Former child soldier urges UN action

UNITED NATIONS (AP) âÄî A young woman abducted and repeatedly raped by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda told the Security Council on Wednesday how she became a rifle-toting child soldier. She urged the U.N.’s most powerful body to stop the suffering of children in wars. “I still wait for some of my friends to return,” Grace Akallo said, “and I hope that everyone here will be committed to bring people like my friends home.” Council members responded to the plea from the former child soldier âÄî now a graduate student in the United States âÄî with rare sustained applause. Many, including U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, assured her that her message had been heard. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly supported Akallo’s appeal, telling the council: “You must respond to her courage and resilience with action.” The council held an open meeting on Ban’s latest report on children in armed conflict, which names 56 parties âÄî both governments and rebel groups âÄî in 20 countries that recruited child soldiers and committed other grave violations against youngsters during a 15-month period ending Dec. 31. He said 19 parties have been listed for more than four years and are “persistent violators.” Since 1998, the Security Council has adopted six resolutions aimed at stopping the recruitment of child soldiers, the killing, maiming, rape and abduction of children in armed conflicts, and attacks on schools and hospitals. In 2005, the council established a group to monitor and report on countries and groups carrying out these acts. Ban said more must be done. “I urge the council to consider action to strike a blow against this impunity, and stop these violators from continuing to victimize children,” the secretary-general said. He recommended that the council, at a minimum, expand its reporting to include parties that commit rape and sexual violence against children in armed conflict. Ban also called on the council to take steps against “persistent perpetrators.” The council said in the 2005 resolution that it would consider imposing targeted sanctions such as arms embargoes, travel bans and financial restrictions against parties that continue violating the rights of children in armed conflict. That resolution also directed the U.N. to talk to parties identified as recruiting child soldiers and exploiting children in war zones with a goal of preparing and implementing action plans to end the violations. It threatened action against those who didn’t comply âÄî and Ban called on the council “to take measures” against them. Akallo told the council that she was speaking “on behalf of all the children in armed conflict who have to face and survive the atrocities of war, who suffer through the abuses of being used as child soldiers and raped and sexually abused.” She described how she and 137 other girls were abducted at gunpoint from St. Mary’s college, a high school in Aboke, Uganda, in October 1996 by rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army, which has been waging a brutal insurgency for more than 20 years. The nun managed to win the release of 109 girls, but Akallo said, “I was not one of the lucky ones.” She was 16 at the time. After a month of wandering in the forest, the children were marched to southern Sudan. Those who couldn’t walk were killed. The survivors were given AK-47 assault rifles when they arrived and were sent into battle against the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, Akallo said. In addition to fighting, the girls were distributed to rebel commanders. “We were forced to kill those girls who tried to escape or refused their husbands,” Akallo said. “I was repeatedly raped by an LRA commander on countless occasions.” After seven months in captivity, Akallo said she escaped during an attack by the Sudanese rebels and walked for two weeks without food, surviving on wild leaves, soil and dew. She was rescued by villagers from southern Sudan and handed to Ugandan government soldiers. She returned to St. Mary’s, then went to college and now, at age 29, is attending a graduate program in international development at Clark University in Massachusetts. “The stories you have not heard are thousands-fold,” Akallo told the council. “There are dozens of armies and rebel groups who continue to ruin the lives of children in the same ways around the world. I’m here to remind you of the very real suffering of these children who are hoping for you to act.”