“I was only 17, but I remember it as if it were yesterday,” says Acar, who is now 36 and works for the International Rescue Committee as an education specialist. “We were tied with ropes around the waist and linked to each other. Then we were given two minutes to pack our belongings and leave.”
The LRA soldiers, many of them boys no older than Acar, started the military drills immediately as they marched their captives north.
“They were trying to break us, to dehumanize us,” Acar says.
For two decades, the LRA ravaged northern Uganda in one of Africa’s most brutal rebellions. The violence has displaced more than 1.6 million people and tens of thousands of civilians have been killed or kidnapped. The rebels have also been accused of abducting nearly 30,000 children in northern Uganda. Once in their grip, the LRA indoctrinated the children, forcing them to serve as soldiers, sex slaves or laborers.
Acar, his fellow students and another group of abducted civilians, were marched deep into LRA territory near the Sudanese border. They were forced to carry heavy supplies, were given scraps to eat and at night slept in the bush or in abandoned buildings.
“We were terrified,” Acar says. “We had heard that the LRA cut off people’s limbs and lips; that if you tried to escape they would kill you. One prisoner did try to escape. When they caught him they forced us to watch as they cut him to pieces. Half of the killings we saw were carried out by brainwashed LRA child soldiers.”
The most horrific part of Acar’s ordeal was the executions. As they traveled through the countryside, his LRA unit would enter villages and if the residents refused to hand over their children, they would be accused of spying and sentenced to death. "Of everything that happened to me in the bush, this was the most traumatic. It has taken me years to get over the nightmares and the fear.”
Acar’s abduction occurred at a time when the LRA was building up its force. Children were especially prized as soldiers. Led by its charismatic and ruthless leader Joseph Kony, the LRA believed that Uganda should be ruled according to the Biblical 10 commandments.
“We were drilled to become killers,” Acar recalls. “We were forced to parade, roll around in the mud and shoot guns. Our first mission was to attack a school and abduct the children. Luckily the plans were abandoned at the last minute.”
After three months of training and just as Acar’s unit prepared to cross the porous border into the LRA’s main stronghold in Southern Sudan, they were attacked by the Ugandan army.
“That was my chance,” Acar recalls. “In the chaos I ran away with two other boys. We walked for three weeks, following the railroad track going south towards our homes in Lira district.”
Acar and his companions hid in swamps and slept in trees, all the while avoiding people for fear of LRA sympathizers.
“Our clothes were in tatters,” says Acar. “We survived on raw mangoes and cassava. But eventually we made it home.”
Today, a 2006 ceasefire agreement between the LRA and the government has brought relative peace to northern Uganda. But insecurity lingers. Joseph Kony, who has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, refuses to sign a final peace agreement unless the indictments are dropped. Meanwhile, frequent reports indicate that Kony, currently hiding in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is using the lull to regroup and that he is still abducting children, transforming them into killers.
“I don’t think Kony will ever sign,” Acar sighs. “And if he doesn’t there will always be a fear among the people in the north that he will come back.”
Acar’s experience with the LRA has had a profound impact on his life. Today, he is dedicating himself to helping children and young people who have experienced similarly traumatic experiences. After a grueling readjustment period, Acar went back to school and is now working with the IRC helping disadvantaged children attend school.
“I’ve been able to use my experience for something good,” he says. “I tell children that I understand what they are going through, because I also suffered when I was young. It has helped me in my work, not only with former child soldiers, but with all children who face hardship in Uganda.”
“My story is horrific, but it is also a story of hope” Acar adds. “Even if a child goes through what I did, they can still go far in life if they are given a helping hand and a chance to go to school.”To Help:
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