'Grace, Milly, Lucy': Girls Forced Into Conflict

The documentary Grace, Milly, Lucy tells the story of children — specifically girls — forced into armed conflict in Uganda. Director Raymonde Provencher tells the stories of the abductions of Grace, Milly and Lucy, who are now grown up and out of captivity.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

In Uganda, a war has been raging for over 20 years, fought on one side by an army of children. The Lord's Resistance Army led by rebel chief Joseph Kony has abducted more than 30,000 children whom they torture, indoctrinate, rape and turn into killers. The Lord's Resistance Army is 80 percent children. Some 30 percent of those children are girls.

This week, a film describing their horrific experiences shows at the Silverdocs Documentary Festival in suburban Maryland. That festival runs all this week. The film is called "Grace, Milly, Lucy...Child Soldiers." One of its subjects, Grace Akallo, describes how the rebels came in the middle of the night to the convent where she went to school and divided the girls they'd captured into two groups. They freed 109 of the girls and kept 29, Grace among those left behind.

(Soundbite of movie, "Grace, Milly, Lucy...Child Soldiers")

Ms. GRACE AKALLO: And I remember thinking, I'm not going to stay here for another night. I'm not going to stay here for another day. I'm going to escape. I'm going to run away. But we're told if anyone of us tries to escape, the rest of the 29 would be killed.

CONAN: Grace Akallo, one of three women profiled in the film "Grace, Milly, Lucy...Child Soldiers." Director Raymonde Provencher will join us in a moment. If you have questions about child soldiers in Uganda: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Raymonde Provencher is with us from the studios of Radio Canada in Montreal. Nice to have you with us today.

Ms. RAYMOND PROVENCHER (Director, "Grace, Milly, Lucy...Child Soldiers"): Nice to be here.

CONAN: And Grace says she was held for seven months and has now taken on a role as a - as sort of a spokesperson, giving voice to those who have no voice.

Ms. PROVENCHER: Yes, because she thinks at the end that she has been lucky because she spent only seven months. While for you and me, seven months, it's a nightmare, you know? But for her, it was something small, because some of her friends are still in captivity today. And the other girls that I am describing, their fight, their situation, to Milly and Lucy, they spent 10 years in the bush. So it's a very long time, you know? They had been kidnapped. They had - they were seven years old at that time, and then they came back at 17 with two, three kids. And it's a very harsh life. Even coming back, it's very hard for them.

So, in a way, Grace said I spent only five months, then I had been able to go back to study. It was the most important thing for me. And then, I have been able to go to university, and I feel that I should talk for all those girls that never talk, because they think that their story is not interesting at all.

CONAN: One of the things she explains to us is how easy it is for a child - you mention girls and, of course, boys also, kidnapped at age of seven and virtually emptied of their souls.

(Soundbite of movie, "Grace, Milly, Lucy...Child Soldiers")

Ms. AKALLO: It is very possible to create a killing machine. Just put yourself as seven-year-old, taken away from their family. The very time - very first time you're taken, either your parents are killed in front of you or you're forced to kill somebody. And then, you - through all that, you're beaten, like you're beaten until you don't know who you are. And then you're told if you ever escape, you're going to die. And then, you're given a gun, and then you're told this gun is your life. And they tell you, if you don't kill, then you're dead.

CONAN: One of the child soldiers of the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda. We're talking with Raymonde Provencher, the director of the documentary called "Grace, Milly, Lucy...Child Soldiers." And we have a caller on the line. Heidi's calling us from Tucson.

HEIDI (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead.

HEIDI: I was just calling because I worked with an organization in Uganda, in northern Uganda, in Lira, three years ago. And I was doing some trauma counseling with the former child soldiers there. And my experience was that, clearly, they've experienced all kinds of trauma, and they already have a difficult time forgiving themselves to what they have done. But I'm just interested to hear your caller comment on, once these child soldiers have escaped, how they are viewed by society and how they reintegrate themselves into normal life after having to do all these horrible and atrocious things.

CONAN: And Raymonde Provencher, this is one of the focuses of your film...

Ms. PROVENCHER: Yeah.

CONAN: ...the difficulties that the women experience when they try to go home.

Ms. PROVENCHER: Absolutely. And that's a very good question because, you know - okay, take a very simple situation: a woman or a man being raped in the United States or here in Montreal. It's a trauma. It's, one, rape and you keep it in your mind all the time and you need to - you need help to go ahead and to try to forget because you never forget, but to try to go ahead. Those girls being in captivity, 10 years being raped night after night by one, two, three, five men, they go back to the society and they receive, kind of, no help.

They don't even be able to work even if they have the skill, because when they are in the bush they did a lot of skills. They can do many things to survive. They have to do everything. But back to the society, first, people are afraid. They are child soldiers. They are women. They are women with children from those killers. So the community is really frightening about them. Even their own family have - are reluctant to bring them home. And I - and we can understand all those people. It's not - it's a very complicated situation. But at the end, they are left mostly alone. And, indeed, they don't do - they don't know what to do.

And, you know, in Africa, the society, the community, the family is so important. One of the girl soldiers told me, you know, my - I always think that my three - she had three children from three different fathers - and she said, I don't - I'm not able even to tell them who is their father. I don't even know who they are.

CONAN: Heidi, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

HEIDI: Thank you.

CONAN: I have to say one of the most affecting scenes in the documentary is a conversation between two of your subjects, Milly and Lucy. Lucy got there very young and, well, she had skills. She was good at it and was promoted into being the person who was in charge of the newly abducted girls. And one of the people that she was in charge of was Milly. And to have this conversation between these two people, Milly saying, how could you send me to bed hungry when you are eating? It's a - she has - Lucy has no answer for this.

Ms. PROVENCHER: Absolutely. And, you know, Lucy was doing her job. She is a good soldier and she was seven years old, and she decided she wanted to survive. And she wants - she is a tough girl and she decided that she will be a good killer for Kony's army. So that's what she did. And today, it's very, very painful to see how much help Lucy needs. And it's another - other - and it's very nice to see Milly, who has suffered a lot with Lucy, to be under her rank, the ability to give orders to her. And she tried to bring Lucy with her to their community because Lucy is very - well, she needs help. She really needs help.

CONAN: Another caller. This is - another Heidi(ph). Heidi calling from Sacramento.

HEIDI: Yes. Hi. Good afternoon to both of you.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

HEIDI: I have a question. I was in Uganda from 2003, 2004. I was there for four months. On a Knight International fellowship, I was advising the independent newspaper, The Monitor. You're probably familiar with it, ma'am.

CONAN: Sure.

HEIDI: In any case, I okay, the LRA was vigorous and virulent then, as it is now - perhaps more so now. Museveni was promising then he was going to clamp down on it, and in my opinion he really has not, ever. And I'm wondering, one, if that's because they like the U.N. army income for the Ugandan forces to patrol the border in the north; and also because Museveni doesn't really have a constituency in the north. His opposition comes from the north, and his constituency is in the south. So it behooves him, to not really clamp down on the LRA in the north.

CONAN: We don't get into that in the film, Raymonde Provencher, but...

HEIDI: I guess I'm after...

CONAN: Well, no, no, no. I'm just going to ask her to follow up on your question.

Ms. PROVENCHER: You know, no, no. But that's a good question because everything is politic. We know if there is a child soldier somewhere in the - you know, unhurt(ph), it's because of politics. And everybody is using the child soldiers. And it's clear now that even the Ugandan government has plays some games about that. And, of course, he has opposition in the north and somehow it was helpful for him to have this kind of rebels over there. And that's very complicated because it's an area in Africa that - it is very, very complicated.

HEIDI: Somalia, Rwanda, et cetera.

CONAN: Yes. The Great Lakes region.

Ms. PROVENCHER: Absolutely. And that's a mess, and you can cross the border and do what you want, because...

HEIDI: What you want.

Ms. PROVENCHER: Yes, Kony is in Congo right now. But in the remote part of Congo, it's very difficult to know what he's doing and where he is. But that's what we know. That's what they say. United Nations peacekeepers are supposed to try to track him, but for now, as far as I know, they are still - they have divided and they continue with some groups to - even in December, last December...

HEIDI: Yes.

Ms. PROVENCHER: ...they just abduct about 400 people. And I'm quite sure that among the 400...

HEIDI: Right.

Ms. PROVENCHER: ...a lot of them are children, maybe.

HEIDI: And they aren't - most of the European peacekeepers around that area, aren't they most Africans? So they have - it's - frankly, they're more inclined to loot and rape and pillage and that sort of thing than they are and take the money from the U.N. army income than they are to actually do anything. Correct or...

Ms. PROVENCHER: Well, I cannot follow - I don't know. Because when I was in Congo some times ago, there were peoples coming from many countries. There were Indian, Pakistan.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. PROVENCHER: There were Uruguayan. They come from many, many countries. I don't know if there are mostly African for the moment. But this is a very serious question, why we cannot stop this guy named Joseph Kony, why we cannot stop him to do what he is doing in the north? The north is devastated. You have been there, madam, I think. And they have to go ahead, you know? They cannot stay in that kind of situation they are facing for a long time. Again, everybody will be die. People living in the camps for 20 years trying to go back to their lands and being spoiled of their lands, many, many problems over there, because of the war.

CONAN: Heidi, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

HEIDI: Looking forward to seeing your documentary.

Ms. PROVENCHER: Thank you.

HEIDI: Okay. Take care.

CONAN: The documentary is "Grace, Milly, Lucy...Child Soldiers." And it's part of the festival at Silverdocs, the American Film Institute Theater in Suburban Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C. And the director is Raymonde Provencher and she joined us today from Radio-Canada in Montreal. Thank you very much for your time.

Ms. PROVENCHER: Well, it was a pleasure, really.

CONAN: And we're going to talk later in the week with more documentary directors whose films are appearing at the Silverdocs festival, including Oliver Stone. In the meantime, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

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