A Walk In Their Shoes: Former Child Soldiers – Part One
I met Aruju Sophie whilst volunteering in Gulu in the north of Uganda. A beautiful young woman with a grace that made her seem way beyond her years. At 19, I learnt she had already endured more than any adult should ever have to go through. Her current situation meant that she was not in school, and after missing most of her younger education, this was not only playing on her mind, but also limiting her opportunities going forward.
She was born to a family of 6 children, being raised by her Mum and Dad in a village near Gulu, Uganda. The insurgency of Joseph Kony (or Kony’s army, more commonly known as the Lord’s Resistance Army or LRA) started long before she was born, spanning 3 decades, and impacting everyone that lived in the north of Uganda at that time. I haven’t met one person from the north of Uganda who hadn’t been directly affected by the war; either having been kidnapped, losing family and friends, or having to flee their home. In fact some 25,000 children were kidnapped during this time, and this is precisely what happened to Sophie. She has clear memory of what happened but was so young that she doesn’t know what her age was and is also unsure how long she was actually ‘in the bush’ (the term given to having been kidnapped or kept prisoner in the wilderness by the LRA).
A horrific legacy left by the war
The war officially ended with a truce between Kony and the President Yoweri Museveni in 2006 after two decades, but the reality is that it didn’t stop then and children and adults were still returning from the bush up until a few years ago. Decades of killing, kidnapping and looting, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths, tens of thousands abducted, many left maimed or injured, millions of people displaced and a whole country ravaged and in turmoil.
“In 1996, Graça Machel, former wife of Nelson Mandela, released a UN report entitled “The Impact of War on Children”. Advancements have been made by the international community to address issues of security, displacement, and human rights monitoring, but less support has come to the psychosocial needs and trauma rehabilitation of child soldiers”
I am Somebody’s Child Soldier
Despite media attention over the years, mental health response and rehabilitation work, as well as support for the abductees has been limited and I saw nothing at all in terms of support or work being done by the government. In fact, even the NGOs helping on the ground during the war have mostly left; leaving a huge deficit of support and healing that is needed here. A final draft of a transitional justice policy underlining the responsibilities of the government in providing reparations to the victims has been pending approval by the office of President since 2013. That’s 5 years ago. We are nearly 13 years on since the ‘truce’ and still no action from the government to assist the people who’s lives have been obliterated.
Telling their stories
When we sat down to talk and do our first interview, it was clear that she had worked hard to get some education since returning home, as she spoke English well and was able to articulate herself in this, her second language. As she began to describe her experience, I wasn’t prepared for the horror that this young, but mature woman had witnessed. She was taken from her home, along with many other children of the same age, and their main job at first was to carry food and pans etc. Through her words I could feel the struggle of walking for miles and miles with heavy loads and no food for days and very little water. Shockingly the young age at which she was kidnapped ended up being a blessing, as she was too young to match with a commander as his ‘wife’. This happened to all the young teenage girls; many who now have children whose fathers were commanders in the LRA; another story entirely.
I wasn’t surprised to hear that Sophie’s dreams are still haunted by the real-life horror story that she and so many others lived and the atrocities that she witnessed. She was again ‘lucky’ in the loosest sense of the word, that she wasn’t trained to hold a gun. It was predominantly the boys that, as soon as they were able to hold a gun or a ‘panga’ (a type of machete), they would be trained to kill, and she told me that they were then forced to do unspeakable things! She also described women forced to club their babies to death, and when they refused, they were killed. Tragically not one-offs, each person I interviewed spoke of similar things, where humanity seemed to have disappeared and a kind of hell-on-earth reigned.
“They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children…”
Who was to blame?
It would perhaps be easier for those whose lives were irreversibly changed and damaged if they were be able to blame someone and then get some recompense or be shown remorse, but even the ‘commanders’ forcing these things to happen, were themselves predominantly taken as young boys. They were forced to act in heinous ways, along with being brainwashed, and so if you grow up in this environment do you have a chance at all of becoming anything other than an empty shell who knows nothing but violence, death and suffering? So can you then be blamed or punished? It is a question many have been asking and I was shocked to hear that forgiveness was often offered to these people by their victims, as well as a level of understanding that I never thought would be possible towards people who had torn lives apart. Even when I questioned adults and particularly the women who had been involuntarily taken to be the commanders’ wives, and who had often forcibly borne children of these men who were now on trial with the International Criminal Court, they still often talked about the men with a deep empathy. People know that most of these men that had become the commanders of Kony’s Army had also once experienced the same treatment as them, and had endured so much that they had become disconnected from reality and almost inhuman. Instead of hate and anger, which I expected, the people who had been victim to their commands (under Joseph Kony’s ruling) actually wished them well and healing.
From one nightmare into another
For Sophie, the nightmare continued even after she escaped and managed to get to a village where she was then taken to a camp for kidnapped children. She was able to access a small amount of counseling there, which is more than most had, and then waited at the camp whilst her family was tracked down. After months of waiting in the camp she was met with the tragic news that not one member of her immediate family had been found alive, and to this day this is still the case. She lost her parents, five siblings, her aunt and uncles and both sets of grandparents. She breaks down as she recalls finding out that they had all been killed, I couldn’t hold back the tears either as she wept; it’s heart-breaking, and pains me still even as I write this. How is it possible for this to be a reality for so many, that everyone they love is taken from them? It doesn’t bear thinking about, and as I try to comfort her, she surprises me even more by bravely pointing out that she knows she must carry on her life, for them, and was lucky to have distant relatives who survived, who she now lives with. Then something even more courageous; she dreams of continuing her education and becoming a nurse, she remarks:
“I have seen immeasurable suffering and want to be able to help those who suffer”
What an extraordinary soul!
I decided at that moment that, yes although there were hundreds of thousands of people with a similar story and the need for support to be able to study to open up the opportunities to have a brighter future than their past, she was here with me now for a reason and I would help her in any way I could. So the very next day we went to pay school fees, buy all her school requirements and enrolled her in high school. Even though this was a small gesture from someone who was blessed to grow up in a safe place and get all the education I wanted, I had never seen such a big smile and I wish that I could grant this to everyone, all those who have suffered pain I can’t even fathom; which is where Be The Change comes in.
Be The Change: Futures project
We would love to be able to match those who are able to support a young person like Sophie, with those in need, so that they are given a chance to change their story going forward. Their past may be one of loss and pain, but their present can look brighter with a little help from those who care. We also have a vocational programme that we offer to adults who missed out on their education due to being involved in the war in Northern Uganda. It gives them the chance to learn a trade, which increases their chance of employment, and thus can change their circumstances.
Many returnees face additional problems on top of the obvious, and find it hard to find a place back in their communities, which is exacerbated by a stigma against them and what they were forced to do. So they may have lost their families and then don’t have a home to return to, land they own, or a place where they belong, which as you can imagine is extremely distressing and debilitating.
I also got to facilitate story circles and arts therapy, and supported Watwiro Dance Company, who are helping tell the story of those who were kidnapped through dance and drama, as well as teaching expression of their trauma and encouraging healing through these avenues. Together we hope to be part of bringing together these broken communities and facilitating healing as a collective; a very long journey as you can imagine, and one that desperately needs support so that it can keep being the change and doing life changing work.
Sophie's time to shine!
We had an update from Sophie, who I keep in touch with regularly, that she finished her first year of senior school and despite all her issues at home, and having missed the first year, she came FIRST in her class in their end of year exams and has been asked to be head girl! This demonstrated her tenacity to take back her life and change her story. We will keep you updated on this amazing woman’s journey, and those of the other young people that we have on our Future’s programme. If you would like to BE the change and create opportunity amidst chaos in someone’s life, please sign up to sponsor a child.