One of the greatest tragedies of the war in northern Uganda over the past twenty years is the devastation it has inflicted on the civilian population and especially on the youth. Throughout most of the conflict, the LRA rebels employed a strategy which terrorized those living in Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps by abducting youth—both boys and girls—to use as child soldiers and wives for the older soldiers. Many were kidnapped directly from their villages and from the IDP camps where they were supposed to have been protected from rebel attack. Once abducted, it is well documented that the rebels often used brutal psychological tactics on these youth by sometimes forcing them to kill their own family and community members.
As the violence began to subside in 2005 and 2006 with the onset of the Juba Peace talks in South Sudan between the LRA and the Government of Uganda, increasingly more youth who had been soldiers—some since the age of eight—were able to escape and return home to their villages. However, it wasn’t just as simple as walking back into the village and being greeted and welcomed by loved ones and community members. First, many former abductees had nobody and nothing to come back to. Secondly, they were ostracized and also experienced a great deal of stigmatization, which was simply overwhelming for most.
This stigmatization may seem odd to a Westerner at first because, after all, it was not these youth’s fault that they were abducted and forced to commit terrible acts against their own people. Nonetheless, when they began returning in larger numbers, the community had a great fear of these “former rebels.” The community had knowledge of the acts they had committed and many members of the community had witnessed these acts first-hand and now were faced with accepting those youth who had committed these acts back into the community.
I asked a colleague at Human Rights Focus—a non-governmental organization in Gulu that has been one of the leading monitors and watchdogs of the human rights conditions in the IDP camps over the past few years—the following question: What are some ways to help the youth/former abductees to overcome the stigmatization they usually feel upon reentry into their communities? He responded, “The abductees were removed from their community by the rebels. They were then forced to carry out serious human rights violations and to abduct others. People in the community have a very serious fear of these children when they return to the camps. They are ostracized from the community, ignored, and socially excluded. They are kept in a constant state of rejection.”
He continued on to say that the question, then, that communities and organizations in Gulu are now asking themselves is: How can we help reduce the stigmatization and foster a process of reintegration that encourages harmony, peace, and reconciliation. The Church has begun to take on this role at an institutional level. Archbishop John Baptist Odama did not ask the child soldiers to repent for any atrocities they committed. Nor did Odama set out by laying culpability explicitly with LRA commanders—although he did condemn their actions. Instead, he took the sin of war and of the ongoing humanitarian crisis onto the whole Acholi community. For Odama, the community repents because the community was responsible for the well being of these children—the sin is taken on by the whole of the Church. Furthermore, Odama has never referred to the LRA or those abducted as “the rebels.” He has, instead, continued to call them “his children.”
But action is also taking place among the youth themselves as they realize that any attempt at adequate reintegration into the community will ultimately have to begin with their own efforts. Consequently, many camps now have youth groups that have risen up, formed by young leaders who were once victims of abduction. They have returned with the goal of working to reharmonize their community and especially their fellow youth.
Dennis, the leader of the Yub Pa Lacwey Youth Group in Lacor IDP camp started his group in 2006 for those youth in Lacor IDP camp who were returning from the bush to their community after being abused by the rebels. Dennis himself was abducted at the age of 8—he is now 18—and was forced to do things he says are unimaginable for any human to have to endure.
Indeed, the psychological trauma of these youth is more than substantial and for most, professional treatment is a need. However, there are virtually no psychiatrists in the region and even the NGOs, community organizations, and the Church are often underequipped, undertrained, and underfunded to be able to carry out any substantial and widespread post-trauma and psycho-social treatment.
So, instead, the youth in Lub Pa Lacwey group come together under a common them: unity. In Yub Pa Lacwey’s mission statement, they say their main objectives are to reduce the level of stigmatization that former abductees currently face, to offer each other support emotionally, psychologically, and economically, and finally to uplift good cultural practices through the practice of traditional cultural dances and through the formulation of dramas which offer community sensitization on such topics as HIVAIDS, peace and reconciliation, and landmine awareness.
When I had a chance to witness Dennis and his group performing the traditional Acholi “Bwola” dance, I could sense the role that this was playing in the release of suppressed emotions and tragic memories. The dancing, the harmony, and the unity of the dance itself acted as a moment of peace for these youth, even if only for a few minutes. It reminds these youth that peace is still possible in a world that for them has been torn apart by senseless violence.
Dennis says of the dancing, “It is so refreshing to dance and to meet people who had been through the same things. I feared returning to the village not just because of the stigma and problems of food, but because if the peace talks break down then the soldiers will come back for us and this time they will kill us. But when I’m dancing I forget the past, the bad images and bad dreams. It silences the cries of those I saw killed. It refreshes me.”