The very first stop we made on our trip to northern Uganda (except for the roadside banana and cassava stop that is) was at a place called Empowering Hands. This group supports the returning victims of abduction by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA is a group of rebels that operated for several years in the late 1980, the 1990’s and early 2000’s in the Acholi territory of Uganda in the north. Recent news reports describe activity by the LRA in continuing their campaign of abduction and lootings, as well as maiming and murdering civilians, although this activity is currently taking place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, The Central Africa Republic and parts of Sudan. Some reports indicate that the group may be preparing to re-enter Uganda.
The LRA apparently maintains its capacity primarily through kidnapping children and turning them into soldiers, through a campaign of terror and intimidation. Female children are kept as concubines or presented as sex slaves to cooperating groups. I have read in some of the research I’ve done since the trip that children as young as ten (one reported a child of five) are being forced to be soldiers by the LRA. Not surprisingly, the death toll among the child soldiers is thought to be quite large, although some children do escape and return or some are released when they become too ill to be useful (in this case having to make their way back home, somehow, while dealing with their illness).
Once these individuals return, the work of groups like Empowering Hands begins. The returnees face many challenges. Clearly there are the impacts deriving directly from their ordeal, including the trauma itself, health issues arising from the conditions under which they lived and from injuries sustained while fighting, and the interruption of their education and development. However, these individuals also often face rejection by their villages and families. Women who have fathered children by the rebels at times are accepted back but their children are rejected. Given the indoctrination the children undergo while held captive, the people are afraid that the returnees will harm or even kill them, since many of these individuals have been forced to kill while in captivity. In the aftermath of such horrendous treatment, these individuals must then deal with the rejection of their family and former neighbors, and they must find a different way to re-enter society to establish a new life for themselves.
Empowering Hands currently works with about 30-50 individuals, although the estimate we heard was that there were approximately 200 returnees in this particular sub-county alone. Some returned home as recently as two years ago. No one mentioned, and I was not going to ask, about how long they endured captivity. We also did not hear individual stories so much as we heard more general issues. Two things struck me when we first encountered the group. The first was how warmly we were greeted. The group greeted us with a traditional song with all the members participating. It sounded joyful as a song, but I could not understand the words. The second thing that struck me was how young so many of the people were. Abductions and enslavement are completely wrong, but somehow the violation seems all the worse when it is inflicted on children
The group’s initial focus has been on psycho-social counseling for the returnees. However, the focus for the individuals in the group has turned towards education and vocational training. Since their education has been interrupted, these individuals need some form of remedial education to re-enter the educational system in any meaningful way. There are also issues for the children born to the returning women, as there is no source of support for these children to attend school at all. Some efforts have been made to provide vocational training, but the areas of training haven’t been considered particularly useful. Another issue for the group is, not surprisingly, medical care. Some individuals are still suffering with bullet fragments, for example.
Sitting down and speaking to these individuals (both through an interpreter and in English with the group leaders), I was struck by the contrasts I had seen in my own life over such a short time. Indeed, less than a month prior to this visit, I was on holiday in Germany with my father, my sister and a group of people. The stories about life behind the wall in East Berlin seemed foreign enough to me then. This reality is even further removed from my own life experience. I was humbled at the thought of what kind of strength these individuals demonstrate each and every day as they focus on rebuilding their lives and finding a way to re-enter society. Their focus was not on restitution or revenge but on tangible things that would help them return to something of a normal life.
There are some issues around a proper understanding of the rights granted to Ugandan citizens by their constitution, which apparently hasn’t been translated into the local languages and English isn’t widely understood by this group, not surprisingly. In particular, without proper explanations and understanding, it is hard to grasp the implications of a right in a constitution for daily life and how those rights also often imply responsibilities. Even though English is the official language of Uganda, making such crucial documents accessible would to me seem to be an important undertaking.
The raids of the LRA also resulted in a huge number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in camps across the region. One estimate placed a peak number of IDPs at approximately 1.8 million people. In Northern Uganda, that number is declining significantly, to about 295,000 as of June 2010, although this number does not include individuals in urban areas outside the Acholi, West Nile, Lango and Teso regions or those in Karamojo. Life in the IDP camps was quite difficult, and many people who have returned to their homes have trouble with reclaiming land and making a living again. These issues will be discussed in a subsequent post.