Angelina Atyam Biography
Human rights activist
Angelina Atyam was honored with a 1998 human rights prize from the United Nations for her work on behalf of thousands of kidnapped children in Uganda. Atyam's own daughter disappeared one day in 1996 along with dozens of other girls from her school, taken by the militia forces of a fundamentalist Christian guerrilla group operating in northern Uganda. Since the mid-1980s the group had systematically kidnapped young boys to train and fill their army ranks, and young women to serve as sex slaves. In 2004 Atyam and her now-grown daughter were reunited.
Born in 1946 in Bobi, Uganda, Atyam later married George Atyam and was the mother of three sons and three daughters living in the town of Lira, the commercial center for the Lira district of Uganda, when the kidnapping occurred. She was of Luo ethnicity, a people who originally came from neighboring Kenya, and a midwife by training. In the mid-1980s, Uganda, an East African nation of 24 million people, began to battle internal strife that broke out in districts that bordered Lira. An anti-government group calling themselves the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) grew in strength; the group advocated the establishment of a state based on the Ten Commandments and began a civil war. LRA soldiers torched villages and rampaged through sections of northern Uganda, often gaining new followers by force. They took children from their homes and schools, and trained them in military camps located across the border in Sudan. Girls and young women were also abducted, and they were expected to serve as unofficial wives and child-bearers for militia commanders. Human-rights watchdog groups believe that between 20,000 and 30,000 Ugandan children had been kidnapped by LRA forces since 1987.
In October of 1996, Atyam was alerted by a neighbor pounding on her door at 6 a.m. that LRA soldiers had carried out a raid at the boarding school ten miles away where her 14-year-old daughter Charlotte attended school. Atyam quickly made her way there. "The school looked like a battleground," she recalled in an article she penned for Marie Claire about the ordeal. "Children's clothing, shoes, and books were scattered everywhere. It had rained the night before, and we could see the muddy footprints left by the girls as they'd been marched away." Some 139 girls had been taken, but word came the next day that 109 had been freed, and parents waited at the school for them. Atyam was devastated when her daughter was not with one of the Roman Catholic nuns who had gone with the kidnapped girls as a protector. She knew she might never see her daughter again, for escape from the tightly controlled LRA was known to be virtually impossible. "When some children did miraculously escape—returning home traumatized and often near death from beatings and starvation—they would report on the condition of other children," she wrote in Marie Claire, "which is how I heard about Charlotte from time to time."
Atyam soon banded together with other families to found the Concerned Parents Association (CPA). She became an outspoken campaigner for the return of her daughter and for the other kidnapped children. The CPA gained momentum thanks to Atyam's tireless work and travels through the hardest-hit areas of northern Uganda. She also advocated rehabilitation and reconciliation, and the CPA worked to establish care centers for the escapees, who often returned home in terrible condition, and in some cases infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which can lead to near-certain fatality from acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS. The CPA also begged the Ugandan government to reconsider its strategy against the LRA: the official government response asserted that the LRA was a terrorist group, and the government would not negotiate with terrorists. Instead the Uganda Peoples Defence Force (UPDF) mounted fierce battles.
Eight months after Atyam's daughter disappeared, she received a message that a LRA commander wanted to meet with her. The LRA, it seemed, was ready to offer her a deal—the release of her daughter if she ceased her public-relations campaign. Atyam countered with an offer to do so if all the girls from St. Mary's were freed, but the LRA refused it. Her family was appalled that she had turned down the offer, but as she wrote in Marie Claire, "getting my child back would be absolutely wonderful, but if I accepted the offer, I would be turning my back on all the other families. I'd destroy the new community spirit we had created—the hope of getting all the boys and girls back."
Over the next few years, Atyam managed to meet with the president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni (1944?–), and even traveled to Europe and the United States to call attention to the situation in Uganda. She petitioned the United Nations Assembly to intervene, and for her work was the co-recipient of a 1998 United Nations human-rights prize; other honorees that year included former U.S. president Jimmy Carter. Four years later, she returned to the U.N. headquarters in New York City to address the United Nations Security Council. She told her audience that just two weeks earlier, LRA "rebels attacking [at] Ngai in Apac district had split open the abdomens of cows, packed children inside and sewed the abdomens back in place. As the children suffocated to death, older people were tied to tree branches heads down, and huge logs were used to hit them on the abdomen till the contents of their stomachs oozed out and they died…. These atrocities are being committed daily in our communities, and yet we have no protection. Not even from our own government."
Atyam eventually learned that Charlotte had had a son at age 16, and a second one a few years later. In July of 2004, as Atyam recalled in an interview with the Web site Christian Aid, "I was in a meeting I got a call from the CPA Kitgum district branch. I was told, 'Stand by for some good news—we have just found your daughter.'" Charlotte Atyam had managed to escape during a raid on an LRA compound with her five-yearold son, but was separated from the youngest boy, who was two. They later found the severely malnourished toddler and nursed him back to health. He once bore the name of his LRA commander father, but was renamed Miracle by Charlotte and her mother.
Atyam planned to care for her two grandsons, so that Charlotte, by then 22 years old, could finish her schooling. Though she was joyful that her daughter was now free, she continued her work as CPA spokesperson so that other families could be reunited. "The war … is still taking so many children," she told Christian Aid. "What's needed is a national reconciliation. Making peace is cheaper than buying machines and guns. In the end, with war, no one can win."
Marie Claire, May 2003, p. 119.
New York Times, July 22, 2004, p. A6.
"Interview with Angelina Atyam from Northern Uganda," Christian Aid, www.christianaid.org.uk/world/where/eagl/partners/0411cpa.htm (September 19, 2005).
"Angelina Atyam: Presentation to UN Security Council, October 23, 2002," Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, www.womenscommission.org/projects/children/atyam/unsc.shtml (September 19, 2005).
"Statement of Angelina Acheng Atyam," Human Rights Watch, http://www.hrw.org/reports97/uganda/angel.htm (October 26, 2005).