safe, even for us who are working for peace.”

Acayo’s peace efforts include, dialogue and mediation among varying ethnic groups, increasing communities’ conflict resolution skills and supporting reconciliation ceremonies for returning adults and children who were abducted by the LRA.

Peace clubs were created in schools to “build peace in the heart of the young because they are going to be the future leaders” and also to stress forgiveness to those students who once were part of the LRA.

Reintegrating child soldiers and other civilians captured by the LRA back into the community is a part of what Acayo does.

“It takes a lot of education for people of the community to accept these children,” because the children have been forced to kill members of the community that they are now being reintegrated into, Acayo said.

The LRA are still very active and continue to abduct children. In order to avoid abduction children known as night commuters walk for miles to sleep in churches and convents each night. It is not guaranteed to be safe but it is their only option at this point.

Acayo wanted Cabrini students to know that once these children are captured they are forced to walk to Southern Sudan where the LRA resides, a three-day walk. They are forced to carry heavy loads, sometimes dead bodies for a week. If one child tries to escape the others are forced to kill them “cutting them up like firewood” – this is to instill fear.

Acayo explained why American students should care about the injustices of northern Uganda.

“You have learned what has taken place in northern Uganda and after learning you can become our voice by acting -share with those who are not in this class – be our ambassadors,” Acayo said.

“Be our voice…that means you are talking on behalf of the voiceless.”

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Christine Graf

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