The Current

Grace Acan spent years as a captive of Ugandan rebels, now she helps casualties of war rebuild their lives

Grace Acan was among 139 schoolgirls kidnapped by the Lord's Resistance Army in 1996. After years in captivity, she escaped and now helps other conflict survivors to find their place in the world.

'I learned to do everything — however hard it was — in order to survive,' Acan says

Grace Acan at St Mary's College in Uganda, May 2017. She was kidnapped from the school, along with 138 other pupils, in 1996. (Véronique Bourget/Conjugal Slavery in War Partnership Coordinator)

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Grace Acan was 14 when fighters for the Lord's Resistance Army came to her school's dormitory in the dead of night.

When she and her classmates refused to open the door, the men used an axe to cleave apart a window sill. They tied the girls' hands, ransacked their belongings and then marched them away.

It was 1996, and the LRA — led by Joseph Kony — were known for abducting youth to turn them into child soldiers or sex slaves.

Kidnappings had happened before, and the girls — 139 pupils of St Mary's College in Aboke, northern Uganda — hoped their release would be negotiated quickly. But after a day spent walking through the Uganda bush, they were assembled to be questioned by the men.

The dormitory where Grace Acan and her classmates were sleeping when the LRA came. (Conjugal Slavery in War Partnership)

"They picked the girls one by one," Acan recalled to The Current's guest host Laura Lynch. "Then they say, 'Get up, what's your name? Where do you come from? What are your parents' names?'"

The girls were split into two groups. Eventually 109 girls stood on one side; 30 on the other. The larger group was released, but Acan was in the smaller group, "the side that they said would remain with the rebels."

She doesn't know why she was picked to stay, but she would spend nearly eight years in captivity as one of the Aboke Girls. Her life became one of servitude, as she endured a forced marriage and constant movement to evade government forces.

The dormitory has been remodelled, but the windows were much lower when Acan stayed there, which allowed the men access. (Conjugal Slavery in War Partnership)

Acan told herself she had to survive, for the family she had left behind and the children she bore while in captivity.

"There came a point where I realized that i what is very important is life." 

"I learned to do everything — however hard it was — in order to survive and stay alive."

One day, while fleeing an attack on their camp, Acan became separated and suddenly found herself alone with her child in the forest. She escaped, reunited with her family, and went back to school to become "an independent woman."

She now works with women and children affected by war, and even works to secure the financial futures of children born from forced marriages by connecting them with the families of their fathers.

Listen to Grace Acan's story of her life in the hands of the LRA by hitting the play button near the top of this page. You can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley and Howard Goldenthal.


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