As we forgive
“We went back home to examine ourselves and our communities,” says Atyam. “What was it that was burning -- the anger, the bitterness, the corrosion of our souls? We had put a curse on [the rebels], but we actually had put one on ourselves.”
Atyam remembered the lesson of Matthew 5:23-24. Before you offer a sacrifice to God, put things right, or the sacrifice is useless. “We needed God, so we decided to put things right,” says Atyam. “That prayer was a revival in our lives…praying for those who wronged us became our sacrifice.”
When the parents met to pray the next week, a transformation had begun. As they prayed to forgive the rebels, their sorrows began to lift. They decided to share their gift of forgiveness, first with other people in their community -- and then in neighboring districts where other children had been kidnapped -- by organizing meetings to tell their story.
‘Bullets have no eyes’
Many who heard the message were incredulous.
“Angelina, what planet are you from?” cried out a blind woman from a nearby district whose only son had been abducted. The rebels had forced the clinging 8-year-old from her arms with fire, and then slashed her with a machete and left her to die. “Don’t you know what the rebels did to me?” she demanded. “Must I forgive?”
Atyam’s answer was a resounding “yes.” Unless the parents practiced forgiveness and sought a peaceful solution to the conflict, they would destroy what they most wanted back -- the children.
“Bullets have no eyes,” she explained to the woman. “In the field, bullets would not know if a child was abducted or volunteered for the rebel army. War would destroy all these children.”
She continued to spread the message of forgiveness. When she learned that the well-known rebel commander Rasca Lukwiya was holding Charlotte as his “wife,” Atyam went a step further.
She traveled to the neighboring village where Lukwiya’s mother lived, determined to convince the woman that she was ready to forgive him, his family, their clan and their tribe, which she held responsible for beginning the civil conflict.
During that visit, Atyam began by telling Lukwiya’s mother, “I know you have nothing to do with the war and want your son back.”
“She didn’t find it very easy at first, but then we embraced and wept. We were reconciled,” said Atyam, who felt as if a heavy burden was lifted from her heart and soul. “I could go back, pray, and call upon God for what I wanted from him.”
Energized by their witness of forgiveness, the parents launched the Concerned Parents Association (CPA) to advocate for the release of all the abducted children in Uganda, the peaceful resolution of the armed conflict, forgiveness of the LRA and increased awareness of the plight of children in war everywhere.
As co-founder and president, Atyam would become a midwife to a vision of a new future of reconciliation and peace for her country. She started by taking CPA’s mission to radio and other media, and to rebel and government leaders, including the Ugandan president. Eventually, she traveled to Europe and the United States, where she petitioned the United Nations to intervene, and in 2002 addressed the United Nations Security Council.
While the publicity raised sympathy for the children’s plight, it also drew the rebels’ ire. In a matter of months, rebel leader Joseph Kony made Atyam an offer: In exchange for ceasing her advocacy, the LRA would release Charlotte. Atyam agreed to consider the offer if the LRA released all 30 girls from St. Mary’s. The commander refused. And so did Atyam.
“It was as if God had knit the parents together to become one big family,” said Atyam, who agonized about her decision. She hoped that Charlotte, whom she later learned had sometimes been beaten in response to CPA’s advocacy, would forgive her. Atyam’s own family was appalled, but for her there was no other choice.
“Somehow all those other children had become one in Charlotte. We could not pull the one away and leave the rest,” Atyam said. That would have betrayed CPA, a group with hope and vision that they could not afford to lose for the sake of thousands of missing children, she said. “All those children had become my children.”
As years passed, Atyam continued to lead CPA’s efforts and to wrestle with God over her daughter’s captivity.
“You are mighty, you are ever present, you can do anything,” she cried out one night in 2004 as she sat on her bedroom floor. “It is written in the Bible that the seventh year is the year of freedom…the year of all good things. Lord, we know you don’t change, but have you changed today -- because seven years have elapsed, and my daughter and the other children are still missing.”
Three days later, Atyam received a telephone call that Charlotte, then 22, had escaped with her toddler and was safe at a Ugandan army camp. When they met, mother and daughter ran into each other’s arms.
“We couldn’t talk,” Atyam said. “We just held each other and cried for a long, long time. She is the Lord’s answer to my prayers.”
Atyam eventually found Charlotte’s 5-year-old son at one of the camps established for the one million Ugandans displaced during the civil conflict. The boy had fled the rebel camp during an air raid, convinced that his mother and baby brother had been killed.
‘Give me the heart to forgive’
Today Charlotte is studying hospital management at the University of Health Sciences in Kampala. She says she prays for God’s grace “to give me the heart to forgive. Every time I see these people walking freely on the streets, I feel like I need to kill somebody. And then I say, ‘God will not forgive me unless I forgive them.’”