Grace Akallo was kidnapped from her school at age 15 and forced into a life of drugs, war, violence and rape in her home country of Uganda. She told her story alongside world-renowned humanitarian Leora Kahn in the Jack Morton Auditorium Thursday.
Akallo was kidnapped by rebels and forced to fight in the Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army. The presentation started out with a slideshow, featuring black and white photos of African children holding rifles and dressed in camouflaged uniforms draped over their small bodies.
“I’m not afraid to die, but I’m afraid to die so young,” a young voice from the slideshow said.
The voice spoke of how she was kidnapped, frequently punished and told by a rebel leader that she needed to kill as many soldiers as possible for their independence.
Akallo, who said that she had been happy and safe in northern Uganda, was abducted at the age of 15 along with 138 other girls from her school. Their schoolteacher followed the group and pleaded with the rebels to release the girls. The rebels let 109 go, while 30, including Akallo, were kept.
“That was the beginning of our journey. We were trained to be soldiers. We were beaten so bad. It is not a joke. Kill or be killed,” Akallo said.
She said that she felt grateful to be a 15-year-old in the situation when there were 7-year-olds fighting.
“They only know guns. They only know killing,” she said.
The audience sat silent throughout the entire slideshow, except for a few gasps of shock.
The photographs are some of the best ways to demonstrate to the world how harsh these acts are and to make social change, Kahn explained.
About 18 to 20 countries use child soldiers, with more than 250,000 children falling victim to the role.
Part of the reason child soldiers can be used is because of the emergence of small arms; the children don’t have trouble holding the guns, Kahn said.
The children often suffer from severe poverty and are tricked into thinking that joining the army will alleviate their economic issues. The reality is, they are kidnapped from their homes, beaten severely, and, if they have are female, raped repeatedly.
When girl soldiers were impregnated by rape and returned home with their newborn child, the child was not accepted by society, Kahn said.
The United States has taken action against child soldiers by passing two bills to protect them. One of the bills, the Child Soldier Accountability Act, makes it a federal crime to use soldiers under the age of 15. The other bill restricts the military from training child soldiers. In February, the UN will launch a worldwide campaign for the prevention of child soldiers, Kahn said.
“Sometimes we blame people who are in power, but it is our responsibility to hold them accountable,” Akallo said.
The U.S. needs to be accountable for every penny it gives to countries, and people need to know where money is going, she said.
“We can stop this evil. We need to rise up one by one to stop this evil,” she said.
Doing just a little to help makes a huge difference, she explained. Just sponsoring one child, writing one letter, making one phone call to Congress; everything makes an impact.
“If someone had not sent me to school and shown me I’m actually capable of doing something good, I wouldn’t be standing here,” she said.