Former child soldier Grace Arach recalls years of horror with Lord's Resistance Army
Creeping through the scrub bush in the dead of night, Grace Arach felt the beat of her own heart in her wounded chest.
She knew being caught escaping the dreaded Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) meant certain death. But after five years as a child soldier forced to fight for the Ugandan guerrilla group she was ready to risk it all for freedom.
Arach was only 12 when she was snatched by the rebel group. The LRA, formed in Uganda more than two decades ago and led by self-described prophet Joseph Kony, claimed to be fighting to install a government based on the Biblical 10 Commandments.
Preying on civilians, they killed, raped and mutilated the people of central Africa. In its years of violence stealing children and forcing them to fight, kill and brutalise in their name, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced as the LRA's wave of violence tore through the region.
* Top Lord's Resistance Army commander caught
* Invisible Children group call for action on LRA
* Cannibalism, rape, child sex slaves - the accusations against Dominic Ongwen
* Hunting Kony is dirty and dangerous
Now 32, Arach shares her story at speaking events through World Vision, the charity that rehabilitated her and helped her make a new life in Sydney.
Arach's father had been killed by the army a year before her own abduction when they raided her village in the Gulu district in the North of Uganda. Fear, Arach says, was just a normal part of life.
"We knew war was going on so when we heard the rebel group was coming to the village we would all run into the bush and hide – sometimes we stayed there all night. That happened a lot."
The day she was abducted she was on her way to see her paternal grandmother. Getting a lift with the local Catholic priest, they started off on the 7km journey. Ambushed en route by the rebel group armed with guns and a rocket-propelled grenade, they were forced at gunpoint to march all day and night barefoot to the LRA camp where the priest was freed.
They wanted only children, Arach says. Abducting children to replenish its ranks and forcing them to fight was one of the hallmarks of the LRA.
"They abduct children because they are easier to brainwash. In our culture you are taught not to question adults, you do what you are told. And children are fearless because they don't know about death."
Arach was handed over to Joseph Kony's second in command, Otti Lagony, as a child bride and Lagony's 11th wife. "He put me under gunpoint and said if you scream I will kill you."
She learned early on that disobedience would mean death.
She would soon hear horror stories about those who had not toed the line or tried to escape.
The children themselves were forced to mete out punishment to those who tried to escape by beating them to death. "You were either told to participate or to watch or you had the person's blood put on you to scare you into submission."
This was life under the savage regime.
After a brief and rudimentary lesson in warfare, Arach was given a short machine-gun and told to fight. "If you don't shoot you're killed, either by the government troops or the rebels. We were told that our gun was our dad and our mum – the only thing that was going to protect us."
Over the next five years she would walk hundreds of miles waging war against government troops, eventually ending up in South Sudan where Kony's army had its base.
Like nomads, they walked and fought, abducting more children, killing on behalf of the LRA, for a cause quite beyond their comprehension.
It can't have been for God, Arach says. "God does not want us to kill anyone. Kony somehow used the Old Testament and twisted it around to make us do these things."
If it was about inequality in the north of Uganda then why kill the people you are supposedly the voice for?" she questions.
A year after her abduction Arach was shot in the chest during a battle. It was treated with nothing but boiling water to clean the wound. Her captors tried three times to remove the bullet using a razor blade to cut through her flesh. There was no pain relief.
Even with her wound she was forced to carry food, water and clothing for Lagony, trudging for hours on end in the blazing heat.
"Hope came if you got through a battle alive, uninjured. I believed that maybe one day I will go home. Maybe one day I will escape.
She saw her chance when she and a small group of rebels were left by the commanders in the bush while they went off to fight.
On May 19, 2001 at 10pm – the date and time firmly etched into her memory – she and two other young soldiers and their three babies crept out of the camp.
"It didn't matter where we were going, we just had to run, to get away."
They ran for hours until, exhausted, with their bare feet punctured with thorns, they made it to a government barracks.
The women and children were taken to Juba and handed over to Unicef and the UN officials, who then took them to a World Vision rehabilitation centre in Gulu, Uganda.
Arach went on to finish her schooling and complete a degree at at Gulu University.
During this time she worked with World Vision helping child soldiers reintegrate into their communities and educating the communities to accept these children back
Most formerly abducted persons were forced to commit atrocities in their hometowns, or even to kill their own relatives and are not welcome back into society. Some women who have escaped with their children are rejected by their families. Many are considered "cursed" and are ostracised .
Through sponsorship by World Vision Arach moved to Australia six years ago, where she is about to graduate with a degree in social work.
Over the next month Arach shares her story in New Zealand through World Vision.
"Speaking to people who sponsor children through World Vision I can tell them 'I am that child.' I can show them that they are making a difference.
"I am passionate about social justice so I tell my story. There are those who don't have the opportunity to speak so I have to be their voice."
If you'd like to find out about World Vision's work supporting vulnerable children like Grace, please go to www.worldvision.org.nz
Lord's Resistance Army - the facts
* The LRA has abducted more than 25,000 children during its 20-year conflict with the east African nation's government.
* Since 2006, when the Uganda armed forces pushed the LRA into Congo and what is now South Sudan, relative peace has returned to northern Uganda.
* The LRA remains an immediate menace for the people of South Sudan, Congo, and Central African Republic. Since September 2008 the LRA has killed more than 2600 civilians and abducted more than 4000 other people, many of them children.
* At its height, the LRA numbered in the thousands. Currently it is estimated to have 150 to 300 armed fighters, plus hundreds of captive children and adults.
Source: World Vision, Human Rights Watch