Kem Knapp Sawyer is the author of the new book Grace Akallo and the Pursuit of Justice for Child Soldiers. She is the author of many books for young people, including biographies of Nelson Mandela, Anne Frank, and Lucretia Mott. She is also a contributing editor at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. She lives in Washington, D.C.
Q: How did you learn about Grace Akallo, and why did you decide to write a book about her?
A: My interest in conflict resolution and involvement in war and peace issues began over 40 years ago. I came of age at the end of the Vietnam War; by the early 1980s we were in the midst of the nuclear freeze movement.
I started writing books for young readers—one of my first was on the role of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, including early attempts at arms control, not only in the U.S., but also worldwide.
In my research I discovered women I knew nothing or very little about—peace leaders with the strongest of convictions: Bertha von Suttner, who wrote the first pacifist novel, Lay Down Your Arms (1889), and became the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
And Rosika Schwimmer, a World Federalist who was denied U.S. citizenship by the Supreme Court because of her pacifist views. (The dissenting opinion came from Oliver Wendell Holmes.)
Vera Brittain, a British nurse and writer, the subject of a new film, Testament of Youth. Lucretia Mott, Quaker abolitionist, women’s rights advocate (think Seneca Falls 1848), and most importantly a pacifist.
I set out to write about them and, in 1991, my first biography was published: Lucretia Mott: Friend of Justice.
It was about that time that I became aware of the use of child soldiers in Colombia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, and other countries.
By the late 1990s, the nine-year-old Htoo twins had made headlines as they led a rebel group against the Burmese army. When the boys took 800 patients hostage in a Thai hospital, an AP photo of Johnny and his brother Luther smoking a cigar was featured in a New York Times article. It was a picture that spoke a thousand words and it may have spurred a movement.
I learned that approximately 300,000 children were involved in armed conflict, and of that number 120,000 were girls. Throughout history child soldiers had fought in most regions of the world. Some took part in battles, others were messengers, spies, porters, or cooks.
We needed to stop the use of children in armed conflict and we needed to help ex-combatants become part of a community. I believed that telling the stories of child soldiers would put an end to these human rights abuses. I asked various NGOs to connect me with ex-child soldiers and I traveled to Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo to meet with them.
In 2007, a volunteer for World Vision put me in touch with Grace Akallo here in the U.S. I was told she was a former child soldier who had been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel force operating in Uganda. We spoke by phone and I later visited Grace on the Gordon College campus outside Boston, where she shared her life story.
I learned what it was like to grow up in Kaberikole, a small village in northern Uganda, and to attend St. Mary’s, a Ugandan boarding school for girls. Grace was one of the 139 girls who were taken from their dorm in the middle of the night on October 9, 1996.
The Grace I met then was warm and kind—and somewhat shy. She later came to Washington, where I heard her speak on behalf of women, children, and former child soldiers.
When she stood in front of a group, another, more powerful, voice emerged. Grace was becoming a forceful advocate against the use of children in armed conflict. She has spoken out at the U.N. and on Capitol Hill and continues to reach out to audiences across the country—touching the hearts of all who hear her.
Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about the Lord's Resistance Army?
The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), one of the most ruthless rebel groups in recent history, has enlisted more than 30,000 children from Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic.
It is led by Joseph Kony, an Acholi warlord, who started operations in 1987. Kony believes he has special mystical powers and is possessed by a holy spirit. His followers cover themselves with a special oil to ward off bullets. In 2005, Joseph Kony was indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes.
Tactics used by the LRA have been brutal and the amount of atrocities is overwhelming. In the last few years, the number of combatants has dwindled—to between 150 and 300.
Yet the LRA still holds captive hundreds of adults and children, and Joseph Kony continues to elude capture. And violence against civilians persists, as evidenced by the tracking system put in place by The Resolve, a Washington-based organization.
Q: What age group do you think is best suited to read this book?
A: Tricky question. I would say middle school and up. Even though 6th or 7th graders will find some of the content disturbing they will come to understand the importance of learning about the subject matter in order to bring about change.
High school students will also be moved by Grace’s story. I’ve included a substantial bibliography listing books, articles, and Human Rights Watch reports on the subject, as well as links to web sites of organizations that work with child soldiers.
Child soldiers has been the topic for debate at the Model UN, the national program for students to become involved in public speaking on issues related to international affairs and diplomacy.
So many young people are now concerned about child soldiers, the trauma they experience during war, and the consequences of war on children—disease, hunger, lack of education, sexual abuse.
This book is for them, but it’s also for those who may not yet know that hundreds of thousands of children are employed as child soldiers. As more people—regardless of age—become aware of the issue, more will be done to end the use of child soldiers and to help those who have survived.
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from Grace Akallo's story?
A: More than anything, I want readers to understand that there is already much that is being done to help ex-combatants heal body and soul—but there is still much more to be done.
In Colombia, the Children’s Movement for Peace has worked to end a decades-long civil war and to demobilize child soldiers. One hundred thousand children have come together in peace-making activities—planting trees, clean-up campaigns, and play groups
In the DRC, the Congolese are working with former child soldiers to provide job skills in welding, woodworking, cooking and pastry making, tailoring, hairdressing, and sewing.
A basketball program builds team spirit and camaraderie—a dance company proves therapeutic and increases self-confidence. The youth may have been robbed of a childhood but they are learning their future holds great promise.
And I hope readers will not forget Grace: a young woman with a remarkable vision, who believes she was given a purpose in life—not to mourn for herself but to help others who have suffered as she has, to offer them time and space to talk about their pain, and to leave them with the strength to start anew.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous interview with Kem Knapp Sawyer, please click here.