Support Group Helps Kids Pressed Into War

If anyone could have been defeated by life, it is Maurine Akello.

She is a victim of the civil war in Uganda that has raged for 21 years. The rebels fill their ranks by kidnapping children and turning them into soldiers, forcing them to torture and murder.

The kidnapped females are given to the male commanders and forced to have sex and bear children.

Akello was 16 and pregnant from forced sex when she escaped her captors.

Very few abductees manage to escape, but five who did, including Akello, formed a support group called Hands that helps others who have been through the same ordeal.

"Where there are more than one person or two people, you find that if you empower your hands together there is nothing that can defeat you," Akello said.

The five founders of Empowering Hands are in New York this week, but they have lived much of their lives in the bush. New York's tall buildings are the ultimate in culture shock for them while they are in the United States to make United Nations officials aware of what goes on in Uganda, and to be honored by Glamour magazine.

More than 30 percent of Ugandans say one or more of their children have been abducted. If a child escapes, in most cases he or she can't go home because their parents believe they've been turned into killers.

"In the bush the situation is very bad," Akello said. "If you survive today, tomorrow you might not think of surviving."

The group Akello and the other escapees formed use peer counseling and music to try to heal.

"A person will obviously come to know it's not only me who passed through this kind of problem," Akello said.

Even still, the women at Empowering Hands don't smile much. One of Akello's friends, Sarah Nightly, was kidnapped at age 11 while her parents watched.

"My mother stepped on a land mine as she ran to help me. She was blown up and killed," she said.

All the women at Empowering Hands want their children to know something other than war and none want their children stolen from them.

"What I hope for my future and my family is that the child I have, all the children we are having, should really live a better life than we," Akello said. "Because we the parents, we suffered a lot and really want our children to at least live a better life."

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