GRACE Arach was hungry for education soon after her escape from a Ugandan child army into World Vision’s hands.
The then 17-year-old had missed out on five years of schooling and admitted to being “jealous” of her friends who were setting their sights high.
Thanks to World Vision and a US sponsor, Grace completed her secondary education. Today she is studying a Bachelor of Social Work degree at the University of Sydney and working part time in mental health.
The now 33-year-old still bears the physical and emotional scars of her 1996 abduction.
But as she told the Post this week, hers is ultimately a story of hope.
The woman who was named the 2010 UN Ugandan Woman Achiever of the Year has since devoted her life to rehabilitating child army abductees.
“I want to tell people how I’ve overcome that experience and to give them the same hope,” she said.
On Sunday, Ms Arach was guest speaker at a World Vision sponsored event at ‘Liminis,’ the former St Joseph’s House of Prayer on Taralga Rd.
Hosted by owners Daryl and Maggie Patterson, the evening combined songs by Ms Arach’s friend and Melbourne singer, Levi McGrath, who also interviewed her.
The two met in Uganda in a World Vision rehabilitation centre for former child soldiers. With wife Megan, he spent six months at the centre singing to and helping children who had experienced deep trauma.
“It changed my life,” he said.
“We just tried to give them some of the childhood they’d missed out on. I’m not a psychological professional, just someone with a passion to see people’s lives and hope restored and to give them some dignity.”
Ms Arach says she can deeply relate to the children’s experience.
She told up to 200 people she clearly remembered the day in 1996 she was abducted by the Lords Resistance Army.
Going to visit her grandmother with a Minister, the rebels ambushed the car, looking for food.
After making the six occupants walk all night, shoeless, to a trading centre where they looted food, the soldiers abducted the children.
“The Reverend Father tried to plead for my life but they told him if he insisted, they’d kill me,” Ms Arach said.
The Reverend was set free but Grace’s hell was only starting.
She was handed over to the second in charge of the LRA and became his 11th wife. Those children who dared to escape were killed and their blood smeared on the ones left behind as a warning.
They were sent into battle, equipped with just three hours “basic training” in use of an AK47.
Grace was shot in the left side of her chest before one battle. She crawled into the bush and lay there for up to eight hours before the soldiers found her.
“I was in great pain,” she said. “...So many children were injured and people died.”
She wasn’t given painkillers and boiling hot cloths used to clean the wound burnt her skin. The Army made a rudimentary attempt to cut out the bullet. One month later they tried again, this time successfully.
Ms Arach endured five years and four months with the Army before she decided to escape.
It was fraught with risk but she’d developed a steely resolve.
“I was ready to die,” she said. “I had decided I’d rather die than go back to the LRA.”
She and two other children eventually made their way to the Sudanese government barracks, which protected them and handed them over to the United Nations and Unicef.
“From there we were flown to the capital of Sudan and then Uganda, my country,” she told the crowd.
Ms Arach’s time at the World Vision rehabilitation centre helped restore just a little bit of her life, and faith.
Later, she volunteered her time to help children who had also been abducted into armies. Over 32 years, 30,000 children were ‘stolen’ to become child brides and soldiers.
She said the children’s needs varied, from education and financial support, to the immaterial.
“Most of all they need love because there can still be some stigma going back into the community,” Ms Arach said.
“We give them hope so they can still pick up their lives despite what happened to them.”
Four years ago Ms Arach moved to Australia.
Today her World Vision work involves telling her story and encouraging people to support the charitable organisation through sponsorship or volunteering.
The experience has shaped her life but she’s also looking forward.
“I’ve built resilience and passion for what I’m doing,” Ms Arach said.
“I’ve been through the same thing myself and these children need love, support and help and I think I can make a difference. Even a tiny difference can help.”