Friday, July 18, 2008

To the Children

Children in Conflict: the Lord's Resistance Army, Uganda

* Joe Powell

The children of Barlonyo, in northern Uganda, have taken to playing on the memorial to the 121 villagers buried after the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) attack on February 21 2004. The long, curving concrete slab has the appearance of a pavement, but in rural Northern Uganda looks horribly out of place. The mass burials that took place in the days after the massacre were out of necessity and the memorial's figure of 121 reflects only those who could be identified. The LRA tactic of razing the thatched mud homes to the ground had meant many people were burned alive and never afforded even this most rudimentary of resting places. Many more villagers are simply listed as "missing". Among the parents of Barlonyo there is the uneasy knowledge that many of their children were abducted on that day and will have since spent their formative years fighting in the lawless jungles of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

The process which the LRA use to abduct children is notoriously brutal. Siblings are often taken together and told that one of them must shoot the other or they will both die. These unimaginable acts that the children are forced to commit at this early stage is a calculated strategy by the LRA to prevent their new captives escaping. Many are so shamed by what they have done that they fear returning to their villages, where reprisal attacks on abductees have indeed taken place. And yet despite increased global prominence, in part due to the issuing of arrest warrants by the International Criminal Court, the LRA has continued with kidnapping and indoctrinating young boys and girls. Amnesty International reported that 350 people, mostly children, were abducted in the Central African Republic and South Sudan in April 2008. While the boys are taken primarily for fighting and carrying purposes, the girls are given the role of "wives" to the commanders, in effect acting as LRA sex slaves.

These children are some of the 300,000 who Unicef estimates are directly engaged in conflicts worldwide. Twelve thousand children are thought to have at some stage fought in the LRA. However, despite their continued abductions in other parts of the Great Lakes region, northern Uganda has been relatively peaceful for the past two years. The child night commuters who used to walk large distances from their vulnerable villages to the safer urban centres of Gulu, Lira and Kitgum have now stopped. Barlonyo itself is struggling hard to regain a semblance of normality but there is another great challenge facing this most resilient of communities: the child soldiers have now started returning.

Often unrecognisable from when they left, the children can now only be described as such in name only. To all extent and purpose they have had their childhoods stolen. These sons and daughters of Barlonyo have now experienced, in their short lifetimes, more bloodshed and atrocity than any sane person could be expected to handle. Many of the girls return infected with HIV and will have already given birth in the jungle. The boys sport scars that bear a closer resemblance to the savage beatings they received at the hands of their commanders, than anything they could have picked up in battle. Mostly they now sit idly, staring vacantly into the distance and taking solace in the viscously potent local brew. Other villagers treat them with caution and outright acceptance back into the community is rare. The lost years of schooling have left the abductees without the skills needed to work and feelings of alienation are common. Counselling is offered by some NGOs but it is far from universally available. Uganda's overstretched healthcare system pays little attention to mental health.

This is all begs the question of what should be done with these battle-hardened but traumatised young people. Sensitisation of affected communities is needed to encourage dialogue between the returnees and their former friends and family members. Traditional justice mechanisms have also been used to promote forgiveness of former LRA soldiers and help them integrate back into society. Educational catch-up programmes have been implemented to try and equip the returnees with the skills they need to find employment.

However, in many cases there remains the tragic paradox of parents desperately praying for their children to come home, only not to be prepared for the dramatic changes they see in front of them. Community leaders in Barlonyo have, though, pronounced themselves ready to forgive. An LRA delegation recently visited the village to apologise for the massacre and slowly people have returned from the internally displaced people's camps to try and rebuild their lives.

A bumper crop of "sim-sim" has just been harvested and the farmers have organised a cooperative to ensure they get the best possible price from market. The school has re-opened and there are hopes that government services, such as agricultural advice centres, may soon be on the way. The children abducted on the February 21 2004 may have had their childhoods stolen, but they now at least have hope for the future, and can become increasingly confident that the generation following them will be brought up in peace.

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