At Congress, Group Urges U.S. to Act on Ugandan Violence Activists spent a day on Capitol Hill this week, lobbying the United States to take a stronger position to support a fragile peace process in Uganda. Northern Uganda has been wracked by civil war for 20 years.
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At Congress, Group Urges U.S. to Act on Ugandan Violence

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At Congress, Group Urges U.S. to Act on Ugandan Violence

At Congress, Group Urges U.S. to Act on Ugandan Violence

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Activists spent a day on Capitol Hill this week lobbying for the U.S. to do more to support a fragile peace process in Uganda. There's been a civil war in northern Uganda for 20 years, and there are some slim hopes that the government and the main rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army, may be ready to talk peace. Activists say the U.S. needs to put more diplomatic weight in the process to end one of Africa's more-brutal conflicts.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Twenty-six-year-old Grace Akolla, a petite, soft spoken Ugandan, marked a grim anniversary this week. Ten years ago, the rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army broke into her school.

Ms. GRACE AKOLLA (Kidnap Victim, Uganda): The rebels rushed in and tied all of us, 139 girls, and marched with them out of the school and into the bush.

KELEMEN: One of the nuns who ran the school followed the rebels and managed to get many of the girls out. But 30 were held, including Grace, and they were forced to walk to southern Sudan, where the Lord's Resistance Army was based.

Ms. AKOLLA: A lot of people died on the way before we reached Sudan - a lot of people, a lot of children, because they couldn't reach Sudan. It was hot, no food, no water.

KELEMEN: Once there, the rebels put a gun in her hand, forcing her to go on raids of local villages. Grace was also the victim of rape.

Ms. AKOLLA: That happened to everybody, not just me. Every girl was made a wife to a commander.

KELEMEN: Her story is not so unusual for northern Uganda. The Lord's Resistance Army is notorious for abducting children and turning them into soldiers. During her seven months in captivity, she came across rebel leader Joseph Kony, who she said claimed to speak to a holy spirit and commanded rebels to kill and carry out other atrocities.

Kony has been indicted by the newly created International Criminal Court, but says he won't take part in peace talks until he's given amnesty. Grace says she can only accept justice deferred.

Ms. AKOLLA: If we say that we prosecute Kony, we scare him away right now. How are we going to get him? We want justice to be done. We can't leave that to go unnoticed, like nothing happened, but we want peace right now.

KELEMEN: Grace was in Washington to urge the U.S. to put more diplomatic muscle behind a fragile peace process rather than continue a U.S. aid program to train Ugandan army troops.

Ms. AKOLLA: Training soldiers, is it more important than peace? Is it more important to train soldiers and go fight the kids who were abducted, who are children who grow up there, than talking peace and releasing these kids back? Is it more important?

KELEMEN: A State Department official said the U.S. is training Ugandan troops to become more professional and to protect civilians. The official also said that the U.S. does support the peace process. Washington just thinks it should be an indigenous effort, and the U.S. shouldn't become, as the official put it, the 800 pound gorilla in the room.

Former Democratic Senator John Edwards disagrees. He's just back from a trip to Uganda, where he met the country's president.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, North Carolina): I absolutely do believe that if America would engage on this, get involved, support the peace talks, that they could play a significant role in helping end what I think is one of the great humanitarian crises in the world that gets very little attention.

KELEMEN: Edwards said nearly 2 million people live in squalid camps in northern Uganda, which he visited and described as atrocious. He said on one stop, he came across an 8-year-old girl whose story still sticks with him.

Fr. Sen. EDWARDS: There was nothing but deadness in here eyes. There was no life at all. She had watched, been forced to watch, as her parents were slaughtered in front of her by the LRA. This is - America can't stand by and watch things like this happen.

KELEMEN: Former child soldier Grace Akolla has been luckier than most. She managed to escape from the rebels after seven months, go back to school and is now a senior here in the United States at Gordon College in Massachusetts. She often thinks about the others who were taken that October day 10 years ago.

Ms. AKOLLA: Two of my friends are still with the rebels. Five of my friends are dead. The others came back with kids, their future destroyed.

KELEMEN: Grace says she'll continue to speak out because unlike those others, she can.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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