The following statement was presented by Faith McDonnell, IRD’s Director of Religious Liberty Programs, at the release party for Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Uganda’s Children. The event occurred on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, June 6, 2007.
Thank you so much for coming today to help Grace and me celebrate the release of Girl Soldier.
It has been such a wonderful experience to work with Grace [Akalo] this past year and to shape a story of Uganda, particularly Northern Uganda, around her own personal story of abduction and captivity by the LRA, her miraculous deliverance to freedom, and her restoration to become a voice for the people of Northern Uganda.
IRD’s Religious Liberty Programs Director Faith McDonnell addresses those assembled for the release ofGirl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children.
Grace’s story is a parallel to the larger story of Uganda and the spiritual reality that has shaped that country. Uganda’s history is marked by both tragedies and triumphs, right up to today’s conflict in Northern Uganda.
In late May, Ugandan teenagers tied together in a line were walking for endless miles through the bush, beaten and tortured, starved, not knowing what would await them at the end of their march.
It sounds like captives of the LRA, doesn’t it? But this actually happened 121 years ago, and these teenagers’ march ended in their being burned alive on June 3, 1886. I don’t think that Loralei and Jeff from IRD, who set up this party, were aware—and I only realized it last night—that just three days ago was the Feast Day of the Martyrs of Uganda, teenaged pages of the king who refused to compromise their faith.
The king, Mwanga, believed that the death of these young men would be sufficient warning to the people, and that he would snuff out the Christian faith in his kingdom. But out of that tragedy came triumph. As described by Father Lourdel, one of the 19th century Catholic missionaries to Uganda, the death of their friends strengthened other new converts, and the Church in Uganda grew.
Or take another tragic era in Uganda’s history. Idi Amin, who ruled Uganda throughout the 1970s, was a brutal leader like Joseph Kony. Amin killed as many as 500,000 of his own people during his time in office. The Nile River was reportedly clogged with the bodies of the dead, tortured and killed by Amin’s security forces known as the “State Research Bureau” and the “Public Safety Unit.” Among those he killed was Janani Luwum, the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda. Luwum, an Acholi from the Kitgum District of Northern Uganda, stood up against the oppression of Amin. He was summoned to Kampala along with the other clergy. When the other clergy were dismissed, Luwum told them, “They are going to kill me, and I am not afraid.” He was indeed, detained, and executed in February 1977.
It wasn’t until two years after Luwum’s death that Amin was finally deposed, but the tremors of spiritual revival started right after. During Amin’s rule, the population of Christians in Uganda grew from 52 percent to 70 percent, and the Church in Uganda has been growing ever since.
It is sobering and humbling to read about these tragedies of Uganda’s history, and the personal, spiritual triumph of the people of faith in Uganda who lived and died in those experiences.
But it is even more sobering to know what is happening in Northern Uganda today, right now—to read account after account of the savagery inflicted upon innocent children by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army. Children who should be playing with their friends, going to school, like our children.
Most of you have heard the data:
- Over 30,000 children taken in the past two decades and forced into unspeakable brutality.
Grace Akallo, who co-authored Girl Soldier with Faith McDonnell, tells of her captivity with the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda.
- Countless adults in Northern Uganda and Southern Sudan slaughtered by the LRA with the assistance of the National Islamic Front Government of Sudan.
- Tens of thousands of others having to make their own protection by becoming night commuters.
- As many as 90 percent of the Acholi displaced from their homes to the misery and squalor of internment in IDP camps.
And it is even more humbling to see the response of people today to the conflict in Northern Uganda, particularly among young people in this country. There has been a deep, seemingly incomprehensible stirring in the hearts of those who hear what is happening to the people of Northern Uganda. And that stirring in the hearts has translated into action—among children and high school students who are raising awareness and raising dollars to provide for former child soldiers and night commuters; among young men and women who leave any other ambitions and dedicate their lives for the foreseeable future to bringing peace and justice; and among others, politicians and policymakers, and those who pressure them, to do such things as bring high-level U.S. involvement into the peace talks between the Government of Uganda and the LRA. Some of these people are with us today, and I am deeply grateful to them.
Here’s the difference between Uganda’s historic encounters with evil and Uganda’s encounter today with the evil of Joseph Kony and the LRA. There are those from our country, and from elsewhere, who are fighting alongside the Acholi for peace and justice. The historical triumphs in Uganda have been triumphs of the human soul over evil, but today, not only are the people of Northern Uganda, like Grace, personally able to triumph over evil—but you have the opportunity to triumph with her!
Imagine if the filmmakers of Invisible Children had been around during the time of Idi Amin. Instead of watching The Last King of Scotland, we might be watching a movie about the downfall of Idi Amin, caused by the grassroots mobilization of American kids in the 1970s, led by bell-bottomed and sideburn-wearing versions of Resolve Uganda’s Michael Poffenberger and Enough!’s John Prendergast.
I know I’m being a bit fanciful here, but this is my point. Something extraordinary is happening because the work of these advocates for Northern Uganda. Something that will not only bring healing and restoration to the people of Northern Uganda, but to the advocates’ own souls.
Join them—like my friend Sarita Hartz, who took the gorgeous photos of the Ugandan child-mothers and their babies in our book, and who has begun her own ministry for those mothers and children called the Zion Project. Join them—like my co-author Grace Akallo, who courageously relives her abduction over and over, to let the world know what is happening to children in Northern Uganda. Join them—like my friends the Lebers, who are missionaries in the Church of Uganda. Join them—like World Vision that provides shelter and counseling for returned child soldiers. Join them—like the members of Congress such as our dear friend Chris Smith, who are bringing legislation on child soldiers. I call these people, and others like them, “the builders of the protection of love” for the children of Northern Uganda.
These builders of the protection of love are defiant in the face of the deception that says, “There is nothing you can do. People are suffering all over the world. Who do you think you are that you could make a difference?” They are defiant in the midst of the seductive torpor of resignation that whispers, “This is just the way it is always going to be.”
They say to the children, “See! We will fight until the winter of Kony is past, until the misery of war is over and gone. We will be beside you until a fruitful harvest is once again reaped from the Acholi earth, until the season of singing takes the place of the mourning and wailing of mothers who have lost their children, and until in the silence of peace you hear the Spirit of God.”