Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A 26-year-old Ugandan woman kidnapped as a teenager and forced into sexual slavery by a terrorist religious sect will be the star witness today at a congressional hearing on Uganda’s 18-year civil war.

Grace Akallo, now a communications major at a Christian college near Boston, has become the poster child for Congress’ efforts to pressure Uganda to end what’s been called one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

Miss Akallo, one of about 30,000 children kidnapped by a band of rebels known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), will represent the Christian relief organization World Vision at a 2 p.m. International Relations subcommittee hearing presided over by Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican.

More than 80 percent of the LRA’s ranks are made up of kidnapped children, meaning its troops are simultaneously hostages and terrorists.

“It’s kidnapping, mutilation and rape against children,” Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, told The Washington Times during a recent visit to Washington. “We all have blood on our hands in letting this go on.”

Some members of Congress want to nix a proposed $4 million cut in the U.S. Agency for International Development’s foreign disaster assistance budget that was earmarked for Uganda. Fifty-eight children under the age of 5 are dying each day in Uganda’s massive refugee camps, said Gregory Simpkins, African-affairs adviser for Mr. Smith.

“The situation in Darfur [in the Sudan] has overshadowed a lot of other situations, such as northern Uganda, and has robbed resources in terms of dealing with this tragedy,” he said.

Members of Congress want the White House to pressure Uganda to resolve the conflict, especially after LRA founder Joseph Kony was indicted last fall for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Miss Akallo was 15 when the LRA invaded her convent school in Aboke. A nun talked the soldiers into releasing the majority of the girls, but 30 were retained, including Miss Akallo.

For the next seven months, the girl endured continued rapes, beatings and forced marches and was ordered to kill her fellow tribespeople — or be killed herself.

“It’s part of the training,” she said. “They force you to kill your own family, and then they [kidnap] you.

“I did it for survival. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be telling this story. I believe that by telling my story now, children who are being forced to kill won’t have to kill any more.”

She eventually escaped. After attending Uganda Christian University in Mukono for three years, she received a scholarship from Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., for her last two years of school. She hopes to earn a graduate degree in conflict resolution.

“It’s very hard to recover,” she said of the few children who get rescued from the LRA. “And some of them have nowhere to go because they were forced to kill their own family, even their parents.”

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