‘Abducted at 12, I was raped and my baby died before I was lucky enough to escape. At first I put my faith in silence, then I realized I had to speak out.’
Read Polline Akello’s storey in her words
‘I spent seven years in the bush in Uganda, a child soldier, held captive by an armed group and forced to become the “wife” of a rebel commander. My best friend was killed in front of me. My baby died before it was born. But I escaped, and believe speaking out about my experiences is the best way to help others who are suffering in the same way.’
There are children in war right now, people who are taken away and forced to fight for a cause they do not understand – that is why today, 12 February, is Red Hand Day, an annual commemoration to bring attention to the fates of child soldiers.
Many young girls are in the same situation I went through, and it is painful to see it repeated. Fear and shame often leave children who come back from conflict unable to talk about their experiences. I was told by members of my community to remain silent. But if survivors do that, they will not be helped. It is very important to bring it out into the open – only through talking about it will survivors get the help they need.
I was 12 when I was taken. In the camp girls are there to be used whenever the men want. Soldiers are not allowed to fall in love. If one is caught charming a girl he is killed. I became pregnant when I was 16. During labor I was forced to walk for miles as the rebels tried to evade the Ugandan army. My son died before he was born and I had to have an operation to remove him, without anesthetic.
‘People’s rights need to be respected’ … Polline Akello flanked by fashion designer Stella McCartney and actor Angelina Jolie at the Draw Me to Safety summit in June 2014.
If your baby dies, you are not supposed to mourn for it. If you do, they will kill you. You have just to go somewhere secretly and cry. When you return, you should look like nothing has happened. But I never lost hope. My health got worse after the operation and they let me get hospital treatment in Kenya – where a nurse helped me to escape. When I was packing my bags I felt no fear. All I knew was that I was not going back to that place.
Too often when girls come back their families abandon them – especially when they come back with children. They are not prepared to take responsibility for that child when they do not know the father. This leaves survivors of sexual violence on the streets.
When I came back the only support I was given was a mattress and a blanket. A blanket might keep you warm, but education is building for life.
‘I have travelled to Downing Street, and spoken to David Cameron, William Hague and Angelina Jolie Pitt to push for help for survivors.’
Communities need to support their children when they come back from war and encourage them to talk about it. When a friend of mine came back she was sent out of her home by her family. I went to the family and explained my experiences; that it was not their daughter’s choice to have these children, and that she had been taken by force. Families need support to welcome back their children the way they are after they have been released or escaped armed groups. The family eventually took my friend back, and now they are happily together.
Local assistance is more important to help the long-term recovery, stability and change of child soldiers than short-term international intervention. People need their own governments to step in and visibly help. Sometimes by the time a community realizes what is happening it has already happened. Rebels are able to silence communities – but if something is done to raise awareness it is possible it can be reduced.
Some people who are released or escape from armed groups are afraid to take action because there is too much pain. They are unable to make the right decisions. But the community can have positive change if people are able to talk about it. Speaking to another child formerly associated with an armed group, he said he felt the worst thing he could do was to speak about his experience. I want to be an advocate for other survivors to speak out.
When I came back I really wanted to go back to school. Although a terrible thing happened to me when my baby died, it led me to get the chance to escape. I missed seven years of school but with the help of War Child I was able to pick up my studies. I am now at university, and have traveled to Downing Street and spoken to David Cameron, William Hague and Angelina Jolie Pitt to push for help for survivors like me. It shows that something positive can come from something terrible.