By Priyanka Pruthi, UNICEF

She speaks of her days in captivity with a calculated dissociation. It’s very difficult to talk about it, she says. Seventeen years on, looking back is still so painful that she needs to distance herself from the past to be able to share her story.

“That place was like a grave. It was like …you’ve gone to the last place on earth.”

To the grave and back

Grace Akallo was just 15 years old when she was captured by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Aboke, northern Uganda. The militant group is notorious for sexually assaulting, kidnapping and killing thousands of civilians. Grace remembers every minute of the day with clarity.

And then the rebels did come. They attacked her boarding school and abducted 139 girls. Soon after, 109 students of the convent were released upon the headmistress’ tireless pleading, but Grace was not one of them. She was among the 30 captives taken to Southern Sudan, where they were tortured, raped and forced to kill.

“At first, I was scared of even beating someone else because I was afraid they would get hurt,” she says. When I was forced to kill another human being…that really altered me. It affected me psychologically. Seeing somebody suffer because they are being mutilated is the worst thing you can ever witness.”

The children weren’t trained as soldiers. They learned how to dismantle, clean and assemble guns and were thrown in the deep end – battling with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. “It was survival of the fittest,” says Grace. “You had to shoot that gun to get food, you had to fight at the frontline to survive. They [the LRA] said hunger and thirst would teach us everything.”

The guilt of survival

After seven months of captivity and abuse, Grace managed to escape when the LRA was attacked by rebels from Southern Sudan. Villagers from the region handed her back to Ugandan soldiers, and she was soon reunited with her family.

“I used to isolate myself a lot…not because I suffered – I was beaten, I was sexually assaulted – but mostly because I had left my friends behind. I felt guilty of surviving. I felt guilty of being free when my friends were still with the rebels,” she says.

Despite the raw wounds from war, Grace decided to return to school – the same school from which she had been abducted. Her eyes still light up when she describes what it was like going back to school. “School was the best thing that happened to me. Education gives hope. I had hope of a future.”

Hope heals

It was hope that healed Grace. It gave her the strength to complete high school and enroll for further education at Uganda Christian University. Two years later, she made her way to Gordon College in the United States of America, and today she has a Master’s from Clark University in International Development and Social Change. She believes education provides children affected by war and conflict a solid shield from their torturous past.

Someday I will cry for myself

Founder of the United Africans for Women’s and Children’s Rights, an NGO dedicated to safeguarding the rights of vulnerable women and children, Grace Akallo is a fierce advocate for peace and a spokesperson for children affected by armed conflict.

“I have to use the life that I was given for a purpose…not to mourn over what happened to me,” she says. “I was supported – I went to school, and I have a family that supports me and loves me. But what about the girls who are still suffering? They are still being beaten. They are still rejected. They still don’t have homes or family support or access to any resources or education or health care. Nothing!”

In a recent report to the United Nations Security Council, the Secretary-General stated that the LRA remains among the most persistent perpetrators of grave violations against children in the region – continuing to cast a long shadow across Central Africa. Over the reporting period of July 2009 to February 2012, nearly 600 children were abducted and recruited by the LRA, mostly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but also in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. Girls abducted by the LRA were forcibly ‘married’ to combatants, and those who escaped with their babies were stigmatized by their communities.

With 416,000 internally displaced persons and 26,000 refugees triggered by LRA, the armed group is a serious threat, to date.

“Maybe someday, when there is peace, I will sit down and cry for myself,” says Grace. “But right now, I think what is happening needs to be stopped.”

This story was originally published on UNICEF‘s website.