Grace Akallo was 15 years old when Uganda’s rebel soldiers burst into her high school classroom and kidnapped her, along with 138 other young girls, to serve in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
The rebel commanders raped her, and forced her to kill girls her own age who tried to flee. In the seven months before she escaped, Akallo suffered from extreme thirst and starvation, and was sent into dangerous battles with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. The moment she was kidnapped, Akallo says her “spirit died.” So did her childhood.
UNICEF estimates that there are some 300,000 child soldiers fighting in 21 ongoing conflicts around the world. Rebel groups often abduct children from the streets, orphanages or schools, as they did with Akallo. Children living in extreme poverty may volunteer in their countries’ armies for shelter, meals, clothing, and medical attention. No matter how they end up in fatigues, these premature soldiers can suffer from serious physical and psychological damage.
Some children as young as 8 years old lay mines and explosives, fight on the front lines in battles and are equipped with deadly machine guns. Many are invisible, working behind the scenes as porters, cooks, scouts or spies. They are used for suicide missions, and subjected to sexual exploitation, which places girls at high risk for HIV/AIDS. Not exactly your average childhood nightmares—the terrors of war can haunt these kids for a lifetime.
To discourage governments from relying on young soldiers, Congress passed the Child Soldiers Prevention Act in 2008, designed to help disarm the children in such countries as Afghanistan, Sudan and Uganda and help rehabilitate those led into danger.
But last October, many human rights activists were discouraged when President Obama announced that he would waive the sanctions on US military aid to certain countries of key national security interest, even those routinely using child soldiers.
Still, this issue has a human side that persists in girls like Grace Akallo. Now a graduate student at Clark University, she has begun to piece her life back together. She co-founded the Network of Young People Affected by War and is working to become a lawyer so she can “advocate for justice.”
But not all former child soldiers have the opportunity to take their lives back. According to Akallo, “Many of the girls who managed to escape are not able to return to school or have dreams for their future because they were not helped to deal with their horrible experiences, or because they now have babies born of their abuse.” And although the nightmares may come less frequently, her life and the lives of at least 300,000 other children will be forever impacted by their time in war.