Abducted in the name of the Lord

An Italian nun has vowed to rescue hundreds of children kidnapped by Ugandan guerrillas, reports Jesper Strudsholm
Click to follow
BEN PERE always had great hopes for his daughters. Years of hard work allowed him to send them to St Mary's College, a boarding school in Aboke, Uganda, where Catholic nuns from Italy provide some of the country's best education.

Jaqueline wanted to become a doctor, her younger sister Susan a pilot. But the world's arguably most bizarre guerrilla leader had other plans for the girls from St Mary's.

In November 1996, Ben Pere's daughters and 137 other girls were abducted from St Mary's by rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony, who wants to rule Uganda in accordance with the Ten Commandments. At the moment, he's busy breaking most of them.

Kony's rebels abduct children by the thousands and force them to kill other minors. The survivors are sent back to abduct more children, sometimes their own brothers and sisters.

The most beautiful girls are taken by Kony or given to his commanders as bonuses for their efforts. At the latest count, Kony himself had 88 "wives".

Uganda's army has so far been unable to stop Kony, and even small victories over the rebels are in reality defeats, says Pere. On a sunny morning in May this year, the Ugandan Sunday papers carried a story headlined "46 rebels killed". But Pere wasn't happy. "We know they are not rebels but our children. The rebels don't come to the frontline," he said.

When Pere's daughters were abducted, the nuns at St Mary's had long heard rumours of rebels in the area.

The deputy headmistress, Sister Rachele Fassera, had spent most of the day in a failed attempt to get new soldiers to guard the school. At 2.15am, the school's night watchman knocked at her window.

"The rebels are here," he said.

Sister Rachele was afraid that the rebels would force her to unlock the doors to the dormitories so she hid herself in the tall grass behind the school, a decision that still haunts her. As she was praying with the other sisters, she heard the rebels knock at the doors and the burglar bars installed after earlier attacks from the LRA.

In one dormitory, the youngest girls themselves let the rebels in when they demanded entry. In the dormitory for the older classes, the girls were captured and had their hands tied behind their backs with their own clothes when the rebels, after hours of banging, smashed through the wall and dragged the girls from under their bunks.

At dawn, Sister Rachele emerged from the grass to find 139 girls missing. Geography teacher John Bosco encouraged her to follow them. "Sister, let's go and die for our girls," he said.

Following a trail of sweet wrappers looted from the school's store room, Sister Rachele and Bosco caught up with the rebels in a field. Forty children and young men - many of them with necklaces of ammunition, most of them abducted children themselves, all carrying automatic rifles - suddenly rose from their hiding places in the crops.

Sister Rachele and Bosco were taken to the leader of the group, Marianno Ochaya Lagira.

He listened to their pleas and promised to release the girls, but only in a safe place. Just hours later, though, Lagira made a diabolical calculation in the dirt in front of him: Sister Rachele could have 109 of the girls back; he would keep 30.

Sister Rachele regrets she didn't offer herself in exchange for the remaining girls. As night fell, she said a last prayer with the 30 crying girls she had to leave behind. She waved goodbye and started the long journey back to St Mary's and the next nightmare: meeting the parents.

Mothers threw themselves to the ground when they realised their girls were not among the 109 released.

For days, Sister Rachele pinned her hopes on Lagira's promise to her that, subject to Kony's agreement, the remaining girls would also be released. This was just the first of more than a year's broken promises and crushed hopes.

Agnes was one of the girls left behind. Just 13 at the time, she had been forced to go with the rebels, who told them they were the chosen ones, just like Jesus had chosen his 12 Apostles.

Two months later, Agnes managed to escape in the chaos created during a helicopter attack by the Ugandan army. The rebels had said that if one of the girls escaped, the rest would be killed. In the event, it proved an idle threat. Of the 30 abducted girls, nine have fled to safety but 21 are still with Kony, one of whom is assumed dead.

Agnes is back studying at St Mary's with Sister Rachele, whose courageous example gave Agnes the will to reject the vicious visions of the rebels.

In much the same fashion, Sister Rachele has tried to mobilise the world against this madness. She has met the Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni several times. She has flown in his private jet to meet South African President Nelson Mandela.

In just a year and a half, she has even managed to bring the plight of her girls right up to the attention of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

In May this year, the LRA - seemingly bowing to the pressure - agreed to release the girls. But Kony backtracked, claiming that President Museveni had sent 5,000 Ugandan troops to the area where the release was planned. The St Mary's girls are now in neighbouring Sudan, where Kony has his base and where he personally has taken four of them as his "wives".

The Aboke girls have become hostages in a game where politics counts much more than religion, even if most of the players claim to be strong believers.

Ugandan President Museveni is seen as a strong supporter of the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army (SPLA) which is fighting against Islamic rule in southern Sudan. The LRA helps the Muslim government in Khartoum to kill the mainly Christian SPLA.

The 21 girls from Aboke are just the best known among thousands of children who are the real victims of this chaos.

For Sister Rachele, the size of the problem of abductions adds to her guilt. "We feel guilty that we didn't speak up until our own girls were abducted. I didn't go and look for all the others - I didn't speak for them," she says.

Last year, she believed they had made a breakthrough when she and Ben Pere, chairman of the Association of Parents Concerned for Children, were called to the Sudanese capital Khartoum "to identify the girls", as they were told.

In Khartoum, the delegation met Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir. He assured them that as a parent, he was concerned about the girls and promised that the LRA was ready to release them. Meanwhile, Ugandan intelligence sources in the south of Sudan realised the LRA was warned. When the delegation reached the headquarters of Kony, it was abandoned. But smouldering fires and washing on clothes lines told that people had left the same morning.

In another LRA camp, the delegation was met by a group of Ugandan girls in camouflage, all with AK 47s. Ben Pere recognised their commander as Vincent Otti, with whom he had fought against Idi Amin in 1979. Pere knew that Otti had taken his eldest daughter Jaqueline as his "wife". But Otti denied that any of the 21 girls from St Mary's were in Sudan.

"He felt ashamed. He has since given her to a very cruel man," says Pere, who believes the girls will be freed only as part of a political deal between Sudan and Uganda. "President Bashir is the only one who can order Kony to release them. He can say, if you want to stay in Sudan, you must release those children which are giving me a headache."

In July last year, Sister Rachele and Ben Pere were recalled to Khartoum. Again, they returned empty-handed. But she still believes that only a small obstacle needs to be removed for her to get the girls back.

"We have been well received everywhere. There is just a small obstacle somewhere. Maybe, some day it's removed. It's as simple as that." Ben Pere is more sceptical. In Sudan he was caught up by the gruesome logic of this conflict.

The last morning in south Sudan, Pere and Sister Rachele insisted on a surprise visit to the headquarters of Kony, which they had found abandoned the previous day. This time, the camp was teeming with life. But all followed Kony's orders not to speak to the visitors.

Desperate to hear news about his daughters, Pere promised a 12-year-old girl, Monica, to bring her home to Uganda with him if she would talk. She then confirmed that his girls and others from Aboke were hidden nearby.

The Sudanese denied him the right to take Monica anywhere. And just minutes after the delegation had left the camp, she was killed. "I ask God for forgiveness. But there was no other way we would have got the truth about our daughters," says Pere.