In October of 1996, “Mama Angelina,” as she was affectionately known, was working as a private nurse-midwife helping usher new life into the world. Her husband had a good job, and the couple’s six children were all in school. The family home in Lira hummed with daily routines.
But the family was awakened at 6 a.m. one morning by a neighbor pounding on their door. During the night, LRA rebels had stormed St. Mary’s Catholic boarding school, where their 14-year-old daughter Charlotte was a student, and abducted the girls.
“I screamed and fell down,” recalls Atyam, bringing a slender hand to her chest and apologizing for momentarily being at a loss for words. “I saw the fear in my husband’s eyes. He was talking, but I couldn’t hear a word he said. Our other children were afraid for their sister and their own lives.”
When a friend arrived and began to pray with the family, Atyam remembers that a sense of strength and calm came over her. The feeling continued to sustain her as she and her husband rode with other parents to St. Mary’s, 10 miles away in Aboke parish. They found the children’s books, shoes, and clothing scattered on the ground, says Atyam. “Parents were wailing, ‘The children are all gone.’” The dormitory windows were broken, smashed by the rebels to reach the girls huddled inside.
The parents learned that Sister Rachel, the petite but formidable nun who was the school’s deputy headmistress, and a male teacher had followed the rebels into the jungle. When the pair caught up with them and pleaded for the girls’ release, the rebel commander wrote “109” with the tip of his rifle’s bayonet in the dust. That was the number of girls he would release.
When the headmistress continued to argue for the release of the entire group, he threatened to kill them all. She left with 109 girls, the words of those left behind echoing in her ears: “Sister, please, I’m sick” … “Sister, I’m the only child of my parents,”… “Sister, I have asthma,” … “Sister, they will rape us,” followed by the girls’ screams as the rebels kicked and beat them.
The next day, the headmistress arrived at the Atyams’ home. With tears running down her cheeks, she told them that Charlotte had not been among the girls released.
“I think that Sister died inside that day,” says Atyam. “Only half her soul was left, and she never recovered. Every time we later met, the tears would start to flow. I would try to get her to eat with me because I knew she couldn’t eat and cry at the same time.”
News later came that the rebels had marched most of the remaining school girls into neighboring southern Sudan, where Charlotte would be held captive and brutalized for the next seven years.