Blessed are the Peacemakers: Sister Pauline Acayo of Northern Uganda

Originally published
by Krista Threefoot
Every aspect of Sister Pauline Acayo's life has been affected by violence. She has lost friends and loved ones. She has witnessed the disintegration of families, communities and the very society in which she lives. And she has received numerous threats to her own life.

Yet living amidst the chaos and witnessing the daily suffering of her people in the Gulu province of northern Uganda - a region that has endured nearly 20 years of brutal civil war - inspired Sister Pauline to begin working for peace. She joined CRS in 1998 and in 2001 became the peacebuilding project officer for CRS' Gulu program.

When she was only 14, Sister Pauline joined the Little Sisters of Mary Immaculate in Gulu. After earning a bachelor's degree in education and studying in Rome, she returned to Gulu to find her community consumed in conflict. The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) had enacted a campaign of killing and torture that has endured since 1987, leaving tens of thousands dead and approximately 1.7 million people displaced from their homes. Sister Pauline herself narrowly escaped capture when her convent was raided.

The LRA is notorious for its brutality, the worst of which involves the abduction, torture, brainwashing and killing of children. These children are forced to become soldiers and sex slaves for the LRA. To ensure their loyalty - and to isolate permanently children from their communities - many are forced to commit unspeakable acts of violence against their own family and friends.

Beacon of Hope

Since joining CRS, Sister Pauline's contributions to her community have been profound. Her work with children and young adults who have escaped their abduction has earned her international recognition as an exemplary woman peacebuilder. In conjunction with our partner organizations, she assisted in developing a rehabilitation program designed to help escapees overcome the profound psychological trauma of their experiences.

Through drama projects, role-playing and classes, this program helps escaped abductees overcome their shame and develop skills in interpersonal communication, nonviolent conflict resolution and personal development. Sister Pauline works with residents of camps for those who are displaced, to help them learn to forgive children who were forced to choose between killing or being killed. With her support, our partners have enabled more than 2,000 individuals to begin their lives anew as full members of a community.

Sister Pauline is also helping people overcome the difficulties of living amidst the chaos of war. She has helped train more than 100 residents of six camps as paralegals who train others in life skills, communication and conflict resolution, legal rights and responsibilities, and counseling.

Sister Pauline has also helped start and sustain peace clubs in local schools that have involved more than 5,000 youth in peacebuilding projects. She has worked with our partners to train more than 75 religious leaders in Sudan and Uganda in conflict management, peacebuilding and communication skills. And she hosts a talk-radio program that reaches thousands of northern Ugandans with her message of peace and reconciliation.

Most recently, Sister Pauline was honored as a Woman Peacemaker for 2005 by the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice.

Through her tireless work, Sister Pauline is a beacon of hope for the world's most victimized children. "I must talk on behalf of the voiceless," she says. "Only when justice is done will I stop talking."

Catholic Relief Services could not accomplish its work without dedicated partners. In Gulu, our peace clubs and paralegal training are implemented through the Peace and Justice Commission of the Archdiocese of Gulu. Ker Kwalo Acholi administers our escapee rehabilitation program and the People's Voice for Peace implements our life-skills development programs. Sister Pauline's radio show is made possible by the Acholi Religious Leader's Peace Initiative.

Krista Threefoot is a proposal writer for Catholic Relief Services. Headquartered in Baltimore, Krista recently traveled to Uganda and Ethiopia for CRS.