Every parent’s worst nightmare is to have a child abducted. In Uganda, that may mean knowing your child is being forced to perform atrocities or being used as a sex slave. This was the reality for Angelina Atyam for seven years.
Last week, Atyam told her powerful story of hate and fear changed to forgiveness toward those who devastated and traumatized her and many others.
Atyam, 57, spoke at a “Frontiers in Peacebuilding” luncheon as part of the third session of the 2008 Summer Peacebuilding Institute at Eastern Mennonite University. The 93 SPI participants from 35 countries were joined by many EMU faculty and staff and community persons for the presentation.
“Uganda is a beautiful country of 24 million people, but we have not enjoyed peace for many years,” she said. The East African country moved from a British colony to independence in 1962, but protracted civil war has spawned refugee camps and a special problem – young boys snatched from their homes to be trained to fill the ranks of rebel armies and young women to serve as sex slaves. Over the past 20 years, some 26,000 children have been documented as kidnapped, and more than 6,000 others are unaccounted for.
In 1987, an anti-government, fundamentalist group calling itself The Lord’s Resistance Army – “not the Lord that I serve,” Atyam noted – stormed St. Mary’s College, a boarding school for middle- and high-school students at night, taking close to 150 girl students hostage.
The assistant headmistress followed the rebels and pleaded repeatedly for their release. Eventually, the rebel leader agreed to let one group of 109 girls go and kept the remaining 30 girls. Atyam’s daughter, Charlotte, 14, was among the latter group.
Atyam was devastated by the situation. She recalled “seeing stoic men crying openly,” bemoaning the loss. Families who had lost a child banded together for support and prayer. During one prayer meeting, the group repeated the Lord’s prayer, and one line jumped out at Atyam – “and forgive us as we forgive those who sin against us.”
“I was convicted of the need to first deal with our feelings of hatred and to pray for forgiveness toward the rebels – we had put a curse on them. Praying for those who had wronged us became our sacrifice,” she said. “And we began to experience a lifting of our burdens. God was at work among us.”
The period of mourning and the commitment to fervent prayer prompted Atyam and others to form the Concerned Parents Association (CPA) to address the tragic issue of kidnapped children. The group’s motto – “Every child is my child.” The organization grew to include members – Christians, Muslims and nonbelievers – in seven districts across the country.
Atyam decided to visit the mother of the rebel leader who had taken her daughter as his wife. People were amazed at Angelina’s willingness to forgive the woman, her son and her tribe. “What do we gain by wishing the death of our enemies?” she asked. “God wants us to be forgiving, practical peacebuilders.”
In the midst of the loss and great uncertainty, Mennonite Central Committee workers inquired what the organization could do to help. Atyam expressed gratitude that “MCC people came with offers of assistance but didn’t tell us what to do.” A decision was made to focus on trauma healing for parents and extended families of abducted children. Training sessions were held in the various districts with the aim of training persons who in turn would educate others in trauma recovery.
“We can’t do anything without also addressing the problem of AIDS and HIV-infection among the many displaced people,” Atyam told the audience. “We have many traumatized people who are unemployed, with nothing to do, and that creates its own problems.”
Twenty four of the 30 kidnapped children eventually were returned to their families, including Atyam’s daughter Charlotte. She came back, however, with two children she bore during her eight years in captivity.
While some criticized her for accepting back her daughter and grandchildren, Angelina could no more abandon these children than could her daughter. “These children sustained my daughter because they gave her love,” she said. “They are now my flesh and blood as well.”
What does Atyam desire most of all for her country?
“The priority is for God’s intervention in people’s lives,” she said. “We carry the weapon of prayer everywhere we go – even through checkpoints.”
In 1998, Atyam received a human rights award from the United Nations for her work on behalf of thousands of kidnapped children in Uganda. Following her time at EMU, she will travel to the UN and also meet with government officials in Washington, D.C., speaking on behalf of abducted children.
She is one of about 20 people from 14 countries whom MCC sponsored to attend SPI 2008.
During her time at SPI, Atyam also spoke at local churches – Shalom, Community Mennonite, New Beginnings, Park View Mennonite and Charlottesville Mennonite Church.