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,” says 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 and 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 work, 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,” explains 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,” says Atyam. 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 explains. “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.”